Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Messenger statement brings back memories

Thanks to Springfield News-Leader Editorial Page Editor Tony Messenger for the kind words about The Turner Report on his blog.
While writing about the impact money has on political races, Messenger wrote:

But I'm still enough of an idealist to believe that a hard working candidate has a chance to defeat the money.
That probably comes from growing up in Denver and being around during the Blizzard of '82 when a total unknown named Federico Pena rode the disaster of a snow storm to victory over two favored candidates and became one of the city's most famous mayors.

He is right on the money (pardon the pun) with that assessment, and it brought back memories of my own introduction to the world of politics when I was a junior at East Newton High School.
As a joke, we ran a senior, Wayne Johnson, as a candidate for the East Newton R-6 Board of Education as a write-in candidate. He lost, but we picked up eight votes and were hooked on politics.
School boards were small game, so we set our sights on the Newton County Court (what is now called the County Commission) and decided to run Wayne as a write-in candidate for Eastern District Judge. We launched the candidacy with a letter to the editor of the Neosho Daily News, signed by Wayne (written by me) in which we criticized the condition of county roads. That letter ended up being the start of a (mildly) historic campaign.
First, incumbent Bill O'Neal, who was getting a bit tired of the hassle of being a county judge, responded to the letter (getting us even more free publicity) and announced that if people weren't happy with the way he was doing things, he simply was not going to run for another term.
More importantly, Daily News reporter Bill Ball researched state laws and found there was absolutely nothing to prevent Wayne from having his name on the ballot. So 18-year-old Wayne Johnson, by now a freshman at Missouri Southern State College, was an official candidate.
We didn't spend a lot of time raising money; all we did was work. We bought cards and a few signs and bumper stickers, but that was about it. We took advantage of every freebie we could get. Wayne was in a political science class at MSSC which gave credit to students who helped with political campaigns so for a short time in the spring we had extra manpower.
Naturally, Wayne's quixotic campaign was a publicity magnet with all of the area's newspapers providing free coverage. But for the most part the campaign work during that summer of 1974 was done by four people; Wayne, his girlfriend (now wife) Rhonda Trammell, Gary Judd, an MSSC student from Granby, and me. We campaigned in every community in the eastern part of Newton County, including an area that had been mostly untouched until that time, Joplin.
Our opposition in the Democratic primary was the better known mayor of Fairview, Dick Harter. Harter took us too lightly, did not get out to campaign and we handily won the primary.
We took the same approach in the fall, again going door-to-door, talking to people and making sure they knew who Wayne Johnson was and what he stood for. Age is starting to hit me and I can't recall who his general election opponent was (and I'm not in the mood to dig around in my old papers to find it). He was from Joplin and it seems like his first name was Larry. He, too, never campaigned, except for appearances at the party function. When November came, we had run a cost-effective campaign, spending only a few hundred dollars, and Wayne Johnson became the youngest officeholder in Missouri history.
I have thought about that campaign from time to time. It is still workable in an area the size of eastern Newton County, but can a candidate win in this media era in a larger area without money?
The answer is yes, though it isn't easy. You need to have a qualified candidate who is willing to work, has the imagination to garner free publicity (and knows how to work the Internet) and has the issues on his or her side.


Anonymous said...

What's the rest of the story?

If memory serves me correctly, the young man had a lackluster term - doing very little, if anything, for his constituents and nothing unusual or outstanding. I don't think he stayed in office and I don't believe has stayed in politics elsewhere.

I'm sure it was a fun and ego-filled trip for the young man, but did it serve much of anything else? (other than the usual answer that some will say about how it "inspired" other young people)

Do you know where he is now and what he's doing?
It would be interesting to know what he is doing now.

Randy said...

Not all stories have happy endings. By the time his first (and only) term ended, he had married and decided to go for a job that paid more money, county clerk. That was the same time former County Collector Bob Bridges decided to get back into elected office and he easily won. I did not help with that campaign since by that time Wayne had been properly schooled by the Democratic party in Newton County on how to win an election. If I had helped, I have no doubt he still would have lost. The last I heard of him he was selling cars in Broken Arrow, Okla. and had left politics behind. The political landscape is littered with the Wayne Johnsons, Joe Teasdales, and Bubs Hohulins who surprise everyone and win election to office simply because they are willing to work and take a chance when others say they cannot win, while other, often more qualified but less adventurous candidates, never run because they are waiting for the perfect time or to have a certain amount of money in the bank before they are willing to file.