“And Now I Know”
I recently read an essay concerning the colorful career of the former mayor of Washington, D.C. Marion Barry. He served three terms.
Politics interests me, and It always has. In the 1990s I ran for Congress three times as a Democrat in Jefferson County, Kentucky (which includes Louisville).
I was enjoying this lengthy account of Barry's political career when the author described accompanying Barry to a black church for a Sunday service. I paused in my reading for a moment, chuckling to myself, remembering a black church I had visited as a candidate. I did so twice, I recall now. I was there for my first race, and for my second or third, too. I got my highest vote count on my second run, by the way, 5,000 votes. That was 20% of the vote, and I was then up against the sitting Congressman, a Democrat named Williams.
Williams lost in November, and while nobody said I was the reason, I believe he blamed me for causing his defeat by opposing him in the primary. He may be right. Even today, if I meet him on the street (and I seldom do), he manages no more than a nod of recognition. No conversation whatsoever.
During my campaigns I went to only one church in the West End of Louisville, the black area. It was a large church called King's Daughters. I was told beforehand I would only be allowed to speak very briefly from the pulpit. This was, as I said, my first run for Congress, and it was a year the incumbent was retiring, so it was a so-called open seat. The existence of an open seat often brought a lot of candidates into the race, and I was one of nine. This was for the Democratic nomination in the May primary. The Republicans had their own contest with maybe three contenders, a lot for them. The winner of each contest would of course meet in November for the final outcome.
On this particular Sunday at King's Daughters there was only one other candidate besides myself there. His given name was Shelby, and he spoke before me. I had heard Shelby give his presentation several times before, and he had heard mine as well. Mostly we got to speak at the many Democratic clubs there are in the county. There were at that time perhaps a dozen of them. The poorer candidates (financially speaking) included me and Shelby, and so we frequented those club meetings just about every month, sometimes more than that if something was going on.
Speaking at the clubs was virtually the only way you could get known. If you were lucky, a newspaper reporter might be on hand and could (but usually didn't) write a line or two about your candidacy. The more well-heeled candidates, and there were several, got their messages out via the TV and radio and other advertising venues. One man who came in second spent 1.2 million dollars on the race. He was favored, but didn't win. I will say more about this man, Charlie, later.
Shelby spoke first, and he was on message. He said what he said everyplace else. A retired police officer, and black himself, he must have felt comfortable in that church, something I myself did not feel. He was one of two black candidates in the nine-person lineup of the primary, which included one woman. I noticed there was kind of an angry edge to Shelby. We were cordial, though never friends. But we saw a lot of each other at the Democratic club meetings through that winter and spring, pretty much from February to May.
All of the clubs were white, except for one in the West End, not far from where I was now. I had been there too, but did not see many of the other candidates, the white candidates, that is, because I think they believed (and rightly so) that the black vote was mostly spoken for, with two blacks in the race. That, plus the fact the club was situated in a kind of rough area of the city, and it was a bit disconcerting to have to drive through that part of Louisville at night. I went there most every month, though.
It is likely that as candidates we went some places because we had no other place to go. I would get so-called tips from supporters who would say, You just have to go here (or there). That's how I happened one night to attend a meeting of Smoker's Rights. (Now you are aware that Kentucky has historically been a Big Tobacco state). Smokers' Rights met in a very smoky basement in somebody's home. I was there primarily because I was told voters were there and might like my message. I saw no other candidates at this gathering. There wasn't much I could say to the smokers, however; I am a nonsmoker, and I wasn't about to begin smoking because of a dozen white men in a basement puffing away. So I mumbled something and left in about half an hour, my clothes smelling like I had been in an all-night poker game -- something I myself did on occasion.
At King's Daughters Church, as Shelby finished his talk, my turn came. I was kind of nervous. There must have been more than three hundred people, and not one white face in the bunch. The eyes were on me -- I could feel them -- as I prepared to give my usual spiel. First I acknowledged the minister, thanking him and the congregation for giving me this time, short though it was. I observed to the crowd that Shelby and I go to the same meetings each week, and these meetings are almost always one hundred percent white. Then I said, "I've often wondered how Shelby felt speaking to all-white audiences over and over again." I then paused for a long instant, and looked out on the crowd and said in a low voice, "And now I know."
Well, the place exploded with laughter, and what nervousness I felt disappeared immediately. I gave my usual talk, somewhat abbreviated, because we were told by the minister beforehand that we had to be brief, and you don't go against the wishes of the preacher. I saw this for myself. The services in these churches are long, often three hours, and I witnessed some brave souls in the back of the church trying to step out early. The minister stopped in mid-sentence and gave the pair one hell of a tongue lashing. No one was going to walk out on the preacher and his message of God, and these two didn't, either, but meekly returned to their seats.
Humor is a hard thing to pull off anywhere when speaking publicly, and it can be dangerous to attempt in a political race, for you can easily fall on your face trying to be clever and feel very much the fool. But when it works, it is a great feeling.
Once I was at the Democratic Club in Shively. Shively was in our district, but not in the City of Louisville. It is an independent city. We have a lot of those in the county close to the city. While Shively has a good number of black people within its borders, the club itself is almost entirely white (as nearly all of them were). I seldom saw a black face unless it was another candidate, such as Shelby.
I liked the Shively Club because the turnout was usually large, perhaps as many as sixty or more. Most clubs did well to break twenty, and each month it was the same people. Still, we candidates kept going back, because that was all we could do. Other candidates for other offices, such as for judgeships, were a common sight, as well.
I haven't noted so far that I am from Massachusetts originally, and I retain my Massachusetts accent still. even though I have lived in Kentucky easily for thirty years. I liked to believe my speeches were focused and short, and I came to believe my brevity was appreciated wherever I went, especially if there were a lot of candidates on hand. And with nine running that year for Congress, plus the races for the judiciary, the evening could get long. I tried hard not to contribute to those long nights. And I always did what I could to lighten up the topic. By now I was comfortable at Shively. I was known there, too. Eventually, I was comfortable at all the clubs, except for one downtown, and I will come to that presently.
So this evening I greeted the crowd at Shively warmly thanking them as I always did for allowing me a few minutes. Most knew my positions by now, so I began by telling them how I had been taking a course to improve my accent, soften it I meant, so that I could sound more like I grew up in Kentucky, and maybe even in Shively. That evoked a bit of laughter.
I went on with my talk saying how I had recently graduated from a special language study program. There was more laughter, and it was louder, too. I waited and then I asked, "So how am I doing?" A lot of laughter followed that simple query. And so I decided to use the story at other clubs, which I did until I got sick of it myself. I wanted to come across as a candidate without using the same line over and over again, which many politicians do, by the way.
One candidate for judge named Prather would hold up a sign bearing his name at the end of his talk and suggest to the audience that a good way for them to remember his name was to cover up the P, leaving the name Rather. "Think of Dan Rather," he would say, "and then think of me." Dan Rather was a well-known TV news anchor at the time. He used this tack over and over. I heard it dozens of times. He won his primary race and went on to win in November and was a sitting judge until he lost to a female candidate. Shortly thereafter he died.
The men in the judgeship races have come to hate female candidates. The females on the bench in Jefferson County are approaching (or maybe exceeding) the males in number, although when I was first running, this was not the case. The men are unhappy about this trend of course, but can do nothing except complain to other men (never to women, naturally).
I have often thought voters in Kentucky were very fair and lenient when it came to my candidacy. I mean, here was a man with a pronounced New England accent running for high federal office, not once, but three times. Yet I was always politely heard out. Remember, too, that in one race I got 5,000 votes. Admittedly, the winner got 25,000, but no matter, five thousand is a lot of votes. It wasn't just an accident, either. I worked for those votes, as did those who were supporting me. I noticed I got my biggest votes in poorer neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, entirely in the South End. The black vote, as I have noted, was almost always spoken for. While I felt my reception among Kentucky voters was always positive and polite, I wondered sometimes what it would be like for a person from Kentucky with that accent trying to run for office in say, Massachusetts. Would the kindness extend to such a person, or would their accent become a butt of jokes? I don't know, but I have my suspicions.
One Democratic club was not so friendly to me. It was in a downtown location and it was populated by more affluent and liberal Democrats. I had some positions these Democrats did not like. I was pro-life, for example. Kentucky is largely a Bible-belt state, but few Democrats run for high office in the cities as pro-life. The urban areas here are much like they are elsewhere, meaning they are not fond of the pro-life position. Curious thing is that I am not religious myself, although I was raised Catholic. But I am very much a lapsed Catholic, and maybe it could be said I am a nonbeliever. Still, I never could cotton to abortion. It struck me as awfully hard on the underdog, the fetus. And it wasn't a whole lot more complicated than that for me. So as a pro-life Democrat, I was not too well regarded downtown.
And thus I found myself at a meeting of the downtown Democratic Club which for some reason, had mainly women in attendance that day. A lot of them, too. I gave my usual talk, sprinkled here and there with my positions on abortion seeing as how they distinguished me from the other candidates in the race. The two black candidates were pro-life, I believe. Anyway, I had not gotten far into my talk before I began to be interrupted and told to sit down. I was eventually shouted down. It only happened this one time, and I must confess I enjoyed the moment. I had observed some women there from other audiences I had addressed, and I knew they didn't share the views of the hecklers, but nobody came to my rescue, so eventually I took my seat.
In my third and last congressional race, I ran against a vibrant and fairly young and attractive black woman. The congressional seat was now held by a Republican woman, and she would not be easy to defeat, and I didn't believe this young woman could do it. But she was the candidate of the party leadership, and furthermore, the choice of the Governor. She had been a state rep in a black neighborhood, and the Governor wished to court her goodwill for future races he would run. Actually, there were two challengers to her in the primary, me and the grandson of a former mayor of Louisville. He brought to the race name recognition, something never to be underestimated, but not much else. He filed, but did not have an active campaign.
This mid-thirties, articulate black lady was very liberal, and that included the issues of abortion . After she won the May primary, President Clinton flew in, and she was soon seen riding on Air Force One. It was not enough to get her elected, however. I recall that when she was in the race alone after the primary defeat for me and the other guy, she went on the radio and was unable to answer simple policy questions expected of a member of Congress. Incidentally, I was never so ill-prepared.
For some reason, I annoyed the hell out of this woman. I was never a real threat to her winning. I did come in second, but a distant second, all the same. Of course, the entire Democratic organization was supporting this woman, largely at the behest of the Governor, as I've already noted.
I recall being out at Shively once, at the club I enjoyed so much, and she was there. She spoke first and tore into me by name, blistering me. I liked being the focus of attention, and I thought I would be a bit cute and follow her talk by getting up and saying, "I hope you can tell she is crazy about me." This time there was no laughter. I guess nobody but me thought the line was funny. And so I struggled through my usual speech and then sat down a bit glumly. The humor thing was no help this time around. For sure, it wasn't.
Still another time, there was a rally of sorts at the headquarters of the Central Labor Council on Fourth Street. The purpose of the rally was to talk up this woman's candidacy for Congress. I wasn't invited, but I stood outside with a sign and some brochures. Both the Governor and Lt. Governor had to go by me, and they did. I knew the Lt. Governor slightly, but my wife knew him better, and she was with me that day. He was a doctor and she is a nurse, and so they spoke for a few minutes, and then Steve (the doctor) said hello to me and went into the hall. Soon the Governor himself arrived, and he was cordial to me but had little to say.
When my opponent learned I was outside, she was outraged and demanded angrily, "What's he doing out there?" I loved annoying her; I am not sure why. I guess it was because she was so explosive. I had her photo reproduced on one of my brochures and there I pointed out her too liberal positions (in my opinion, of course) on particular social issues. We probably agreed when it came to economic matters, such as minimum wage.
A reporter asked me how it was that I reproduced on my handbill such an attractive photo of my opponent. He thought it flattered her, and that is not what is done in politics. A flattering likeness of your opponent is not what one should choose. I really didn't have an answer. It didn't occur to me to print a bad picture, unflattering to the lady. It seemed a little cruel. Kindness is probably why I never came very close to winning any of my many races. Kindness does not get you elected. We all know that, of course.
A little aside: When you run for federal office, every imaginable group sends you a questionnaire. In Kentucky, that included Right to Life, the Rainbow Coalition (a gay rights organization largely), and the Concord Coalition. Many right-to-work organizations seek your positions.
In the beginning, in my first race, I dutifully filled out all the inquiries, answering the questions as honestly and fully as I could. I sent them back in a timely fashion, having tried to point out nuances in the positions I held. Bad idea, I discovered. Much better to fill out the questionnaires friendly to your positions, as in my instance, Right to Life, and discard those who can't stand you. They will simply use whatever words you chose against you. Far better not to return those forms where you know you have a position that won't be liked. The organization then has to list you as a "No Response" and that is that, whereas if you try to answer honestly, considerable damage can be done to your campaign. Takes a while to learn this, though.
Some say your particular position on the ballot matters a lot. Perhaps. I was number one in a nine-candidate field my first time out. The order on the ballot is drawn at the Secretary of State's office in Frankfort, and all candidates are notified as to when the drawing will take place, and you as a candidate can be there or send someone in your stead to witness the selection. I never went or sent anyone, either. I figured it was an honest enough process.
But in a large field such as we had that year, position of the ballot counted. It didn't get me elected, obviously, but it may have had an impact on the number of votes I received. I just don't know. I came in fifth, I believe, with 1600 votes. The man behind me by 200 votes, a university professor of some reputation in the community who was said to have spent one hundred thousand dollars on the race, and even mortgaged his home to pay his costs, followed me in the vote totals. He was said to be humiliated to come in behind me because of my positions on social issues, and he being a prestigious professor of government and all of that. He seldom spoke to me when we would meet at various functions. He never ran again, and soon thereafter left the area.
I believe it was Shelby who came in just ahead of me by a hundred votes or so. The winner Mike Williams got less than three thousand votes. The lawyer industrialist, Charlie, who I mentioned earlier, spent 1.2 million but came in second. He had been initially favored to win because of his deep pockets. I spent $7500 and that was $2500 more than I planned, but my wife had the checkbook for awhile and she spent in ways I did not know about until after the contest. Something like 19% of the eligible Democratic voters in the primary actually voted, in spite of all our campaigning and the money spent (especially by Charlie).
A white-haired elderly woman with an Irish surname and great name recognition came in third. She was Catholic. Her late husband had been a judge for many years and one of her sons was a judge, too. She was thought to be a possible winner because of her name and funding. She didn't like me because I had a nasty habit of pointing out (sometimes in religious settings) that she was Catholic and yet stood for abortion rights (I can be a bit mischievous, in case that is not yet apparent).
Once at a large forum where I spoke before this lady, I mentioned her abortion views, but did not name her. She took after me with a vengeance, without naming me either, except that everybody there knew who she was talking about. I smiled broadly that evening. As I said, this was a well-connected political family, comparable to a Kentucky version of the Kennedys -- at least they saw themselves as such. We eventually became friends, this lady and me. I am unsure if she is still living, but as I write this I live just around the corner from her son Sean, who is himself now a judge (until recently, that is). He too lost to a woman.. When Sean's mother was running for Congress, he was somewhat unfriendly to me, but not to a great extent. I see him often these days and he is congenial. No bad feelings linger.
I would be remiss if I ended without telling of the time I returned as a candidate to the black church, King's Daughters. This time I convinced my daughter to accompany me. I guess she was about fourteen at the time. She has been reared a Roman Catholic, and while I am hardly a church-goer myself, maybe not even a believer, when she was growing up I insisted she go to Sunday mass, even if I had to take her myself, which was often, because my wife was a nurse and worked odd shifts, especially on the weekends. So I was sort of in charge of Carolyn's religious training. She did go to Catholic schools beginning with Kindergarten, although she went to a Jewish pre-Kindergarten. I believe she can still recite a Jewish blessing learned there.
Carolyn went on to a Catholic university in St. Louis, and she presently lives there with her husband Dave and their three children. On this particular Sunday I told her we would go to King's Daughters Baptist Church instead of mass at our own church. She was all right with this decision, figuring erroneously that one church service was like another. I failed to tell her services in black churches were often three or more hours in duration. Catholic mass seldom goes much over an hour.
The preacher was the same man who presided at my first visit there. He knew me slightly. I was not planning to speak on anything of significance that day. I just hoped to be introduced to the congregation and thereby remind them that I was running again for Congress, and that did happen. But this minister was kind of an odd fellow. For one thing, he had a very poor memory. I first noticed his memory problem when I had lunch with him days before. There were several persons at the luncheon and he didn't have much to say to me specifically. But at this luncheon, he kept asking me my name.
As I say, he did introduce me to the congregation, as he promised he would, and it was near the end of the service, which had exceeded three hours, much to the consternation of my daughter. It was rather warm that day, and I'd asked her to dress up for the occasion. He started his introduction of me but suddenly he couldn't remember my name and so I shouted it up to him and he continued with the introduction. We were near the front of the church, and after he introduced me and I stood up, the preacher continued, "and with Mr. Abbott I see is his lovely wife." I gestured to my daughter to see if she would stand also, which she would not do, of course. Indeed, with this designation added to the heat and the fatigue of an interminable worship service, she was ready to climb under the pew.
Carolyn had always been helpful to me in my political races, handing out brochures, putting leaflets on cars, even making "cold calls" on my behalf the day before the race. That was something I hated to do myself, make cold calls. Lots of people hang up on you. My wife had come up with that idea. But standing up in that black church next to her father after that introduction, well, that was just something she was not about to do. It has become one of my favorite memories of my congressional races.