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Chapter Eighteen: Covering the Northeastern Part of the State

 

The Governor’s Rural Economic Development conference continued through Wednesday morning, February 11th, but I decided to resume campaigning. The northeastern part of Louisiana still had to be covered. After spending the night in Natchitoches, I stopped by the conference for early-morning coffee and rolls. I spoke briefly with yesterday’s business-motivational speaker and with another man who worked for the state. Then it was time to visit Coushatta twenty-five miles north of Natchitoches before coming back part way and then taking U.S. highway 84 west and north toward Monroe. At Coushatta, a reporter for the Coushatta Citizen named Joe Jones listened to my pitch and took a photo. He said he would write something up from my handout.

The drive from Coushatta to Winnfield, my next stop, was more than fifty miles. Part of the journey went through forested areas. The address of the Winn Parish Enterprise had changed. I searched for the old address on the edge of town before receiving directions. The newspaper’s new location was on Main Street. The editor, Bob Holeman, greeted me warmly. Although he was in a hurry to make a regular luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club, he spent ten minutes talking with me.

Then he invited me to be his guest at the luncheon. I could not give a campaign speech. There would be another speaker for the event, but at least I could meet some of the people and see what was happening in this town. Holeman also mentioned that the Louisiana Museum of Political History was just across the street from his office. Depending on how much time I had to spend here, I might be interested in visiting the museum before or after lunch.

Winnfield was the boyhood home of Huey Long. The Museum had an exhibit containing a life-sized statue of Huey in his study and, in the adjoining one, at statue of his brother Earl K. Long, speaking into a microphone. Earl Long had been governor of Louisiana in the 1940s and 1950s. There were also mementos of other politicians with Louisiana connections including John F. Kennedy. After visiting this museum for fifteen minutes or so, I drove to Linda’s Country Kitchen in the Economy Inn, following Bob Holeman’s directions. The Earl Long park, along the way, was the site of the Long family home. In a back room, Holeman and the guest speaker, George Harrel, were sitting by themselves at the head table while a dozen or so others sat at flanking tables on both sides. I seated myself in the corner next to Holeman.

George Harrel, owner of an insurance agency, gave a short, entertaining talk on several topics. First, he told how a certain judge had recently been inducted into the Louisiana political hall of fame. This judge had two interesting aspects: (1) He had been convicted of a crime. (2) He was Senator Ted Kennedy’s father-in-law. Harrel humorously noted that criminal convictions were not that unusual for Louisiana politicians and, therefore, should not bar them from being recognized for political fame. Senator Kennedy had called the event organizer asking to be allowed to introduce his father-in-law at the induction ceremonies. The woman in charge, a stickler for the rules, had refused that request despite Kennedy’s persistent pleading. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts Senator had attended the ceremony and enjoyed himself immensely. Everyone thought he was a great guy.

Harrel also spoke of his own long-standing campaign to secure government funds to continue the I-84 highway through Winnfield. He asked for my opinion. I said that I-84 passed by Milford, Pennsylvania, where I owned a house, and it had done much to help the economy there. Harrel said that was a good answer. Later, he offered to contact Moon Griffon, a popular radio talk-show host broadcasting from Monroe, to see if he could get me on the show. He gave me his business card. I introduced myself to the others at this luncheon and to Linda, our hostess.

The stop in Winnfield had been unexpectedly fruitful. Even so, I had to continue my travels north. My cell phone rang before I left town. The call was from Brittany Shay, producer for a talk show on Baton Rouge radio station WJBO-AM. I had left a message for her on her answering machine the previous Saturday. They wanted me on the show later that afternoon. I thought I might have a conflict, having previously agreed to be on a New Orleans call-in show between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Shay thought her people could interview me at a different time.

The next place to visit was the office of Jonesboro’s Jackson Independent. No editor was there when I called, so I left literature and departed. While stepping into the car, I was approached by one of the paper’s employees, Jay, who had read about me. He urged me to return another day. Then I drove north to Ruston and east along I-20 to Arcadia, arriving around 4 p.m. I had hoped to visit the office of Dring Publishing in Arcadia but, because of the scheduled radio show, time would not allow this. Ordering a soft drink with ice at the McDonald’s near the interstate highway, I waited for the New Orleans radio interview to begin. The host, Christopher Tidmore, was a political columnist with the Louisiana Weekly, a community newspaper for minorities. Andrew Griffin had referred him to me by email. Tidmore’s radio show was broadcast on station WVOG-AM in Metairie (New Orleans) and also on a station in Thibodaux. An hour was allotted for my interview.

Tidmore was a tough questioner. He wanted to know all about my trade proposals. Wouldn’t they lead to trade wars? Wouldn’t they result in higher prices for the consumer? I responded that, no, employer-specific tariffs need not spark trade wars; the situation today was quite different from that in the 1930s. Today’s “trade” is often intracorporate trade, intended to cut out high-priced American labor. Yes, there might be some increase in prices but, remember, the company does not pass all its cost savings on to the consumer. Tariffs would cut into profit margins before they affected consumer prices. At one point, Tidmore sprang on me the results of a study purporting to show that the number of U.S. jobs had increased under NAFTA. I said I had not heard of that study. Whose was it? Tidmore admitted that his numbers had come from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There were also several questions about my position on the shorter workweek and a potpourri of short ones about abortion and other hot topics.

After the interview, I hurried over to Dring Publishing but its offices were closed for the day. Also, the Baton Rouge interview had fallen through. Brittany Shay said they would try to have me on some time closer to the election. Call her when I was in town. Since it was now after 5 o’clock and too late for more visits, I drove east on I-20 to Monroe, the largest city in northeastern Louisiana, and booked a room at the Motel 6 near the junction of I-20 and U.S. highway 165. I also thought that I should make reservations now to stay somewhere near New Orleans during the Mardi Gras period ending Tuesday, February 24th. New Orleans motels were already booked solid from Friday before the weekend through Tuesday. The Motel 6 in Slidell, twenty miles northeast of New Orleans, had a few vacancies for Thursday, February 19th. I thought I had better take what was available.

The next day, Thursday, February 12th, was jam-packed with campaign activities. First, I planned my day. Greg Hilber turned out not to be the man I wanted to see at the News-Star in Monroe. He was a business editor. The managing editor assigned a reporter named Chuck Cannon to interview me at their office around 10:30 a.m. Cannon talked with me about twenty minutes and took a photo. He confirmed that the loss of the State Farm jobs had been devastating for the community. No, this loss was not trade related, but one does not know whether to believe company representatives who said it was a simple consolidation of operations.

After this interview, I thought that I would again try to visit the offices of Dring Publishing in Arcadia, which published the Bienville Democrat, before returning to Monroe for a 1:00 p.m. appointment with the West Monroe newspaper. This was an hour’s drive west on I-20. Just before reaching Ruston, I called the Arcadia newspaper. The editor, Wayne Dring, said tht they closed the office at noon and would not reopen until 1: 30 p.m. I said I would try to make it. After asking my location, the editor said, “well, you’ll have to break the speed limit to be here by noon.” But I did pull into the parking spot in front of his building with three minutes to spare.

The gruff-speaking editor, in farmer’s overalls, was actually receptive to my message. Job loss had hit hard in his area and he agreed that tough measures needed to be taken. He liked President Bush personally for his straight-talking ways but was not sure about the policies. A female assistant nearby shook her head vigorously in dissent when she heard her boss’s favorable comments about George W. Bush. However, I had kept them in the office past the start of lunch period. I left my literature and departed.

I then raced back to West Monroe for an early-afternoon appointment at the Ouachita Citizen. Mark Rainwater, the news editor, ushered me into his office. He remembered having received email from me. Was I trying to be humorous, he asked? He said that these messages, far from being spam, were refreshingly straightforward He had enjoyed reading them. That out of the way, I went through my pitch about trade and employment. We had a good conversation about this. In a reflective mood, Rainwater then started telling me about the area.

For many years, West Monroe had played second fiddle to Monroe. The tables had now started to turn. West Monroe, the growth area across the Ouachita river, had the more solid job base. Like many large cities, Monroe had become a magnet for poor people. Once northeastern Louisiana was sitting on huge reserves of oil and gas but those resources were gone. Only the infrastructure of pipelines remained. The pipelines could themselves become an economic asset, though. The area had become a major storage location for financial documents of large eastern banks. Chances are that the original copy of your mortgage is there.

This used to be cotton-growing country but now the textile mills were gone. The parishes of northeastern Louisiana were some of the poorest in the nation. Racial tensions were also a problem. The school system was segregated by virtue of the fact that white children were in the Ouachita Parrish school district while black children were in a district affiliated with the City of Monroe, one of two city-run school districts in the state.

While pondering the situation in northeastern Louisiana, Rainwater suddenly remembered that he had another appointment and excused himself. I was grateful for the conversation but, at the same time, was starting to get a headache from the day’s stress. Bastrop, Louisiana’s 26th largest city, was 26 miles north of Monroe up U.S. highway 165. I fought the afternoon traffic on the way to that city. A reporter for the Bastrop Enterprise named Lydia gave me a brief interview. Then, after buying a large soft drink to ease my headache, I headed east on Louisiana highway 2 toward three small newspapers not far from the state line. The first, forty-five miles away, was in West Carroll Parish in the town of Oak Grove. The other two were in East Carroll Parish and in Madison Parish, south of there. I was not sure I could reach all three by closing time but would give it a shot.

Johney Turner was the editor of the West Carroll Gazette in Oak Grove. Again, my focus on employment problems seemed a fortunate choice. These northeastern parishes were mired in poverty. Once dependent on cotton, the local economy had benefited from the presence of small-manufacturing facilities. Farm wives could supplement the family income by working at these places. However, a number of them had been closed down in recent years because it was cheaper to produce in Mexico. No one knew where the replacement jobs might be found. The owner of one plant had been strongly anti-NAFTA but the local Congressman, who had voted for NAFTA, had pressured him to go along. That Congressman was defeated. Turner had seen me drive up to the office. He wanted a photograph of me standing next to the sign on my car door which read: “McGaughey for President 2004/ SAVE OUR JOBS.”

It was well after 5:00 p.m. when I next reached the newspaper office in Lake Providence, which was across the river from Mississippi. The office was closed for the day. I slipped a leaflet under the door with a “sorry I missed you” note. Another thirty miles south on U.S. highway 65 was the larger town of Tallulah. Here again, I slipped my campaign literature with a personal note under the door. I was gambling that these after-hours visits might result in a short statement in the paper that presidential candidate Bill McGaughey had been in town, especially if I followed them up next morning with a phone call. I doubt if that happened. However, it was even less likely that I would visit that area again during the campaign. Then I drove fifty miles back to Monroe west along I-20 where I had another night’s reservation at the Motel 6.

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