JOHN HOFF is having the time of his life.
Hoff, 34, was a figure of some minor renown in Seattle for his persistent and at times eccentric watchdogging of the Seattle Police Department. He was best known for his years of freedom of information requests and extensive cataloguing of SPD internal investigations, an obsession that shined some useful light on that secretive body. He is also a Gulf War vet and the author of numerous writings under the name John Hoffman, including The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving (Breakout).
In May, Hoff moved to the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota— at population 47,000, the second largest city in a very rural state. Hoff went to this depressed agricultural city ("the whole state is up for pennies on the dollar") to go to law school and be near his family, but only 30 days later he found himself running for, and winning, the race for a position on Grand Forks' 14-member, part-time City Council.
Running on the Green Party ticket ("I am the Green Party here. Somebody send me a card [to register for the Green Party] and I'll fill it out."), Hoff won the position with only 29 percent of the vote, winning by six votes over a write-in candidate after the incumbent left town in mid-campaign to take a better job. Hoff himself marvels at the situation: "I don't even know major streets yet and I'm in charge of paving them."
And only 30 days later, as a self-styled "Green libertarian," Hoff is the most controversial politician in recent Grand Forks history, the subject of a recall effort and angry editorial denouncements.
Hoff is trying to emphasize his issues: livable wages, environmental protection, cultivation of industrial hemp, basketball hoops for students at the University of North Dakota, and that "everyone must have a voice in our government." But it is less Hoff's issues and more his style and flair for outrageous statements that is getting him into trouble. The nadir was a July 17 City Council meeting that degenerated into a parliamentary pissing match, with Hoff and other council members childishly calling "point of order" at each other before horrified onlookers. In civil, Norwegian Grand Forks, such things aren't done.
Hoff later apologized for his behavior, but it wasn't enough. Pissed-off constituent Larry Vanderhoff has launched a recall effort against Hoff that has apparently turned in enough signatures to force another election sometime before October 2. The recall effort is supported by a former mayor, the local newspaper, and most of the city's establishment.
"He's probably one of those professional students that has $100,000 in student loans he'll carry with him to his grave," scoffs Vanderhoff. "He's an embarrassment to my ward." (Grand Forks City Council is made up of wards or districts that represent different parts of the city.) Vanderhoff collected signatures from 755 voters and recruited Lowell Stevens, the candidate who fell six write-in votes short in the last election, to run against Hoff again. "Every time [Hoff] opened his mouth we got more signatures," says Vanderhoff. "We don't all necessarily disagree with his views, it's just how he's doing it and where he's doing it."
Hoff isn't buying it. "We're disputing the signatures. They just signed anybody who walked up, whether they lived in the ward or not. They didn't even have any precinct maps."
Hoff is also looking into the constitutionality of North Dakota's recently revised recall law, which he claims discriminates against third-party officeholders by making it too easy for a minority to wage a recall. And if he loses, he threatens to move to other wards and run against incumbent council members he says have conspired against him. But at times he seems aware of the heavy odds facing him: "I am fighting the firefight of my life," he notes.
And John Hoff wants you to move to Grand Forks to join him. "I could show any Seattle activist how to take this place over," he says. "It's blood in the streets, it's headlines every day. I am the City Council now, I have the power. Is that crazy?"
In the region that gave us the leftie shoestring victory of US Senator Paul Wellstone and the gonzo, radical centrism of Governor Jesse Ventura, Hoff may have a point; he may be at the start of something big.
You might make plans to move to Grand Forks quickly, before the recall election ends Hoff's public career.
Or, you might brace yourself. After law school, Hoff says, he's going to start a law firm—specializing in record law, lesbian issues, and international space law—and open offices in Grand Forks, Hollywood, and . . . Seattle. Then, he adds confidently, he will get a state legislative seat, then make the jump to the US Senate as the first Green libertarian. John Hoff has tasted power, and he likes it.