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Chapter Seventeen: In Alexandria and Natchitoches

 

I was up bright and early on Monday morning to make my 8:15 a.m. appointment at radio station KSYL-AM on Texas street. The show was already in progress as a woman in the upstairs reception area invited me to take a seat on the sofa. Fifteen minutes later, Dave Graichen came out of the studio to greet me. I followed him back to meet his co-host, Bob Madison. When I showed these men my leaflet about the Democratic candidates’ positions on employment, Madison advised I should not make negative comments about the other candidates but offer my own proposals. So I started with trade.

Standing at the mike, I went through my economic arguments. The first caller was - surprise! - Andrew Griffin of the Alexandria Daily Town Talk newspaper. He was the journalist who had written a column last October about my Independence Party book. Griffin wanted me to talk about the shorter workweek. I responded by saying that I was not stressing a reduction of the standard workweek in the current campaign because it was more important first to attack overtime and bring weekly work hours down to forty.

The next caller was a conservative man who said I sounded just like George McGovern. This man went on at some length with arguments that I could easily have refuted. However, we had to take a break and, afterwards, were on to another subject. I was able to say only that, while I realized that McGovern symbolized a political loser to many people, my politics were different. Actually I was closer to Eugene McCarthy. I also thought I had something useful to say about employment.

This radio interview lasted about twenty minutes. Upon leaving the KSYL-AM studio, I tried to find the office of Alexandria’s African American newspaper, the Alexandria Weekly News, located on Mason street. The office was closed when I found it. I dropped a piece of literature and a note into the mail slot. Then I drove to the offices of the Daily Town Talk for my 10:30 a.m. appointment. William Taylor was the reporter assigned to interview me. First, however, I stopped by the desk of Andrew Griffin to introduce myself. We talked briefly about Paul Wellstone - had there been foul play in the Senator’s plane crash? - and other subjects. With Taylor, I went through my economic arguments, my campaign strategy, and some personal history. A photographer snapped some shots of me in the conference room. The article which appeared in the paper was reasonably sympathetic. However, I noticed that it also referred to my “beige leisure suit and a wrinkled pale green sheet”. I would need to pay more attention to my wardrobe.

Andrew Griffin took me to lunch at a buffet following the interview. The young female cashier was pleased to have a presidential candidate in their midst. Griffin said he had been at the Daily Town Talk for several years, starting as a news reporter and now working as a columnist concerned with culture and entertainment. He had a personal interest in politics including underdog candidates like me. In 2002, he had interviewed a man from New Orleans named Patrick “Live Wire” Landry, who was a libertarian and gun enthusiast, in a local coffee house. He was pleased to report that “Live Wire” had received a higher percentage of the votes in Rapides Parish (Alexandria) than anywhere else in the state. Griffin had moved quite often while growing up because his father was a city planner with changing work assignments. Career wise, he was not sure where he would be in five or ten years. He had once applied for a job with a newspaper in Rochester, Minnesota.

I had to be in Natchitoches for an evening reception starting at 5 p.m. This would kick off the Governor’s Conference on Rural Economic Development, held at Northwest State University. My chief concern was where I would spend the night. Natchitoches did not have a Motel 6. It was a good sixty miles from Alexandria, and seventy miles from Shreveport. I thought I would keep an eye open for closer motel locations during my drive up Louisiana highway 1. A woman in the Tourist Information office said it was unlikely that I would find anything. Best Western was advertising a $45 daily rate on a limited basis; that might be my best bet. The conference literature had assured guests that Natchitoches lodging places would cap their rates for conference attendees at $75 per night - way out of my price range. As luck would have it, I found a motel in Natchitoches itself which charged $33 per night. Bathroom cleanliness and carpet condition were not up to Motel 6 standards but the place would do. I booked a reservation for two nights. A nearby camp ground would have let me stay there for $15 a night; however rain was expected.

Pulling into Natchitoches on highway 1, I spotted the office of the Natchitoches Times, the local newspaper. A reporter named Stephanie Masson, who might also have been involved with editorials, talked with me while sitting in front of a computer screen. She expected that business groups would press for lower taxes to bring Louisiana in line with neighboring states. This might be an important “economic development” issue at the forthcoming conference. I went through my routine and left literature and a photo. It was not a long interview.

The preconference reception took place in the student union of the Northwest State University. I wore a purple-colored plastic badge identifying me as “BILL McGAUGHEY, Presidential Candidate.” This badge was part of my standard uniform. Munching hors d’oeuvres off a paper plate, I first sat at a table with an investment banker from Thibodaux who was checking out the scene. He gave me some useful information about Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans. Most of my remaining time was spent talking with an elderly Italian man, Joe B., who was a World War II veteran.

This man had strong, hawkish views about the U.S. mission in Iraq which did not coinccide with mine. He was also a Louisiana history buff. He knew that Hubert Humphrey had studied at LSU. He knew and admired Archbishop Harry Flynn, formerly of Lafayette. He was proud of the fact that so many famous generals had lived on military bases in Louisiana. He said he had run for mayor of Jonesville and nearly won. I enjoyed talking with this opinionated man, Joe, who might have been in the consumer-finance business. Not having a business card on him, he said he would give me one at the conference on the following day. We did not make contact again.

The conference itself was held in the college gymnasium. Several hundred persons participated. Most seemed to be local government officials or employees of non-profits concerned with economic and employment problems. The opening speaker informed us that Governor (Kathleen Babinaux) Blanco would not be attending this conference as promised. She was in Baghdad visiting with Louisiana troops. Utmost secrecy had surrounded her change of plans. The Governor very much wanted to be here, though; she had sent her husband, Raymond, and her top staff aide, Andrew Kopplin, to represent her at the conference.

That out of the way, the speaker told us that the Governor did not agree with those who said that Louisiana was not a good tourism state. She wanted the state to do more to attract tourists and also to attract business generally, especially in the rural areas. What did business look for? They wanted good education, adequate infrastructure, a business-friendly environment, and low taxes. We should try to save the businesses already here before recruiting new ones.

A parade of speakers that day presented business-development ideas for rural Louisiana. Areas officially classified as “rural” had 95% of Louisiana’s territory but only 25% of its population. At 19.6%, the state’s poverty rate was higher than in most other states; and rural poverty was higher still. Some of the strategies for revitalizing the rural economy in Louisiania included wiring rural communities for access to the Internet, improving business-related courses at community colleges, informing business of support services in the community, making capital more readily available, encouraging business mentoring, and fostering a culture of entrepreneurship.

The trouble, said one speaker, is that young people today think of “taking” a job rather than “making” one for themselves. We know that small business creates most of America’s new jobs, and entrepreneurs are the spark plug which makes this happen. Business-development strategy begins with creating a climate conducive to entrepreneurial activities. Who are these entrepreneurs? What do they want? What would it take to make them locate in our community? Communities would be well advised to do asset assessments. Who are the service providers and what are the cultural factors attractive to business?

Role models are also important. An African American woman in Vanceboro, North Carolina, created a successful business when her employer, after considering whether to close it down, instead offered the business to her. Knowing the operation inside and out, she managed to revive the company. A Caucasian man in Shenandoah, Iowa, practiced what he calls the “front porch” model of entrepreneurship. Every Friday morning, he invites business people to hold informal discussions on his front porch; out of these discussions have come a new convenience store and a car wash. A druggist in Ord, Nebraska, facing competition from the big chains, survived by specializing in veterinary services and continuing care. A woman in Adams County, Ohio, helped community residents to develop business plans in the area of historical and eco tourism. In Surry County, North Carolina, they make a practice of “celebrating success” - telling stories of successful entrepreneurs. Any community can do this sort of thing. Invite successful entrepreneurs to address the local chamber of commerce. Visit their businesses. Map community assets.

The day was filled with bullet-point presentations of various kinds. A consultant from Washington, D.C. said that successful strategies for economic growth were: (1) community based, (2) regionally oriented, (3) entrepreneur-focused, and (4) learning based. Recruiting new business was expensive. Many stay for five years or so and then move on, often to places overseas. Business retention strategies are more effective. Communities need to invest in “anchor institutions” like technical schools, provide networks where business people can learn from their peers, stress entrepreneurial education, nurture the homegrown firms, and fund start-up capital. A developmental report card for the state showed that Louisiana did not perform up to par.

Another speaker specialized in business motivation. He had failed in two businesses before achieving impressive success in his current one (motivational speaking). Business people should try to maintain a positive tone. Don’t complain about how bad business is. Surround yourself with positive people. Listen to people - don’t “make them wrong”. Three ways to grow a business are: (1) increase the number of customers, (2) Increase the number of sales, and (3) increase the size of each sale. It was possible, he said, to get your property tax reduced but you must do your homework and give good reasons. Don’t accept professional fees as gospel; they can always be negotiated. Try to get lower interest rates. Here’s a tip: Ask the magic question, “Is that the best you can do?,” and then say nothing for a few seconds while looking the other person in the face.

Reward your employees for making suggestions. Keep them informed - they appreciate being in the know. Don’t neglect employee development. Have accurate job descriptions, good training and cross training, and clear accountability. Consider giving employees bonuses rather than salary increases, because bonuses suggest that pay is tied to company performance. Exercise each day to increase your energy level - But also take time for nature. Slow down and relax. If your customers are slow in paying bills, get to know the key people in their accounting departments. Maybe even take some of them out to lunch. Businesses either expand or die. Have a strategic action plan consisting of several different options. But don’t go too far: “Pigs get fat but hogs get slaughtered.” Audit your own beliefs. What do you believe in? What’s important to you? Value family and friends. Take time to pray together.

There was one break in the mid-morning and then a break for lunch. During the first, I talked with a man who made brick-like concrete. He was facing competition from Australia. This man felt his competitors were cheating on trade classifications and the U.S. government was letting them get away with it. A woman in the hallway who worked for the city of Many was related to Jim Taylor, former rusher for the Green Bay Packers who’s now in the Football Hall of Fame. She was interested in business development that might take advantage of a large lake in her area.

The main luncheon speaker was Andrew Kopplin, the Governor’s assistant. Fighting for jobs was the Governor’s top priority, he said. He referred to the State Farm closing in Monroe and the loss of Fruit-of-the-Loom in Arcadia. Kopplin reported that the state of Louisiana had provided grants for infrastructure improvements and tax incentives for distressed areas. There were CD block grants and training programs. Unfortunately, rural areas had too few health clinics. The Governor would be convening a “Health Care summit” in New Orleans on March 3rd. Louisiana ranked Number One in the country in school accountability. Yet, there was a problem in finding qualified teachers for Advanced Placement. There were deficiencies in teaching algebra - considered the gateway to college.

The state needed to pay more attention to community and technical colleges which would train tomorrow’s work force. It needed to finish the I-49 north-south highway and, indeed, all rural highways. Admittedly, the sales tax on manufacturing equipment and the franchise tax on debt were too high. The Governor would convene a special session of the legislature on March 7th to deal with these problems. She had met with President Bush privately for fifteen minutes and given him a list of things to help Louisiana including trade protection for agricultural products: sugar cane, shrimp, cotton, soybeans. It was important for the state to develop better “value added” industries from its forestry resources.

Along with many others, I rushed up to the stage after the luncheon speech. I shook hands with Kopplin, the Governor’s husband, and House Speaker Joe Salter. Kopplin had read about my candidacy in the newspaper - probably, the Times-Picayune. He took a copy of my campaign handout. I also gave my pitch and my literature to Joe Salter who seemed genuinely interested. He knew the African American man whom I had met in Many. “Yes, he’s been quite active politically,” Salter said. On the conference floor, I spoke with a female aide to U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu. She took my handout but was not interested in talking.

The first afternoon session had to do with assessing broadband capacity in rural areas. Louisiana had to be competitive in this respect, and rural areas needed to attract their fair share. Costs were higher in rural Louisiana, but there were strategies for dealing with that problem. I thought this one of the best parts of the conference from an information standpoint. Then came a presentation on rural education. The presenter had gone to school with Junior Samples of Hee Haw fame. As a school superintendent, he had taken a failing school in South Carolina and turned it into one of the state’s best performers. The key, he said, was raising the level of expectations. Set clear goals. Communicate regularly with the teachers. Hire a “literacy coach” for the school and also pay special attention to mathematics. Schools also need to provide extra help to the worst-performing students. While providing a solid academic core, they also need to sell students on the idea that all this work will lead to real, high-quality jobs.

In the second part of the afternoon, conference participants were invited to attend break-out sessions on topics of interest. I picked the one on strategies for economic development. A representative of the state’s department of economic development spoke first, saying many of the same things as previous presenters. Then, rather uniquely, a representative of the business community spoke. He worked for Weyerhaeuser, the wood-products company, which he said had been in Louisiana since 1996. High taxes and excessive state regulations were of concern to business, he said. An inferior educational system discouraged executives from locating in the state. A business-friendly atmosphere was important. Labor strife and an “us-vs-them” attitude were big turnoffs to business. In the end, he said, business decisions were driven largely by cost. Become a low-cost place to do business, he said, and business will gravitate to your state.

During the question-and-answer session, someone asked if any industry was safe from going offshore? If an industry was highly automated, that afforded some protection. However, excessive environmental regulation in the United States hastened the flight of jobs to foreign countries.

Then I spoke up for the first and only time at the conference. I began by saying that the Weyerhaeuser Company was an important part of the economic heritage of my state, Minnesota. I had come to Louisiana, I said, to participate as a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary. My main issue was trade. I thought it unrealistic, if cost was the main consideration for business, for business firms to stay in the United States with its high-priced labor. It was fine for states like Louisiana to develop local strategies for retaining business but the solution really lay at the federal level. We need to impose tariffs to equalize the cost of production between ourselves and low-wage countries. The best strategy, then, to revitalize Louisiana’s rural economy would be to pressure federal officials to end the damage being done by free trade.

There was no immediate response to my remarks. The presenter simply took someone else’s question. However, my comments began sneaking into some of the subsequent questions. A bit later, a man who identified himself as an economics professor at Grambling State University said he disagreed with my analysis. Trade protection was not the answer. Instead, he said, U.S. firms could save jobs by automating and becoming more efficient. Privately, I pointed out to this professor, who was from Africa, that automating production destroys jobs rather than creating them. His “solution” would not work. The professor was polite but unyielding. I was equally convinced of my views. I also spoke with several other people following this session. My statement had captured their attention but none would admit to sharing my opinion on trade.

Later that day, I toured the downtown section of Natchitoches in the rain. Founded by the French in 1714, this city was the oldest settlement in the Louisiana purchase. It was a beautiful, historic town on a river bank. I walked through the streets of Natchitoches, protected from the rain by a large umbrella with a Daily Town Talk logo which Andrew Griffin had given me. I was both walking and thinking.

On the whole, this had been a worthwhile conference. However, its theme of encouraging entrepreneurship seemed a cop-out to me. Here state government was saying to Louisiana’s laid-off workers: There’s little we can do for you. Create your own job. Become an entrepreneur. So these fearful, economically distressed individuals who have lost their jobs were supposed to pull their chin up and, with mortgages to pay and hungry mouths to feed, go start their own business, presumably competing with all the highly capitalized businesses that had fled to low-wage countries to earn even more money.

The politicians knew they could do more. Some even knew we needed trade protection. But they were afraid to put their own jobs on the line by showing any sympathy for what they knew would anger business - the T-word, tariffs. Instead, the little guy had to be heroic.

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