RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Crap Shoot

The editor says you may or may not get this paper in time for elections, so we're not going to beat that drum. Whether it went our way or not, the election of 2000 is just one part of the circus, and in a few years we'll be doing it all again, maybe better.

Several months ago, I reported on the campaign of my neighbor, Lewis, who decided to run for Missouri's state legislature. A farmer, a natural speaker, and a neighbor, he certainly had all the qualifications our neighborhood was looking for, but he didn't have money.

Lewis had an opponent in the Democratic primary, a well-funded drug lobbyist who owns a local pharmacy. The Republican opponent owns a gun shop and shooting range, and her husband is a bail bondsman. I could write a column about their citizen involvement, but suffice it to say that with the meth industry boom in mid-Missouri, and laws that insure that meth suspects get out on bond so they can cook another batch to pay the bondsman, he's doing fine.

So, Lewis had a tough fight ahead -- a well-financed fight from both the Ds and the Rs. For help, he called out the neighborhood.

Our food circle helped kick off his campaign with donations of local hams, breads, veggies and cooks. Lewis's nephew and brother put together a band for the event. They even asked my husband to join in with his fiddle.

The neighbors turned out, we had a jolly time. The guy who silk-screens t-shirts made yard signs and buttons, and we all picked some up.

Lewis gave a fine speech, remembering that his family had been well-served by government when his Dad had TB in the 1950s. Lewis introduced his slogan "A people person for a people-person job," and it was good enough for us.

Almost a month before the primary, the drug lobbyist started running ads in the paper. Big, quarter-page ads designed by a professional. His candidacy had been quietly endorsed by the incumbent, who professed neutrality, but in a neighborhood talk gets around. When the drug boy gave a speech, the big Demo-dogs showed up.

Our boy ran ads, too. Skinny columns telling the story of his life -- where he was born, who he married, what his kids were doing, what he raised on his farm, what off-farm jobs he'd had and so forth.

The drug lobbyist continued the newspaper ads, put some on the radio and sent out mailings. One day, we'd get a brochure in blue ink and the next day we'd get one in black ink, all with pictures of the lobbyist, his well-groomed lawyer wife and their fresh-scrubbed kids. The brochures showed him in the pharmacy, where he hadn't really worked in years since he was so busy influencing the capitol. We trusted him with our prescriptions, the brochures said, now we could trust him with our votes.

And, that guy had all the luck. When Lewis put signs in people's yards, the opponents put bigger ones next door. One week, the radio station gave air time to the candidates, and the line went down when Lewis spoke. When supporters turned out at rallies, the opponents got all the rich ones.

The word went around that the druggist was spending big on his campaign. Folks said $30,000, then it grew to $40,000. Lewis did well to raise a thousand from his relatives and neighbors.

When voting day finally came, I was thoroughly depressed. I voted, stood around at the polls for a few minutes talking to Lewis's aunt, who was passing out his literature. She was cheerful, but she was working at our neighborhood polling place. All she'd seen all day was supporters.

It takes a while for news to get from our county seat to the media, and we didn't hear the vote results on the news -- even the late news. The next morning, the campaign results for our county weren't reported on TV.

I was personally so bummed that I didn't call the courthouse to get the official word. Instead, I convinced myself that we'd lost and I spent the morning in a funk. Who would I vote for in the final election? The drug lobby or the gun lobby? Or would someone declare as a write-in?

That afternoon, I had to make a trip to town. And, in town, I saw my buddy Bryce. And he was wearing a big grin. "Can you believe it?" he said, "What are the odds?"

You guessed it. Our boy had won. And he'd won BIG -- two to one against the druggist. For a moment I let myself indulge in some good old glee -- the kind when something bad happens to somebody else, the Europeans call it Schadenfreude.

I found myself imagining the druggist angrily answering condolence calls in his kitchen, and I giggled. Then I imagined meeting his supporters on the street and rehearsed being sympathetic. What would he do now? Go back to lobbying?

"What are the odds?" as Bryce said. Well, when you have good neighbors the odds are higher. Lewis had supporters who worked for him. They made phone calls, handed out literature at the polls, and gave rides to other voters. Friends and neighbors, organized.

For the next weeks, people in my neighborhood walked on air. Even people with longstanding arguments broke into grins when they saw each other, nodded, then slapped backs and shook hands. "That was amazing," we said, "A people person for a people-person job!" And, with every telling, the odds against him seemed even bigger and the win more amazing until it took on the aspect of a kind of miracle.

After the win, money began to come in for Lewis -- little chunks from all over the county, and money from the party. A key loss in another race threw some money his way, politics is a crap shoot. So, this time, he had something for PR. At the same time, his opponent -- the gun woman -- has the support of most of the right. And the Rs are ahead in the national polls in our state.

Politics is a crap shoot. I'm writing this three weeks before the election. Last night, our Democratic Governor Carnahan, who had been stumping for a Senate seat, was killed in a plane crash, dashing our hopes for someone in Washington who will listen to farmers and consumers. What will that loss do to the dynamics of the campaigns? One pundit says the Missouri Ds won't even bother to vote

Will Lewis win the State seat? Maybe by the time you read this, we'll know. And it matters, a lot. But no matter how the election goes, Lewis's nomination was a wonderful thing our community did together.

And we can still do wonderful things.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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