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Gypsy & Willy - The Original Libertarian Bloggers

How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Willy

No. 247

The Ghost of Christmas Past

November 15, 1999

Many people have written in puzzlement over what they consider our "kinky" approach to electoral politics. Why do we think that it is necessary to go outside the "conventional" boundaries in search of candidates? Why celebrities?

In partial response to these queries, we respond with an item from Willy's past. In a later column, we will detail some of Gypsy's experience in the area of "standard" politics. We hope these clear up a few things...

Having been born in October of 1936, I was a shade too young to cast my vote in the Presidential election of 1956...as the minimum voting age in those days was 21. By 1960, I had graduated from the University of Wisconsin and moved myself and family to Minneapolis to start graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

As it happened, we found an apartment right next door to another married student and his family, Bill and Ginny Mahlum. Bill was an aspiring politico and, since he and his wife were Roman Catholics, they were intensely interested in the campaign of John F. Kennedy, who, of course, was to become the first RC President in history. Not only did he convince me to vote for Mr. Kennedy, but spent many hours listening to him tell stories about Minnesota politics, both historically...Minnesota has a unique political history...and at that time.

When the 1964 campaign came around, Bill approached me to join a small "flying squad" he was putting together to assist the Minnesota DFL (Demidupe/Farmer/Labor) party...a party STILL distinct in many ways from the national Demidupes...and to advance our "political careers." I did not have any political ambitions then...or now...but I found the idea of working "behind the scenes" intriguing.

Bill's idea was simple and elegant. Each of us...there ended up being only three of us, Bill, myself and a graduate student in economics named Gary...would choose a difficult race at the state legislator level and add so much to that person's campaign as to put him or her, over the top. Mahlum suggested that this would be relatively easy, since state representatives generally have neither large campaign organizations nor a lot of money. Just about anything we could do for them would be an immense help.

I chose an interesting race in a "safe" DFL district. Although whoever became the DFL candidate in this district was a shoo-in for the seat, the primary race was heavily contested by two factions. One, Labor, was backing a traditional "lefty." The other, which could loosely be described as the "intellectual" left, consisting as it did of a lot of professors and students and their families, had put up a woman named Alpha Smaby, at a time when women were not nearly as prominent in electoral politics as today.

In 1964, the lawn sign was just emerging as a potent political advertising tool. Quickly rounding up a few of my friends, we packed our van with signs and began canvassing the people in our district to place these signs on their lawns. It was easy. As I said earlier, almost every house contained a Demidupe sympathizer. Further, since we got our troops out early, all we had to do is say that we were representing a "Democratic" candidate to get a placement. The labor faction was much slower to move, so within a couple of weeks, we had placed 260 (!) lawn signs in our district for Ms. Smaby. This meant there were whole blocks with "Smaby" signs on EVERY lawn! Labor eventually imitated our strategy, but their volunteers had the much more difficult task of convincing people to REMOVE the Smaby signs and replace them with their candidate's. Alpha Smaby won the primary and went on to win the general election and to serve for many years until her death. Bill and Gary had similar good fortune with the candidates they were backing.

Soon, higher ups in the DFL heard of our work. Well before the general election, we were asked to bring our services to the campaign of Don Fraser, then running for re-election to the House of Representatives. We had barely settled into his campaign organization when we got a call from Senator Eugene McCarthy's campaign manager asking us to work for HIM for the remainder of HIS campaign...which we did.

Now, McCarthy was running against a perennial Pooblioob candidate name Wheelock Whitney who actually had little chance to win, but who had a LOT of money to throw at the campaign. I mean, really, how can anybody whose name is so easily morphed into "Whitlock Weenie" expect to win an election...ANY election? And, he never did. Still, McCarthy's people were worried. Even then, MONEY TALKED...or SHOUTED.

Once in McCarthy's organization, each of us was given a particular job. Mine was "logistics" for campaign rallies. Bill had the job of rounding up volunteers while mine was to see to the transportation (school buses) of said volunteers to the rallies. Our approach was simple. Senator McCarthy, like Kennedy, was also a Roman Catholic and, as such, was the darling of every parish priest and nun in town. Getting warm bodies consisted in nothing more complex than calling local RC college dorms and telling the nun-in-charge of our needs...how many and at what time.

Oh, one other thing. Our "unpaid" volunteers were each to receive a crisp new twenty dollar bill at the end of the rally. I got to be paymaster. This meant that sometime during the rally, someone from the campaign staff would show up with a carpet bag (NO SHIT!) filled with twenty dollar bills. As each bus returned to the dormitory, I would pass out a Tom Jefferson to each person as they stepped from the vehicle, plus a few to the nun-in-charge for the "charity box." At the end of the evening, there was always a small pile of currency left over. "What do we do with this?" I asked naively after the first event.

Dipping into the bag and quickly dividing the loot into two piles...Gary had left the "team" by this time...Bill smiled and asked, "What do YOU think?"

Before you judge us too harshly for what we did, remember that we both had families to feed...he with three children and I with six...not to mention our full-time class schedules. Corruption was ever so easy to slide into.

Where did all this cash come from? Well, in those days before "soft money," strict campaign reporting laws...at least in Minnesota...meant that a whole lot of cash was supplied "off the books." I was told that McCarthy had spent at least twice the amount reported, while Whitlock's Pooblioobs were doing the same thing.

Filling the campaign coffers for both sides was easy in 1964. The reason was U.S. Steel. On the Minnesota ballot was a patently ridiculous constitutional amendment that gave permanent tax breaks to steel companies wishing to extract a low grade iron ore, called taconite, from what remained of the already played out Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. All the easy pickings had been picked, so the steel industry's story was that they needed the tax "assistance" to guarantee that the range economy, heavily dependent on mining, would not go into the tank. In short, they used classic government-assisted industry extortion.

The upshot was that both major parties favored the passage of this amendment. Ironically, my wife at that time, Mary, had become so enraged by blatancy of this rip-off, that she joined and become active in an organization opposing this amendment. Ill funded and without any real political clout, they were unsuccessful in their efforts. The amendment passed, the range prospered for a few more years and then...as everyone with half a brain had predicted...the ore ran out in a couple of decades and the range economy crapped out anyway.

A couple of other anecdotes.

We did so well for the good Senator...he won in a landslide...that word got to our other senator, Hubert Humphrey, who was, at the time, running as Lyndon Johnson's running mate. So, we got to ply our trade...getting masses of "enthusiastic" young people to campaign events...for the Johnson/Humphrey team for the last week before the election.

As part of our "payoff," Mary and I got invited to several "insider" events...you know, the kind where wealthy contributors get to meet the candidate up close and personal. At one of these, Mary took it upon herself to dragoon Senator McCarthy and query him on his support of the Taconite Amendment. Now Mary was a very attractive woman and ended up dancing and talking with him all evening. Her agenda was to try to understand what would make an otherwise honest and intelligent politician sell out so thoroughly. His agenda, which he made quite clear, was to get into her pants, going so far as to invite her to his personal hotel suite "to view the results of the election" on election night.

Like most politicians, he was unable to answer straight questions with straight answers, so under her insistent prodding, he finally allowed that if we didn't pass the amendment, U.S. Steel would build their processing plants in upper Michigan. No mention was made, of course, to the untold thousands of dollars that the industry was putting into both his and Whitney's campaigns. I was, of course, consumed with male jealously and rage about McCarthy's come-on to my wife, but she calmed me down by relating her response to the Senator's excuse. "You mean," she wondered sarcastically, "that the steel companies are going to move the mines to Michigan?"

Also, she turned down his offer for an election night tete-a-tete. We did, however, vote Demidupe that year, probably the worst votes we ever cast. We were so sure that old Lyndon was going to extricate us from Viet Nam...as opposed to "warmonger" Barry Goldwater...remember the "daisy ad?" Neither of us was EVER again to cast another vote for a Demidupe in a general election.

So that was "conventional" politics, working for Clean Gene McCarthy and the Demidupes in 1964. Perhaps things have gotten better since then. What do YOU think?

Talk to you later...


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