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Chapter Fourteen: In Louisiana, Ready for Combat

 

Before I left for Louisiana, I received a telephone call from a (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reporter named Ed Anderson who worked out of the paper’s Baton Rouge bureau. This call came on the day after the filing deadline. Evidently my name had made it to the ballot along with six others names. Anderson wanted to know if I planned to campaign actively in Louisiana. I said that I would. I asked Anderson for permission to contact him when I arrived in the state. He gave it. This was a good sign. Already, Louisiana’s largest newspaper was interested in my campaign.

Minnesota was reeling from a snow storm when I headed south on Highway I-35 in the morning of Monday, February 2nd. Plans to leave the previous afternoon had fallen through when my car’s heat gauge registered extreme temperatures. A friend knowledgeable about cars assured me that the engine fan was working. The neighborhood service station checked the level of water and anti-freeze. Ed Eubanks had expressed interest in accompanying me to Louisiana for a week, but last-minute obligations kept him from going. As I drove down the highway on slick pavements Monday morning, many a car was in the ditch. Snow continued to fall. This condition lasted through southern Minnesota and into Iowa as far as Des Moines. Beyond this point, it would be a new driving experience for me. I had not been here before.

The icy conditions gradually abated as I continued through southern Iowa and into Missouri. I-35 then headed south in a westerly direction towards Kansas City. I stopped at Cameron in the late afternoon to have supper at a place called Ma and Pa Kettle’s kitchen. Besides the lure of a good home-cooked meal, the name attracted me because my father’s first cousin, Marjorie Main, had played the role of Ma Kettle in a series of Hollywood films. After skirting around Kansas City, I picked up U.S. highway 71 for the rest of the trip. It was well after dark when I entered Arkansas and passed by Bentonville, home of Wal-Mart, and then encountered a winding, mountainous stretch of road in the Ozark mountains. When I came to a town called Alma, I was too tired to continue. I looked for a place to sleep.

The experience was unsettling. It was my practice on long trips to sleep in the car rather than stay at motels. However, no cars seemed to be parked on the streets of Alma. I feared that the police would harass me if I tried to sleep there in violation of city ordinance. Noticing that cars were parked behind garages in alleys, I pulled into an alley and found a garage which appeared to be abandoned. A dog was barking nearby. I put the seat back and tried to sleep. But I had fears of doing something illegal.

Around 1 a.m., a car with headlights blazing pulled into the same alley and then into a garage. Though its driver did not stop to investigate my presence, my anxiety increased. Maybe my garage was not abandoned and its owner would soon return? I managed to gain an hour’s sleep when, in the predawn hours, I decided to continue driving. (Later I thought this place might have been Mena, where the CIA is alleged to have used an airstrip to smuggle cocaine into this country. No, it was Alma.) The irony was that I found an approved rest area just down the road near Fort Smith and took a nap here.

The drive down U.S. highway 71 through western Arkansas (including Mena) was reasonably pleasant. This part of the country, sparsely populated and hilly, had a western flavor to it. Farther along, I entered Texas and the town of Texarkana where I bought groceries at a supermarket in a poor part of town. Heading back into Arkansas, I noticed that one of the magnetic signs on the side door of my car, marked “Bill McGaughey for President/ SAVE OUR JOBS”, had fallen off. Maybe someone had stolen it in the supermarket parking lot. I entered Louisiana a short time later, stopping to photograph a sign with the Pelican state symbol at the state line. U.S. 71 continued through an area with many small oil wells. My immediate objective was Shreveport.

From a list of Motel 6 facilities in Louisiana downloaded from the Internet, I located a motel just east of Shreveport, in Bossier City. I gathered maps and brochures about places in Louisiana at a nearby tourist office before checking into the motel. Then it was time to rest. I had come more than a thousand miles. I watched the results of the South Carolina primary on CNN in my motel room. John Edwards took this state. Wesley Clark later took Oklahoma. John Kerry, however, swept the primaries in Missouri, Arizona, North Dakota, and Delaware. My campaign, in its active phase, had not yet started.

My car was packed with gear in the trunk and back seat. I had a large suitcase for my clothes, a large plastic container with bags and other specialized items, a folded tent (which was never used), a cardboard carton filled with books and literature, two suits hanging on hooks, a large Mexican hat, several small flags on sticks, food and drink, and other items. My routine was to take the suitcase and plastic container, and perhaps some food and reading materials, with me into the motel room, leaving the rest in the car. Before leaving on this trip, I had tried to prepare myself on issues by collecting newspaper articles and writing down significant information from them. I had also bought a book titled “After the New Economy” which seemed to be a good source of information and analysis about the contemporary U.S. economy.

What had interested me in this book was an interview with its author in a Twin Cities alternative newspaper revealing the fact that U.S. consumers were borrowing $400 to $600 billion a year against the increased equity in their homes. Rising debt was of growing public concern. A news report heard on the car radio mentioned that the federal deficit had reached $521 billion. Administration spokesmen blamed it on the recession and the fight against terrorism. One economist argued that federal deficits were no problem now because of excess capacity in the private economy; but when the economy heated up, the Federal Reserve Board would have to raise interest rates and the deficit would cause pain. This was expected after the election, some time in 2005.

My issue was employment. Before leaving Minneapolis, I had run off several hundred copies of a double-sided sheet titled “The Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Job Proposals”. In this sheet, I analyzed the nation’s “jobless recovery” in terms of two problems: (1) increasing labor productivity and high levels of overtime and (2) outsourcing production to low-wage countries. I proposed to address these problems by shorter working hours and by tariffs on the outsourced products when they were imported back into the United States. This leaflet also summarized the other candidates’ proposals which included suggestions ranging from extended unemployment benefits to reduced taxes on companies that stayed in the United States to job-retraining programs to enforcing trade agreements. (See text in the Appendix.) In my view, these were marginally useful.

In a standard pitch, I would say that this leaflet summarized my campaign platform, handing it to the other person. Housing might lead our country into an economic downturn when interest rates rose next year. Rising interest rates would precipitate more mortgage foreclosures. As more homes were foreclosed, they would go back on the market. The excess supply would then put downward pressure on prices. Falling housing prices would put financial pressure on the people who had borrowed against the equity in their homes. What would save us, as interest rates rose and housing prices fell, would be if we had a strong base of wage earners. Someone needed to purchase those excess houses.

Obviously, such a base was not there. That’s why it was so important that political candidates presented realistic proposals for job creation. None of the Presidential candidates, Democrat or Republican, were doing that. Even if I lost the primary, my job-centered campaign would force the other Democratic candidates to come up with better proposals in the employment area. A good healthy debate on this subject would get people focused on employment. That would work to the advantage of Democrats in the general election. The U.S. voters were too smart to fall for glib generalities. If the Democrats offered a solid plan to create jobs, they would be much more likely to win.

I myself had a credibility problem. As an unknown person entered in only one presidential primary, I could not possibly win the Democratic nomination. Why, then, was I running? Why should anyone vote for me? My answer was that I was running not so much to win convention delegates as to advance a certain agenda. It was realistic for me to run in a presidential primary because politics is a game of expectations. People did not expect me to do well. Therefore, to win, I would not have to beat John Kerry or even come close. All I would have to do is beat expectations. If my candidacy attracted, say, 10% of the primary vote in Louisiana, that would be a spectacular result. It would get noticed, not just in Louisiana but around the country. An unexpectedly strong showing by me would be interpreted as support for my approach to creating jobs. That was the goal here.

I should therefore run as a single-issue candidate so that the election result could not possibly be misinterpreted. Discard all the other issues that I had raised in the past and just talk about employment. Be unambiguous and clear. That’s how my running for President would best promote change. It’s not that I was using the primary election as a personal soap box but that I was giving Louisiana voters a chance to be heard. Nobody cared what I thought. People did care, however, what Louisiana voters thought. An election result validates the issues advanced by the winning candidates or, in my case, by someone who does unexpectedly well.

Actually, the opportunity for Louisiana voters to influence the Democratic nomination were slim to none. By March 9th, when the state primary would be held, the contest for the Democratic nomination would most likely be decided already. It would be too late for voters in Louisiana to affect the result. On the other hand, in voting for me they could affect U.S. employment policy, which was even more important. They would have a chance to tell the national political establishment that they wanted candidates to talk realistically about employment problems. They would be saying that they were dissatisfied with the answers provided to date. This was a chance for Louisiana to make a difference in the 2004 election campaign. To make a difference, however, I had to receive an unexpectedly large number of votes. I thought it reasonable to shoot for 5% to 10% of the Democratic primary vote. Less than 5% would not get noticed. More than 10% would be a huge victory.

This is how I tried to sell myself as a credible candidate - someone hitching his name to issues. I would be one of seven candidates on the Democratic ballot. Al Sharpton’s name would not be there. According to a news report, he had sent a personal check to pay the filing fee. Election regulations in Louisiana required payment by a certified check, postal money order, or another such device. While the state had relatively open ballot access, it was also a stickler for proper procedure. Sharpton had paid for his carelessness. I later learned that, since the ballot listed candidates in alphabetical order by last name, my name would appear last on the ballot. The rules also required that nicknames be placed in quotations. Since I had registered as Bill, the printed ballot would present me as “Bill” McGaughey. I did not like that since quotation marks suggest that something said is allegedly true. However, it was too late to change the listing. I was lucky to be included.

As a practical matter, candidates could expect to receive a few votes just from being listed on the ballot. That level of support would not make it worthwhile for me to run. To get noticed, I needed to beat the odds. The Republican candidate who was opposing George W. Bush could expect some votes because he was the sole alternative to the President. Republicans hating the war might go for him. I, however, was included with six other better known candidates. Five had strong name recognition from the televised debates. Lyndon LaRouche was a veteran campaigner with his own newspaper. As a relatively unknown candidate, I had to stand out by running an effective campaign.

The way to do that, I had learned from my the 2002 Senate race, was to try to out hustle the other candidates. Visit every nook and cranny in the state. Introduce yourself to newspaper editors. Try to get radio interviews. Have a clear and relevant message. I was hoping that people would buy my rationale for being a candidate even if I had no chance of winning the nomination. If that argument was too esoteric, I was hoping they would appreciate my forthright stand on employment issues. I knew that jobs were important to Louisiana people.

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