SEATTLE – The small hallway outside the ballroom at the Edgewater Hotel slowly filled, first with people, then with the unmistakable scent of Magic Markers.
They came carrying signs – and making them on the fly – in support of someone whose cause they shared, but whose venture was a complete mystery.
Everett native Lisa Witter on Tuesday night kicked off her presidential campaign for the upcoming reality television show, “American Candidate,” which airs in August.
The show gives 12 candidates, who were winnowed from thousands of applicants, a chance to share their platform and runs them through various challenges. Each week, a contestant will be voted off until the final two participate in a debate. The winner gets $200,000 and a chance to address the nation on TV.
“I want to be president of the United States because it is time for a fair America,” Witter told the cheering crowd in her three-minute stump speech. “I am unafraid to stand here and say that I am a progressive.”
Witter’s speech conjured images of a typical political speech and included some nuggets, such as giving people a fair chance to live the American Dream: “A house we can afford, a college education for our kids, affordable unleaded gas – and unleaded water,” she said.
The rally was the show’s first challenge. Along with the other 11 candidates, Witter and her campaign manager, Dean Nielsen, were given 36 hours and $100 to organize a kickoff event. The two candidates who pulled in the fewest people Tuesday night would likely be the first booted off the show.
Crew members counted heads as people entered the ballroom, but couldn’t reveal Witter’s official total. About 300 people came and went during the one-hour period during counting.
“I’m just thrilled to have someone from our state, with all the ideas I share, take the chance to really talk about all the things she’s really passionate about,” said Althea Cawley-Murphree, 25, of Mountlake Terrace.
Jaxon Ravens, 36, and Chris Williams, 30, both of Seattle, said they turned out to support their friend on her journey.
“I’ve known Lisa about six years and I always knew this day was going to come,” Ravens said.
“I didn’t think it would come like this, though,” Williams added.
Nielsen said the last-minute announcements about the rally were sent to thousands of area progressives and Democrats through MoveOn.org, a progressive, Web-based advocacy group, and by a mass e-mailing by the Washington Democratic Party.
Nielsen, who in 1997 co-founded with Witter the Institute for a Democratic Future, is the Washington state director for Progressive Majority, an advocacy group and political action committee that aims to get progressive candidates elected.
“I’ve been involved in political campaigns full-time for the past 10 years and, so far, what they’ve asked us to do has been exactly like a real campaign,” Nielsen said.
Witter, who plans a political career and was named a “Rising Star” in the Democratic Party in 1997 and was considered four years ago to be a contender for a Seattle City Council seat, said she seriously weighed whether to stake her future on a TV show.
“I have no desire to eat bugs,” she said. “I’m not a reality TV kind of person. But there are a lot of credible people behind this. I’m just going to have fun and hopefully make politics more accessible for people.”
Witter, who now lives in New York City and is an executive vice president of a public relations firm, attended Jefferson Elementary School, Eisenhower Middle School and Cascade High School, where she was captain of the girls basketball team and played volleyball and softball.
The winner of the competition can decide whether to make an actual run for the presidency as a write-in candidate. Witter can’t because a person must be 35 years old to be President, but that doesn’t matter much to her.
“I feel like I’ve won already,” said Witter, 30, after the rally. “I feel like I have received a gift of the ability to get my message out. I feel like I can’t lose, because there’s nothing to lose.”
Reporter Victor Balta: 425-339-3455 or firstname.lastname@example.org.