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Provo politician trying a reality TV ‘candidacy’

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Richard Mack talks with Rochelle Mitchell at Van Wagenen guns in Orem while Scott Sandman tapes the conversation for Showtime.

Richard Mack talks with Rochelle Mitchell at Van Wagenen guns in Orem while Scott Sandman tapes the conversation for Showtime.

Chris Bergin, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — With a television camera hovering behind him, Richard Mack — failed candidate for governor, city council and sheriff — explained Monday from his Provo home what he would do if elected president of the United States.

"I would abolish the IRS and income tax," the 51-year-old began, his arms folded across his chest. He also said he would legalize marijuana, end the prosecution of polygamy and stop issuing marriage licenses — to gays and straights.

"These aren't my views," Mack said. "I'm just relaying a message. These are the views of the Founding Fathers."

Mack isn't really running for U.S. president; he is one of 12 people starring in the new reality TV show "American Candidate," airing in August on the cable network Showtime.

The program is a cross between "American Idol" and "The Apprentice," Mack explained, except the winner doesn't get a recording contract or a job from Donald Trump. Instead, if Mack wins he gets $200,000, a televised address to the nation, and the claim that he is the "people's choice" for president.

"I'm taking it pretty seriously," Mack said. "It's a chance for me to get my views out to millions of people. It's not a joke."

The show's creator, R.J. Cutler, produced the influential 1993 documentary "The War Room," which chronicled the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign. Cutler hopes the series increases voter turnout and sparks a discussion about what is wrong with American politics.

But some political scientists are skeptical a program on a network that reaches just one in five U.S. households will have much of an impact on voters.

"I would beg to differ that a TV show will inspire people to get more involved in politics. People are inspired to get involved by war or crisis — an economic or moral crisis," said Quin Monson, assistant director of the Center of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. "It's a lofty and admirable goal, and at first blush it sounds like a great idea, but I think there's an inherent conflict between entertainment and serious political discourse."

Over a 10-week period, the 12 contestants will face off in a series of challenges "designed to test their presidential mettle and to show viewers what really goes on in the making of a presidential candidate," according to the show's Web site.

Each week, a candidate will be eliminated. In the final episode, the two remaining candidates will engage in a live studio debate. The winner may choose to actually run for president, but anyone who explores or announces an official candidacy during production will be disqualified.

On Monday morning, Mack, who was selected from hundreds of applicants after a series of interviews and tests, got his first challenge, delivered in a black briefcase.

"It was like 'Mission Impossible,' " says Mack, who looks like an aging Clark Kent from a distance. "I have two days and $100 to gather as many people as I can for a political rally."

With the sleeves of his light blue shirt rolled up, Mack spent the day making fliers, calling talk radio stations, and recruiting neighbor kids to spread the word — his every move captured by a film crew that has worked on such shows as "Cops," "Survivor" and "The Bachelor."

Mack insisted "American Candidate" is different from those shows, a welcome departure from the typical bug-eating fare that dominates reality television.

He views the show as a powerful vehicle to share political views — such as his belief that the U.S. government has abandoned the U.S. Constitution by becoming too large and intrusive.

By Monday afternoon, Mack had secured the Provo Elks Lodge to hold his rally.

A neighbor rang the doorbell, her four kids in tow, and volunteered to pass out fliers for the rally, which Mack hoped would draw 1,000. The neighbor, a short, red-headed woman who wore a pro-gun T-shirt that read "What Part of Infringed Don't You Understand?"

She said she belonged to a group called "Women Against Gun Control."

"If Richie were president I think this country could live by the Constitution instead of just pretending to," said the neighbor, Lisa Briggs.

Mack describes himself as a Constitutional Conservative, and for the last year the lifelong Republican has belonged to the Libertarian Party. The office in his home is decorated with a large sword, a bald eagle statue that glows when plugged in, and a photo of Mack standing in a barn with a group of men dressed like cowboys and holding rifles.

Mack, a BYU graduate and former Provo police officer, served two terms as sheriff in Graham County, Ariz., where he and several other county sheriffs filed a lawsuit challenging the original Brady gun law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress couldn't make local sheriffs pay for conducting background checks on gun buyers, making Mack a hero to gun-rights activists across the nation.

When Mack unsuccessfully ran for Utah County sheriff in 1998, he gained national attention when he said the prison had become too much of a "resort," with inmates watching television and eating three hot meals a day.

Mack promised that, if elected, he would send inmates on work details and only feed them bologna sandwiches and cold cereal. The campaign was featured on a segment for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Mack took most of the votes at the party convention, forcing a primary against incumbent sheriff Dave Bateman. Mack was soundly defeated in the primary.

"Probably to a certain extent his views track along with ultra conservatives in the county, a group that has a tendency to influence the direction of the party here," Bateman said. "But once you get out of the convention, the general public sees his views as too extreme."

Mack said he doesn't think his views are extreme; he said they are the views of the Founding Fathers. If selected the "American Candidate," Mack said he might consider an actual run for the presidency.

"I just hope I don't embarrass Provo," Mack said, the television camera inches from his face. "But I'm not going to change my views either."

E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com