Notes From the Road: Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail:
The Collection Plate
Scroll down to the very beginning of my campaign for Mayor of Savannah and you will find a thread of constant pleas for fellow Savannahians to join me in running for local office, including Mayor. When I was in school we were taught that public service was the obligation of every citizen in addition to our chosen path in life and that at some point we were expected to serve somebody, whether it was in the armed forces or government or social work. And I still insist that the election process should involve a full slate of candidates joined in spirited debate of the issues. But here we are, a scant six months out from the election, and we still have several seats going unchallenged, and I remain the only mayoral candidate.
One of the reasons why several prospective candidates have turned down the chance to run is simply a matter of money: they lack the funds to mount a race and see little chance of gaining contributions. No one saves up money to run a campaign unless they intend to make politics their profession. No one socks away a rainy day election fund. And I'm here to tell you, raising money to run against an entrenched incumbent is harder than tryin' to sandpaper a wildcat's ass in a telephone booth.
My daddy grew up in Savannah in the Thirties and Forties at a time when his father owned one of the most popular restaurant/bars in town. That my gran'daddy was also a bookie and bootlegger meant that he had more cash money than anybody else in Savannah, and my father remembers a steady stream of candidates beating a path to Bo Peep's Billiard Parlor in search of campaign contributions, from presidents and senators to congressmen and mayors. At one point my gran'daddy was one of the single largest contributors to the national Democrat party. Richard Russell, Ernest Vandiver, Marvin Griffin, Herman Talmadge all came to Savannah, hat in hand, to beg donations from my grandfather. Savannah Mayor Thomas Gamble practically kept an office inside Bo Peep's place. A famous photo of Senator Eugene Talmadge and Bo Peep taken at the pool room hangs in the main dining area of the Crystal Beer Parlor to this day.
My father also remembers the campaigns that he managed for Andy Young in the Seventies, after the reverend left the pulpit following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr and went into politics. Entire campaigns were won simply by rounding up all the prominent African-American ministers and paying them to get out the vote, a relatively simple thing to do in that there weren't that many prominent black preachers. It might require a donation in the collection plate or patching the roof of the sanctuary in order to secure these votes, but that's how elections were won by the first African-American politicians in Georgia; their election was bought and paid for.
Fast forward to 2015, Savannah is a very different place: there are now more than 2,000 local churches and just about everybody you meet is a reverend or a bishop or a prophetess. The biggest churches have seen their flock wander off in search of starting up their own faith-based enterprise and there isn't enough money under the sun to buy off all of the preachers. But here's the new dynamic that I find utterly fascinating: not only have thousands of people decided to start their own church, but just about everybody I meet on the street thinks that their vote is worth money and offers it to me for sale. Some of the more enterprising constituents offer to deliver other votes to me for as little as five bucks and as much as five hundred, depending on how large of a "radius" I want them to cover.
There was a time when candidates for public office canvassed the territory for votes and contributions. Entire campaigns were won on the strength of getting thousands of people to donate a dollar. But these days the script has been flipped and it's the voter who wants to be paid for their vote. They see no sense in a candidate paying a preacher to deliver a block of votes when the candidate can simply pay each parishioner; forget the preacher. Where it becomes especially treacherous in this tiny town is that no matter who I'm seen talking to, there are people who tell me I should avoid that person. Because there isn't enough money in circulation, everybody wants to cut out everybody else and get theirs. There was a time, back in my father's day, when the African-American community rallied behind a few preachers who were their spokesmen and the community was of a like mind. Those days are gone. Everyone I meet represents their own interests and its every man for himself; there are no more spokesmen, no power brokers, no organizers. The community itself is at war with one another over what they want from government and what they don't want. And when some of these organizers aren't trying to get over on me, they take advantage of each other.
Last time I passed around the collection plate for donations at a rally, the donations disappeared and I didn't get the plate back. At this rate, it's gonna cost me a million dollars to buy an election for a job that pays $50,000 a year for four years...