Republican presidential candidate Mark Everson poses before a reception at the home of fitness author Mark Sisson in Malibu, Calif. (Photo: Sven Doornkaat/Zuma Press for Yahoo News)
There comes a moment in the career of many government bureaucrats when they sit across the table from a high-ranking elected official — the president, even—and think, You know, I’m just as smart as these guys. “You understand they’re just another person,” says Mark Everson, who served in the Reagan administration and as commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service under George W. Bush. “You ask yourself, Do you like this? Do you think you qualify?” The answers he arrived at — yes and yes — led him, after a long period of soul-searching, to the Lincoln Dinner of the Linn County (Iowa) Republican Committee on May 1, where he shared a dais with the only other presidential candidate who showed up, an Indiana contractor named Mike Petyo. Because the hard truth about presidential politics is that while you may be just as smart as the guys who win, you almost certainly aren’t as famous, charismatic or rich.
Then IRS Commissioner Mark Everson speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Every presidential election attracts its share of fringe, novelty and long-shot candidates, who are in it for reasons of ego (Ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States … Donald Trump!) or to promote their careers as authors or lecturers (Speaker Gingrich will be signing copies of his last two dozen books after his address) or to advance an ideological agenda (We hear you, Bernie Sanders!). MSNBC researchers have compiled a list of more than 300 Republicans who have filed with the Federal Elections Commission to run for president in 2016; by a more conservative count, the Politicks.org website lists 14 declared Republican candidates who possess, at a minimum, a functioning website. That leaves out likely but undeclared candidates such as Scott Walker and Rick Perry but includes Petyo (whose site prominently features a poem by his sons entitled “The Things We Love About Our Mom”) and a Florida investment adviser named Brian Russell, who thinks 2016 will be his year, because that’s when he turns 35.
Everson (pronounced “EE-verson”) stands out in this company, at least partly because, trim and handsomely graying at 60, he is perhaps the most presidential looking of the bunch. He has had an impressive if unspectacular career in government, business and the nonprofit sector, which has left him affluent (with a net worth of around $3 million) if not exactly wealthy enough to run for president as a hobby. He raised a family and suffered through an embarrassing public divorce that in a less forgiving era would have stifled his political career before it began. Now he is seeking to apply what he learned — about government and about life — to solve the daunting problems facing the nation, because, well, he’s just as smart as those other guys.
He has six main planks in his platform, and he had four and a half minutes to get through them in his speech to the Linn County Republicans. County co-chair Brett Mason says Everson’s talk was “well-received” by the 75 guests assembled at the Elmcrest Country Club. The issues that got the best response were a proposal to take politics out of the presidency by limiting officeholders to a single (possibly five- or six-year) term and to reinstate the draft, “so the rich and powerful share the sacrifices required to secure our freedom.”
Mark Everson speaks with author Lorelei Shellist, center, and actress Loetta Earnest in Malibu, Calif. (Photo: Sven Doornkaat/Zuma Press for Yahoo News)
To Everson’s puzzlement, his call to impose a punitive 95 percent marginal tax on the salaries of bankers whose companies break the law gets a less-than-enthusiastic response, even in places like Cedar Rapids, let alone on Wall Street. Everson tackles every issue with a ruthless empiricism, heedless of the conventional wisdom that policy changes can occur only at the margins. Notably, he wants to replace virtually the entire tax code with the “competitive tax plan” devised by Columbia tax-policy expert Michael J. Graetz. In broad terms, this calls for dramatically lowering personal and corporate rates — most working families wouldn’t even file a return — and making up the lost revenue with a value-added levy (loosely speaking, a national sales tax). VATs, which are supposed to encourage savings and investment over consumption, are common in virtually every other developed country. The knock on them is that they are inherently regressive; lower-income families spend relatively more of their income on consumption than richer ones. This effect can be offset, however, by various rebates and subsidies, which Everson endorses. In fact, a bill modeled loosely on Graetz’s plan was introduced in December by Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
Of course, “Let’s try this, it works in Europe!” isn’t necessarily a winning slogan in a Republican primary, but Everson doesn’t seem to notice or care. Rick Lazio, a former four-term Republican congressman from New York who is a friend of Everson’s, believes “it’s very liberating to be in the position he’s in,” namely, virtually unknown. “He feels he can be very candid with the public.” Lazio knows Everson through the latter’s work as vice chairman of alliantgroup, a consulting company whose specialty is advising businesses on how to qualify for various tax credits and incentives. It so happens that Graetz’s plan would eliminate precisely these provisions of the tax code, but anyone hoping to catch Everson in a contradiction is referred to the fine print of his platform, which contains a plank to “adjust the Graetz plan to retain and expand the existing research and development tax credit to ensure America maintains its leadership position in innovation.”
Everson’s indifference to the shibboleths of the Republican base can be seen in the 16-page “Letter to America” with which he introduced his candidacy. “I wrote every word of it myself,” he boasts, and it does, indeed, sound like something that might have come from the pen of an IRS commissioner. Could any of his rivals go a single page, let alone 5,000 words, without once mentioning “God” or “faith,” as Everson does? His ringing defense of the Second Amendment is to call new gun-control laws “ill-advised.” When Hillary Clinton said that no Republican candidate for president has been “clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, she left out Everson, who has made this one of his key planks. In fact, he owns up to supporting “amnesty,” because “to call it anything else is disingenuous.” Of all his positions, this might be the most courageous and original: A vote for Mark Everson is a vote against euphemism.
Nor does Everson attempt to hide that in 2007 he was fired after just six months as president of the American Red Cross after the board discovered he was sleeping with the head of the organization’s Southeast Mississippi chapter. Everson, who had three children, divorced his wife and moved to Mississippi, where he and the woman, Paige Roberts, are jointly raising the child he fathered. (They haven’t married and live separately.) He addresses all this in interviews and on his website without once suggesting that the American people should, or can, offer him forgiveness for this rather epic screwup. “Things have happened in my life that have been totally bad luck,” he says in an interview, “and other things that have been totally self-inflicted. And it doesn’t matter whether something happened to you or happened because of you. You have to take stock of where you are, draw the right conclusions and adjust your behavior and go forward. Every day when I drop my son off, I say, ‘What’s today?’ and he says, ‘It’s another great day to do your best.’ You get a fresh start every day.”
Everson, left, with his family in 1981. He spent six years in the Reagan administration. (Photo: markforamerica.com)
In fact, the American people may not even care. Twenty years ago, Everson’s personal life might have been a problem for Iowa Republicans, says Mason, but, “I don’t think anyone thinks much about this anymore, given Bill and Monica and all.” As Lazio says, “A lot of Americans root for the underdog. We are big believers in redemption.” If Americans are looking for an underdog, Everson certainly fits the bill. He was by some accounts the first candidate to set up a campaign office in Iowa, but his effort there has mustered just two staffers. He has committed $250,000 of his own money to the race and hopes to raise as much in contributions by the fall, but he’s not exactly in the running for the multimillion-dollar support of Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers. His roadmap to victory relies, therefore, on retail campaigning in Iowa, meeting as many voters as he can. “Look at the last cycle,” Everson urges. “Rick Santorum was political road kill: He lost a Senate campaign by 17 points. But he went to Iowa and worked his tail off.” That is, of course, an example that cuts both ways. Santorum dropped out in April, a few months after he narrowly defeated Mitt Romney in Iowa. But for Everson to show up as more than an asterisk in the Iowa results would have to be counted as at least a moral victory. Still, he has made up his mind that he doesn’t want to “look back in five or 10 years and find the country in even worse shape,” if he could have prevented it. “As a close friend of mine once told me,” Everson says, explaining his insistence on hearing a call that virtually no one else does, “the two saddest words in the language are ‘if only.’”
Mark Everson on the campaign trail at a livestock auction in Waverly, Iowa. (Photo: Chris DeBack/Waverly Newspapers)