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Chapter Twenty-five: Back to Campaigning: Ponchatoula and Port Allen

 

With Mardi Gras over, the final phase of the campaign began. I still had not visited a number of newspapers in the state. Circling the names of cities and towns where these were located, I prepared regional itineraries to hit the remaining places.

Wednesday, February 25th, was a day to complete my campaigning in the area north of Lake Pontchartrain. Also, I had to get back to Keith Magill of the Houma paper by telephone; he hadn’t been available on Monday. There was also a large-circulation weekly newspaper in Denham Springs, east of Baton Rouge. If I drove east on interstate 12, I could stop in Denham Springs first and then continue to places north of the lake such as Hammond, Ponchatoula, and Covington.

The Livingston Parish News in Denham Springs was hard to find coming from I-12 but a receptionist gave me good directions - turn left at the Denham Springs exit, right at the next red light just beyond the McDonald’s, then drive along a curvy road for half a mile to the first stop light, turn left onto Pete’s Highway which after a mile or so becomes Florida Boulevard, and then take a left at Hatchell Lane where the office is located. When I arrived, the editor was not in. I said I would return later in the day.

After half an hour I arrived in Hammond and received directions to the office of the Daily Star. The traffic was unexpectedly heavy. I then made an appointment by cell phone to visit the office of the Ponchatoula Times, located just south of Hammond on I-55. The editor, Bryan McMahon, said he was about to leave for the city (New Orleans) but would wait for me. In the newspaper’s second-floor office, he interviewed me while seated at his desk.

My talk of a shorter workweek rang a bell with him. McMahon was originally from Michigan. He had gone to college at Oakland Community College north of Detroit and had attended high school with one of UAW President Walter Reuther’s daughters. (My younger brother went to school with another.) Detroit’s industrial culture was a matter of pride for him, as it was for me also. We both knew that Henry Ford had been the one most responsible for creating America’s consumer society. McMahon had formerly been a reporter for the Detroit Free Press who had been active in union organizing. Fired from the Free Press, he got his job back after a difficult battle in court but had then decided to seek employment elsewhere. On the wall of the office was a framed letter informing him that he had won his court case.

That was the amazing thing about political campaigns. One never knew who would be the next interesting person to meet. Down here in Louisiana was a man from my old home town. Earlier in my life, I had lived both in Detroit and for several years in a suburban community north of there. My boyhood partner at a dancing class was the daughter of a wealthy couple who had donated the land on which the main campus of Oakland Community College sits.

At that time, when Walter Reuther lived, labor and management were much at odds. My own parents were part of the business community. After business ceased to be managed by inspired tinkerers of Henry Ford’s ilk and instead became dominated by Wall Street financial managers and graduates of business schools, I myself gained increasing sympathy for labor’s objectives. And it all came together again in talking with Bryan McMahon. For most Americans, this is a forgotten era.

After this meeting in Ponchtoula, I drove north again on I-55 toward the Hammond paper. Because I was coming from a different place, I missed the exit and continued to the next one. I knew I had come too far. Trusting my sense of direction, I gambled that the next highway over would take me to the right place. Sure enough, coming from the other direction, I spotted South Morrison Boulevard where the Daily Star’s offices were located. Lillian Mirando, editor of the paper, did not have time to talk with me then but she did send a mesaage for me to leave my literature and a photo at the front desk.

There were two newspapers in Covington, another twenty miles east on I-12. On Friday of the previous week, the editor of the News-Banner, a weekly newspaper, had told me that his paper did not cover national political campaigns. However, I was welcome to drop off my literature at the office. Covington’s other weekly paper, St. Tammany Farmer, which had a smaller circulation, did cover national politics. Unfortunately, its office was closed that day and would reopen Thursday at 8:00 a.m. I left literature and a photo at the News-Banner.

Having free time, I now made a list of Louisiana’s minority-owned newspapers and called some of them. I reached the editor of the Baton Rouge Weekly Press, an African American newspaper who talked with me about my campaign. He was interested in having me meet a number of people from the community at an agreeable time and place. However, he later called back to say that there had not been sufficient interest in such a meeting. People had never heard of me. How could I run for President having failed to make the necessary preparations? This editor, Ivory Payne, did agree to look at my campaign literature, though. He gave me directions to his office in a northern suburb of Baton Rouge. I followed through early the next day, slipping sheets of paper under the door.

I also called The Louisiana Weekly. My list of community newspapers said this was a paper which served the Hispanic community. The receptionist gave me the phone number of an editor to call. It was Christopher Tidmore, the same man who had interviewed me two weeks earlier on the New Orleans talk show. I did not recognize his name in this context. He remembered me. Tidmore said that he had written a column about my campaign in the Louisiana Weekly, which was being distributed on news stands throughout the city. Had I seen it yet? I had not. The column was also available on the Internet.

Tidmore also said that a young colleague named Jayson Lee, who hosted a call-in show on station KTIB-AM in Thibodaux, had been trying to contact me. He gave me Lee’s number to call. He would also like to have me back again on his own show, perhaps the Monday before the primary. I was delighted at this turn of events.

Several other African-American newspapers needed to be called. At the Alexandria News Weekly, a woman told me that this was a small, understaffed newspaper which did not keep regular business hours. The reporters often worked out of their own home. It would be best for me to call ahead when I was coming to Alexandria and try to set up a meeting. At the Gambit Weekly, I was told that they already had my literature. This paper would not be covering the Democratic primary. A third newspaper was the New Orleans Data News Weekly. A woman named Katrice talked with me. She said she would check with the publisher, Mr. Jones, to see if there was any interest in my campaign. I also spoke that day with Keith Magill in Houma. Yes, he had received my envelope but had not yet had a chance to look at the contents. He would do that soon and call me back if he had any questions.

After spending time on the cell phone, I took interstate 12 back toward Baton Rouge. I called the office of Livingston Parish News in Denham Springs. The editor, was back in the office. I spoke with him about stopping by for a visit. He asked me where I was from. Minnesota, I replied. After a pause, the editor said that he did not feel like giving out-of-state candidates free publicity. I asked if I might simply drop off some literature. “It’s a free country,” he responded, but I’d be wasting both his time and mine. I bypassed Denham Springs even though I had the directions to the newspaper office down pat.

There was time for a mid-afternoon visit to the press room at the Louisiana state capitol. Ed Anderson was sitting at his desk. He said he had been sick for four days and was busy. Contact him again soon. Marcia Shuler of The Advocate was again away from her desk in the Baton Rouge paper’s office. I also spoke with Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press and gave her a more complete packet of materials. She said to let her know if I had plans to do anything in Baton Rouge. She said that the AP had already produced a short announcement of my candidacy based on the Times-Picayune story. What about the other Democratic candidates? Deslatte did not think that any of them had campaigned in Louisiana yet except for Wesley Clark who was in the state a month ago.

Another newspaper that remained to be visited was the weekly in Port Allen, where the Motel 6 was located. Chris Chatelain, editor of the Port Allen West Side Journal, had time that afternoon. Another man was sitting at a table in the office. I mistook him for Chatelain. After he straightened me out, we had a short, but thorough interview sitting at the same table. Chatelain was well-versed in local economic conditions and interested in what I had to say.

That evening, I broke down and had my first full-scale restaurant meal. I could not resist the temptation to indulge in the day’s special, a prime-rib dinner, at Shoney’s restaurant in Port Allen, which was just down the road from the motel. The prime rib was incidental, I found, to the sumptuous buffet including many of my favorite foods. Previously, I had sometimes eaten at Wendy’s after discovering that the 99 cent hamburger was not that inferior to hamburger meals costing several times that amount.

The Shoney’s dinner showed me that a larger life was available to me gastronomically if I chose to take advantage of it. On the other hand, my skimpy eating had brought my weight down. That’s another advantage of having an active political campaign- quite effective if you’re an underdog candidate.

I should also mention that long evenings in motel rooms provided me a continuing vista on the world through cable television. The Motel 6 rooms offered more than a dozen channels including CNN, HBO, public television, and the local news. The most important programming for me was, of course, election-night coverage of the Democratic presidential primary. Such programming took place on successive Tuesdays. On Tuesday, February 3rd, I had watched reporting of South Carolina’s, Missouri’s, Oklahoma’s and several other states’ primary results. Next week, in my Natchitoches motel room, I had watched the results come in from Tennessee and Virginia. Clark and Edwards had each won a primary on the 3rd. Everything else went to Kerry. Edwards’ South Carolina victory was sullied by his failure to win the two southern states on February 10th.

The Wisconsin primary on February 17th was said to be Howard Dean’s do-or-die. He had promised to drop out if he did not win that primary, but had then waffled a bit. The Wisconsin primary gave a boost to John Edwards, not expected to do well in that region. Edwards had pushed the trade issue and finished second by five percentage points. He delivered the quip of the night directed at Kerry: “Warning, the object behind you is closer than it looks.”

After he lost Wisconsin, Dean did formally withdraw. Clark had done so already. The race was narrowing down to Edwards and Kerry. While another primary took place in three small western states on February 24th, the pundits were biding their time until the real contest on “Super Tuesday”, March 2nd. That would be the day when New York, California, Ohio, Massachusetts, Georgia, and four other states would hold primaries. There would also be a caucus in my own state, Minnesota.

I am a fan of Lou Dobbs on CNN. He had several interesting guests on his evening news program during this period. One was the business guru, Tom Peters, who agreed with Schumpeter’s theory that capitalism advanced through “creative destruction”. We should not lament the demise of the buggy-whip industry, the argument went, if a new automobile industry was around the corner. Business is never static as progress relentlessly takes place. What of today’s loss of jobs to outsourcing? Well, that’s just another bump in the road to business progress.

Surprisingly, Peters said that he doubted that the Fortune 500 companies would create any net jobs. The new jobs could have to come from small businesses created by entrepreneurs. It was the same line I had heard at the Rural Economic Development Conference in Natchitoches. Now America’s foremost business guru was saying that creative destruction would take place simultaneously in the largest business firms in all sectors of industry, not just in buggy whips. Somewhere, a new Bill Gates was being born to take up the slack.

Peters, who travels widely in Asia, provided another explanation for job loss. In the Strait Times of Singapore, he had read that people in that city were worried about the loss of jobs to microprocessors. More jobs in the United States, too, had been lost to microprocessors than to trade with foreign countries. Peters was confirming the old trade-union theory that automation costs jobs. The old trade unionists would have known the response: cut work hours. Even if labor-saving equipment is introduced, the job loss can be offset by cutting the general schedule of hours so that work is needed from everyone.

Peters and the other business representatives knew, however, that today’s union people will never use that argument. Organized labor is more interested in getting overtime pay for its members than in reducing work hours. Labor has, as I said, “lost its way”. Business can cite increased productivity as an excuse for job loss because everyone knows that productivity improvements are “good”. No one remembers what to do next to maintain employment equilibrium.

On the evening of February 24th, the Dobbs program presented its usual potpourri of segments related to employment and trade. Professor Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology was opposed to free trade. Dr. Katherine Mann advocated exporting American jobs. Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut had introduced a bill to withhold federal funding from government entities that outsource their jobs. Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, on the other end of the political spectrum, agreed that outsourcing was the enemy.

Meanwhile, Chairman Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve Bank was warning that Fanny Mae’s and Freddy Mac’s exposure to bad home mortgages had grown to the point that the stability of our entire economy was at risk. That’s what I was telling people every day when I traveled the state of Louisiana visiting newspaper offices. It was good to find confirmation on national television.

I should also mention a program that I saw on Louisiana public television about Emmett Till. A documentary told the story of his 1955 murder in Mississippi. Emmett Till was the only son of a well-educated black woman in Chicago, a 14-year-old boy with a teenager’s normal high spirits. His uncle in Mississippi had invited him to visit. Till whistled at a white woman while leaving a movie theater. Several days later, he disappeared. Till’s body was found anchored at the bottom of a river. The authorities arrested two white men and put them on trial for the murder. An all-white jury acquitted these men.

Till’s badly decomposed body was sent back to Chicago for burial. At the visitation, Till’s mother decided to open the casket so the mourners could see what had happened to her son. Tens of thousands of mostly black residents of Chicago with scarcely concealed anger filed past the open casket. Months later, a national magazine published a confessional narrative by the acquitted men from Mississippi about how they had committed the murder.

I had heard Emmett Till’s name before but was unfamiliar with the story. Events of the 1950s and 1960s now made much more sense. More than when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Emmett Till’s murder a year earlier is what sparked the Civil Rights movement. Anyway, that’s how it seemed to me.

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