ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL is the third story in the serialization of Neil Rolde’s Political Tales: Stories from a Veteran Politician.
Mr. Rolde is a Maine renowned historian, former politician and, philanthropist. His many years of public service include being an assistant to Governor Kenneth M. Curtis for six years and 16 years as Representative in the Legislature. The book is published by Polar Bear & Company. 175 pages, $12.95 ISBN:978-1-882190-27-0
“The stories were engaging – reminding an insider of the ‘old days,’ and giving an outside observer a good sense of what truly goes on behind the scenes. It certainly brought me back to the days when I was sitting in one of those leather chairs, hearing the gavel come down and wondering what was about to happen next!”
-Congresswoman Chellie Pingree
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
By Neil Rolde
“Breakfast” at Warner’s Motel in Warnerstown was one of those lobby affairs. You know, a card table holding containers of orange juice, a toaster, sliced bread, little boxes of cereal, little pots of jam and pads of butter, teabags, hot water, and a coffee flask. Milk and sugar were provided, too, but no packets of sweetener. This latter fact drew a quick grimace of disapproval from John Harrison. He was a coffee man, but at his age, also sensitive about his weight.
White plastic utensils, confined to knives and spoons, had been stacked in an open paper cup. Harrison took one of each. Unhappy, he stood and drank some OJ, consumed a single slice of toasted bread he smeared with jam, sipped his java and consoled himself that this two-bit repast was included in the price of the room. At least he didn’t have to pay extra on his campaign expense account for such substandard fare.
When finally he went to check out, he again faced the cadaverously gaunt, toothless, horse-faced night clerk who’d booked him in around midnight. Harrison was always grumpy when he hadn’t had a full eight hours sleep. The mere sight of Bud was an annoyance equally as irritating as these seedy surroundings. Somehow most grating was that old-man’s sweater of his, the grey cardigan, tattered, threadbare, and food-stained. But ever the politician, the smiling salesman, Harrison had been civil if laconic to him previously and was planning to be civil now.
“Up early, ain’tcha?” Bud greeted him. “Gittin’ an early start?”
Handing over a credit card, Harrison was pleasant enough in response. “Right,” he said. “Got a lot to do in this town today. Political business.”
“Still wearin’ your button, ain’tcha, I see,” Bud remarked, presenting a slip to sign and a receipt.
Harrison’s hand went automatically to his suit coat jacket, touched the round metal pin attached to his lapel, and he grinned almost sheepishly. “Forgot I had it on.”
“Yuh, I seen them pins around town.” Bud squinted at the lettering. “Alexander for Congress. What’s his last name? Alexander what?”
“No, Ted Alexander. That’s his last name, Alexander.” Harrison patiently launched into a speech, a pitch. “Listen, Bud, that’s why I’m here today. Helping out on Ted’s campaign. I’m a retired salesman. I think so much of Ted, I’ve volunteered. They only pay my expenses.” After a pause, his spiel continued. “In about ten minutes, I’m meeting Ike McManus. You must know Ike?”
Bud merely said, “Everybody knows Ike McManus.”
“And does everybody like Ike?” Harrison replied and grinned again, aware of his little joke.
The desk clerk made a thumbs-up gesture. “Ike’s good people.”
“Hey, I got an idea!” Harrison abruptly exclaimed. “We’re going to brighten up that sweater of yours.” The Ted Alexander pin had a bright green enamel background and printing in gold. Quick as a wink, the salesman had it unfastened and, reaching over, adorning the grubby grey cardigan. “There, now you’re properly dressed,” he said. “And, believe me, Bud, Ted Alexander will really appreciate your help. And Ike McManus, too. And, you know, if we can ever help you— Hey, I got another idea!” He reached into a side pocket of his jacket and took out what in the political world is known as a “palm card.” It had Ted Alexander’s photo on it and wording on both sides and green-and-gold trim. “I’ll write my name and cell phone number on this,” which he proceeded to do, then gazed up at Bud, adding, “And, you know, I’ve got still another idea, too. Let me leave a bunch of these with you.” Out of the same pocket came a full stack of these handouts that he plunked on the counter. “I’m sure you get people from the district staying here. Urge them to take one of Ted’s cards.”
Bud’s helpful reply was, “Well, I go off at eight. But I’ll leave ’em right there for folks. An’ I’ll take a few to the neighborhood, too.”
“Good man, Bud. And thanks for wearing our colors.”
“Okay, Mr. Harrison,” said the desk clerk, and his toothless smile would have been unnerving to look at, but Harrison had already fully turned, heading back through the lobby to his room for his suitcase and overcoat.
It was October and chilly, even in his overnight quarters. They were not overly generous about supplying heat, whoever ran this dump now. What a difference from the days when old man Warner owned these premises. But the patriarch was dead, and his son, Peter Warner III—Pete, to everyone—had lost no time unloading the motel. So Harrison was remembering as he gathered his belongings. Also that he’d be seeing Pete today—several times, too. Also that it felt good to “get back in the saddle again.”
The suitcase went into the trunk of his car. As the motor warmed up, Harrison sat and stared out the front windshield for a full two minutes.
He was doing several things. Watching the light of the sunrise—but most of all silently strategizing.
He had refused to consider himself a spy; “trouble-shooter” was a more honorable title, and perhaps he was arriving as a savior—for Ike McManus. The word had come to headquarters that Ike, good old reliable Ike, was a disaster for the party this year in Warnerstown. That news was coming from a big-shot like Pete Warner III, who was a power on the Democratic State Committee. Harrison had been told, “Get down there, Johnny-boy. See if it’s really true.”
It didn’t have to be said that Pete Warner was not exactly a beloved, selfless, dedicated party stalwart without an agenda of his own. Nor could anyone claim that John Harrison ever had a personal axe to grind.
His hand was never out, he might boast. And he had to admit, as he put the Chevy into reverse, that he had a soft spot in his heart for his pal Ike McManus, the same sort of loyal selfless party worker he was. Nevertheless, he had promised to be ruthlessly objective regarding this assignment.
The heart of the municipality itself lay to the east of church spires thrust above roofs and the jutting profile of the four-story, red-brick factory to which he was headed, streets crisscrossing and traffic lights and office buildings—all in miniature from this distance—fringed by a forest, the morning light just hitting on maple leaves of gold, scarlet, and especially tangerine orange. Like many mill communities around New England, Warnerstown had its picturesque pockets amid the dross of old-fashioned-looking industrialism.
Old man Warner had been a district judge, Harrison now recalled, and his father before him, and God knows how many generations went back to the eighteenth-century co-founder of the settlement, who had the ridiculous Yankee first name of Eliphalet. His descendants (on the female side) still lived there in the closest approximation of a mansion, the sprawling, white-painted, black-shuttered, ex-farmhouse that had been gentrified over the years into a truly dominating showplace. This same afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Wamer III would be hosting a tea and reception there for Mrs. Theodore Alexander, the congressional candidate’s spouse.
That was on one side of town, The correct side of the tracks, Harrison thought. The other half was the Ike McManus country he would soon be entering, as he passed a certain corner-ma-and-pa grocery store, where he’d campaigned on several occasions. Were he not in a hurry to arrive at the main plant gate, he’d stop in to see the Swieckis, the elderly Slavic couple who’d run that local hangout since time immemorial. As a matter of fact, he would pay them a visit on the way back—if nothing else, to see if Ike had stocked them with brochures and pins. Once—and it was years ago—Ike hadn’t done so, Harrison had to admit.
Watch that, Harrison suddenly warned himself, catching his first glimpse of the factory’s wire fence several blocks ahead. His meaning, clear as a bell to him, was, Beware of favoritism; don’t cut Ike any slack. His own pride and joy was in being a pro, even if technically an amateur who went on the campaign trail strictly as a volunteer. Ike McManus, the “old Mick,” was made from the same cloth. It was too tempting to be automatically sympathetic. This campaign stuff was really Ike’s whole life, otherwise he was just another guy, now retired, who had held a county job, raised three kids (all college grads), lived quietly with an ailing wife, and went to mass every Sunday morning, or was it Saturday night.
Today was Monday. Back to work for everyone. Harrison couldn’t help but remember how amazed he’d been discovering the eagerness of workers to show up for their jobs—some coming earlier than this God-awful dawn hour, just to schmooze with their fellow employees. It was like that was their only life. Also, as he drove down Mill Street, another observation struck home. Signs! Campaign signs! Almost every ramshackle house he passed had a poster on its lawn displaying Ted Alexander’s green-and-gold colors. The cars in the driveways or parked along the thoroughfare, Harrison noted, also bore an unusually heavy preponderance of green-gold stickers on their bumpers.
Okay, he said to himself, and this isn’t favoritism, Ike has got our material out big-time.
Full disclosure, though, meant not entirely crediting Ike. This was also the union’s territory. Ike wasn’t a union official. But he’d been the political power—boss, if you like—on the east side of Warnerstown since time immemorial. And the east side was where the party’s voters were. Just as the Warnerstown returns would carry Warner County, the east side could make or break the totals in Warnerstown. To a large degree, so would go the congressional district. However you sliced it, the east side of Warnerstown more often than not proved pivotal.
Parking was inside the main gate. Visitors needed a pass for the security guard, and Ike had personally mailed him one (another show of efficiency?). As soon as the visitors’ lot came into view, Ike’s pickup truck could be seen. Two huge plywood signs, hand painted green and gold, decorated its back panels.
Harrison parked next to it. A good crop of Ted Alexander stickers were visible too, Harrison saw, as he walked toward the steps that served as a principal entryway to the factory. He soon made out figures on the landing, among them the short stature of Ike McManus amid some bigger guys.
“Johnny-boy!” The small man’s boom-box of a voice belied his size. He was barrel chested and muscular and had been a boxer in his youth, a bantamweight. Despite his age, his movements were still lithe, his footwork quick. Down the stairs he bounded to greet his old friend. These two elderly guys hugged. Both had white hair and both were hatless, although Harrison wore a knitted scarf. “Geez, Johnny-boy,” Ike remarked, indicating the newcomer’s bared head. “I’m surprised Margie don’t make you wear at least a baseball cap to keep the heat in.”
Touching his scalp, Harrison joked, “I still got some natural covering, Ike.” Then added, “You, too, you ageless Celt,” indicating Ike’s snowy top.
“We don’t get any older, Johnny-boy.”
“Still on the job, too, and I love seeing Ted’s green and gold everywhere.”
To which Ike replied, “Well, we’re doing it like gangbusters with this new crew o’ mine.”
The crew, to whom Harrison was introduced, were union guys, shop stewards mostly, all young fellows. Ike then got busy directing them, splitting up the boxes of materials they had with them—buttons, brochures, stickers, etc.—and sending teams out to other parts of the building, where some of the workers would enter. Once they had dispersed, Ike let Harrison know how the company was looking the other way about all this politicking, because Ted had done a number of favors for them when he was in the state Legislature.
“Boy, that’s sure a change from the old days,” Harrison commented.
“Tons o’ changes,” Ike said. “Ever since the union got rid o’ Arty-boy.”
“So Arthur got dumped!” Harrison sounded incredulous. “Good Christ, I never heard about it.”
“Done quietly,” Ike explained. “Replaced him with my buddy Paul Dudzik—Pug Dudzik, remember him?”
“Civil war among the Eastern Europeans,” said Harrison with a grin.
“Palace coup, Johnny-boy, and I suspect they sent you to check it out, ’cause Pete Warner’s spreading tales to try to reinstate his old puppet.”
Ike had piercing blue eyes, and as he stood on the landing with Harrison, they fastened on the other man, as if demanding an answer.
Harrison grinned again. “Hell, Ike, I just came to help you give away brochures,” he said and reached into an open box to grab a handful of them.
“Yeah, and I’m the Queen Mother,” said Ike. “You are seeing him, right?”
“For lunch, Ike. And at his reception later for Wilma Alexander.”
“Okay, but remember, Johnny, you and I go back a long ways.”
“Why do we do it, Ike? Why do we volunteer so much of our time?”
“For the excitement, Johnny-boy,” was Ike’s jaunty answer. Whereupon he drew Harrison’s attention to the stream of cars now beginning to enter the parking area. The new shift was arriving. “Here they come!”
It was an iron-clad rule of campaigning that you only “did a gate” when the workers arrived to begin their shift. When they were leaving, it was useless—they were in too much of a hurry to go home. Even in the morning, only a few would linger to talk before they had to get to their machines. Many more would stomp by, glaring, and Harrison remembered certain “soreheads” who had taken brochures and ripped them up defiantly before entering the building. Inside, he knew too from past experience, a wastebasket would be stuffed with much of the material they’d handed out. At a number of plants, he and his helpers had gone back afterward and retrieved the undamaged discards for recycling.
So it went here today. It was like a whirlwind, lasting half an hour, the flood of workers building to a crescendo, then lessening to a straggle of latecomers. Meanwhile, there were genuine signs of support for their candidate: “He’s my man,” “Ted’s got my vote,” etc., and friendship for Ike himself, “Dawgone you old Mick, you know I always vote with you,” or “Give Mary Ellen my love,” guys pinning on buttons, guys asking for stickers. Harrison could feel the momentum in the air.
A postmortem on the event was held in a neighborhood east-side bar, the two men having a cup of coffee, Ike supplementing his with a draft beer. After several sips from the glass mug, the Irishman said to Harrison, “I trust you’ll report to Pete Warner I’m enjoying my usual morning libation.”
“Why should I?” asked Harrison warily.
“You must know, Johnny-boy? The story he’s peddling to the party mucky-mucks is how I’m a total lush these days. Do you think that’s the case?”
“Hardly,” said Harrison.
“So what’s your report gonna be? That it was still early morning and McManus was quaffing a beer?”
“You wouldn’t be drinking in front of me if you thought I would,” Harrison laughed. “No, they’ll learn you’ve put on a helluva show this far.”
The two of them proceeded to discuss Ike’s plan for getting out the vote and names of key people for verification. “Too bad Pug Dudzik won’t be back before you have your luncheon with Pete and listen to his BS,” Ike added. Soon he finished his beer and coffee and told Harrison, “Now, I got to get back to my dear sainted bride, Mary-Ellen, and find out if she needs anything.”
“In that case, I won’t see you again until this afternoon at Pete’s,” Harrison replied blithely. “I think the reception starts around five o’clock.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Ike shot back.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Harrison’s tone was truly shocked. “You’re not going to the reception for Wilma? Just because it’s at Pete’s house?”
“No, just because I wasn’t invited.”
The salesman literally gasped. It wasn’t that such things were unheard of; on the contrary, egotistical intraparty spats like this had ruined many a campaign.
“Well, we’ll do something about that,” he said, removing his cell phone from a jacket pocket.
“No, no, no!” Ike held up his hands. “I don’t go where I’m not wanted.”
Hesitating, Harrison made no attempt to punch a number. Despite Ike’s protest, he knew the Irishman well enough to realize a certain duplicity behind his words. Something dangerous was afoot.
Thus when he made his first call on those whom Ike had told him to see, going to the shop of a woman who ran a beauty parlor, one of the party’s most faithful members on the east side, he made sure he said, “I suppose I’ll see you this afternoon, too, at the reception for Mrs. Alexander.”
“No, you won’t,” was the beautician’s response; her opening friendliness vanished into a sudden hard-eyed look.
But her sunny nature reappeared once she gushed over the “super job” Ike McManus and Pug Dudzik were doing with the party this campaign year.
Everywhere else he went Harrison had similar experiences, whether it was from those old Slavs in the ma-and-pa grocery store (yes, Ike had left them plenty of material) or a young carpenter and his wife who lived near the factory or a dozen or so senior-center members, no one was turning out for Wilma Alexander. A silent boycott was in effect, and its unspoken target was Peter Warner III. At any rate, poor Mrs. Alexander faced an embarrassing mortification.
Finally Harrison’s cell phone came out of his pocket again. He was parked in the lot downtown, owned by the law firm of Warner and Warner, and he had about fifteen minutes until his scheduled appointment to pick up Pete.
Ordinarily, this would have been enough time to straighten out matters. But now he learned in a call to the office that his “boss,” Rufus Simmons, Ted’s campaign manager, had gone to lunch, and an attempt to locate him on his cell phone proved a failure. The best he could do was tell the voice mail, “Rufe, reach me on my cell as soon as you get this message. We got trouble in Warnerstown, big-time.”
Only afterward did it occur to him that a return call might come while he was lunching with Pete. Well, he’d simply have to excuse himself and go off to alert the campaign brass. Of course, rumors were that Warner wanted Ted Alexander to lose, that the lawyer had his eye on running two years hence. Going eventually into the Warner building, Harrison was contemplating this Machiavellian possibility and determining to thwart it.
The law office quarters were what you would expect from the premier firm in the shire town. Plush chairs, expensive wood paneling, and a trim, elegant secretary who told the visitor, “Mr. Warner will be so glad to see you, Mr. Harrison. As soon as he’s off his call, I’ll tell him you’re here. Please take a seat.”
Consequently, there was time to reexamine the framed photographs on the walls. He could do it while sitting—a who’s who of state politics: governors, U.S. senators, congressmen, state office holders of note, all with penned messages to old man Warner or his son. Harrison had seen most of these memorabilia on earlier trips, and he now amused himself by trying to identify those faces, many of whom he personally knew.
Suddenly, Peter Warner III was standing in the waiting room, saying, “My old friend John Harrison, who’s known me since I was a little boy, welcome.”
Warner was now a grown man in his mid-thirties, lithe and lean—and bald, but with the scrupulously groomed type of shiny pate that gave him a distinguished air. He was dressed to the nines, all in pearl-grey pinstripe, brightened by a scarlet-red power tie and a rakish white flower in his buttonhole. The impression was of a sleek, modern gent on the rise, yet somehow aristocratically old-fashioned, too.
“Come in my office. I want to show you something,” he said, beckoning to Harrison who had risen from his seat.
There were more pictures on the walls inside. Many were from Pete’s father’s day. It was indeed a photo of the senior Mr. Warner that Pete singled out. “Do you recognize any of those guys with him?” he asked.
Harrison chuckled a bit and pointed at a slender young man standing in the background, “I’d know that character anywhere.”
“You actually haven’t changed that much,” Pete said. “A little heavier, a little greyer. You’ve obviously been taking good care of yourself.”
Harrison knew he was being soft-soaped by the lawyer. He suspected, too, that the picture had been hung there especially on his account. In it as well was Pete, who looked maybe ten years old, and several local pols, most now dead, but including Arthur Moduleski, even then exhibiting signs of the obese, dissipated labor leader he would become. “Brings back loads of memories,” Harrison remarked, because he intuited he was expected to say so.
But he wasn’t going to be swayed by sentimentality. At lunch, which was in the nicest restaurant in Warnerstown, Pete opened an offensive meant to play, in his words, on John Harrison’s “close relationship” with the Warner family. It was not altogether an exaggeration. Harrison had gone on fishing trips with the patriarch. Every Christmas they’d exchanged cards. And there was nothing untoward about the relationship; their business was solely about the local fortunes of the party they both supported. As Pete rambled on about the good old days, the veteran political troubleshooter saw where he was headed. Stuff about “the breakdown of party solidarity,” “little men with big ambitions,” “no respect for tradition,” flowed out of the lawyer’s mouth. Only after a full five minutes of this did he mention Artie Moduleski.
“We’re going to lose the whole goddamned Eastern European vote without him in charge,” Pete declared. “All the squareheads—which as you know, they call themselves.”
“Really? The squareheads? The Slavic people?”
“And the union vote, too. Forget it.”
“Really?” Harrison retorted again.
Soon, Peter Warner III caught on. “You don’t believe me. Those guys like Rufus Simmons at headquarters running Ted’s campaign, they don’t want to face what a god-awful mess is brewing for Ted in this city.”
Harrison’s response was nothing if not brutally blunt. “Is that why you failed to invite Ike McManus to your reception this afternoon? Allowing you to report no one showed up?”
“That’s a frigging lie!” Warner exploded. “You can tell that damned Mick I said so. We’ve got a damned good crowd coming without him and Dudzik.”
“You’d better,” Harrison warned.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Harrison told him, “Look, you sandbag Ted’s wife and the word’ll be out you’re nothing but a backstabber wanting to run for the seat next time. Christ, they might even kick you off the State Committee. Listen Pete, I’ve been all over this town this morning, and I’ve yet to meet one person who’s coming to your house. They’re apeshit about the way you snubbed Ike and Pug.”
The lawyer appeared flustered, red-faced. “Well . . . that was my . . . well—wife’s doing. She doesn’t like either guy. Finds them crude, not suited for a gathering in her parlor.”
“Sure. Yeah—and Arty Moduleski, the big slob, is.”
Their waitress, bringing them the lunch plates, interrupted that discussion. Pete Warner gloomily ate, silent for several minutes.
“What should I do, Johnny?” the elegant, bald man finally asked.
“Invite Ike and Pug,”
“Are you kidding? They’ll laugh right in my face.”
“Leave that to me. I’ll talk to Ike.”
“But it’s so last minute.”
“I know. Thank God for cell phones.”
Harrison produced his, then took the apparatus with him into the foyer. While he paced and talked to Ike, he could see Pete Warner at the table staring in his direction.
The deal on the phone was consummated in relative short order. Ike had always been a team player. His only caveat was that some of the Union guys’ wives might be miffed because they wouldn’t have a chance to get their hair done.
“I’d still bet on you and Pug getting them there,” said Harrison.
“You’ll make money on us, Johnny-boy,” said Ike. “Which means you’ll receive an A-plus on your report card about me.”
Upon his return to the table he told Pete, “You’ll have a crowd.”
As it happened, the turnout was spectacular. At any political event, the size of the attendance is the barometer of success or failure. It always reflects on the host and guest of honor. Could they draw a crowd?
Certainly, the throng that filled the home of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Warner III that afternoon was overflowing. Ike McManus even brought his wife in her wheelchair, an arrival greeted by prolonged applause. Later, the Irishman told Harrison in a low whisper, “Would you believe Mary Ellen’s never been here, never was invited with me, even when old man Warner ruled the roost, and you bet she wouldn’t pass up a chance to see the inside o’ the manor.” Grand, it undeniably was—a genuine showplace. The party was catered, light hors d’oeuvres served by local girls in waitress outfits, and a choice of beer, wine, and soft drinks dispensed by a bartender. There was also coffee, which was all that Harrison drank.
In the old days, he most certainly would have had a “pop” or two before he drove home. Now, at his age, any alcohol made him sleepy, and he was already feeling a bit tired. This was work, having to schmooze with these people and be charming, friendly, stay alert to nuances and try to remember identities of Warnerstown folk he had met in the past. To be sure, Pete had provided nametags, but the printing was hard to read without squinting. Naturally, figures like big, fat Arty Moduleski needed no advertising. He greeted Harrison with a smack on the shoulder from the rear. Not exactly a love tap, either, although he was smiling when Harrison swung around to discover who’d struck him.
“Long time no see, Johnny,” was his greeting.
“That’s right, Arty,” Harrison replied coolly.
“Well, I sincerely hope your visit will bear fruit,” said the ex-union leader, almost making it sound like a threat.
“Nice crowd here,” Harrison meaningfully rejoined. “Looks like Warnerstown and the whole of Warner County may well be in our pocket this year—for a change.”
“Remains to be seen,” Arty muttered and drifted off.
That was one dimension of the petty power struggle at work here. Upon the arrival of Mrs. Alexander and all the hullabaloo and excitement that erupted and her delight over the numbers at the gathering, Harrison had an inkling of further complications. While Peter Warner was introducing the guest of honor to a now hushed assembly, the salesman was standing next to Ike McManus, who asked him in a whisper, “When will you be in touch with Rufe?”
“I actually tried before lunch and left a message for him to call me on my cell,” Harrison whispered back. “Nothing yet.”
“Call again. Remind Rufe he hasn’t named a local campaign chair here.”
Interrupting them was Wilma Alexander’s speech, touting her husband, and the two men listened politely and joined in the loud applause at the end. Without missing a beat, Harrison picked up where they’d left off. “Which chair did you want from Rufe?” he asked. “Warnerstown or Warner County?”
“Both,” said Ike. “I think I deserve ’em both.”
“I think you do!” Harrison agreed with a chuckle.
“See what you can do for me, Johnny-boy.”
The vagaries, the twists and turns on the campaign trail, were nowhere more evident than in the next twenty minutes. John Harrison knew he’d better get a phone call into headquarters, containing at least a message for Rufus Simmons, if he still happened not to be there. Something to the effect of, “Ike wants both jobs, head of the county and the city, too, for Ted.”
But where to call from was his first conundrum. A delicate discussion of this sort needed a quiet setting. A room upstairs in the mansion was his first thought until he realized he’d need Pete’s permission. Too risky, he soon decided. How about going outside and getting into his parked car?
Overcoat-less, he felt the cold as soon as he opened the front door. But inside his Chevy, having turned the heat on, he rang up the number and waited for an assistant to answer. Amazingly, the voice he heard was that of Rufe, himself.
His boss had caller ID. “Hey, Johnny-boy, I was planning to reach you. How bad is the problem?”
Harrison’s instinctive answer was, “Not as dire as I thought it might be.” There followed a rather long narrative of events, particularly how he’d honchoed a face-saving rescue of the reception from the disaster it could have been for Wilma and consequently for Ted.
Silence greeted him immediately afterward. Finally, Rufus said, “Well, we heard things a bit differently.”
“Smash success. Great job by Pete and Arty Moduleski.”
“Who the hell said that?”
“Who the hell is Pat?”
“Wilma’s staffer. She phoned us from Pete’s house. Full of praise for him and Arty. What a turnout! What a job they’d done!”
Harrison kept his motor running so he’d continue to have heat. Both front side windows were opened a crack, quixotically, as if to avoid carbon monoxide. And it was still light, although the autumn days had grown ever shorter. The salesman had listened to Rufus like hearing a disembodied voice. What an unbelievable foul-up! He actually found he was sweating, for Rufe finished by announcing, “Since Pete some time ago asked to run Ted’s campaign in Warner County, we’ve decided to appoint him.”
“And in Warnerstown, itself?” Harrison asked.
“Arty. Any objections?”
“You’re goddamned right I object,” Harrison shot back. Some sweet young thing who’s probably still wearing a training bra gushes over something she knows absolutely nothing about and you guys go batty. Have you made any commitments yet? Pray to God you haven’t.”
Rufe didn’t answer right away.
“What would you suggest doing, Johnny-boy?”
“Toss those two suckers in the shit can. Put your money on Ike and Pug.”
“Maybe it’s too late. Patty told us Wilma was so pleased; she wanted Pete to run everything. No doubt she told him so.”
“Rufe, there would have been less than ten people there had Ike not intervened. And once you anger him, he can cause incredible harm.”
Again, silence at the other end of the connection.
If politics is the art of compromise, then John Harrison was a veteran practitioner, sensing it was time to put out a feeler for a middle way. “All right, Rufe, how about this?”
As he spoke, he was aware that people were leaving the party. Cars around him in the parking area were driving off. The plan he proposed to Rufus Simmons was simple enough. Put Ike McManus in charge of Warnerstown itself. Let Pete be given the rest of the county, which didn’t amount to much, after you subtracted the county seat. And the brilliant part of his compromise, if he didn’t say so himself, was to make Pug Dudzik second-in-command of the county under Pete.
After letting this idea sink in, he continued, “What about Arty, you might well ask. Easy. Don’t do anything. Remember, the union voted him out and Pug in, so Pug is the official union leader here in Warnerstown and elsewhere. You don’t want to try to override a union vote. See whether Arty can be a good soldier.”
Well, to make a long story short, John Harrison was able to convince Rufus, who could speak for all of the brass. Harrison was to smooth out any ruffled feathers and get everyone on the same page. The salesman turned off his motor and hurried back into the manor house to get his overcoat.
Just inside the front door, in a sort of hallway, he came upon Ike McManus and his wife, who were on the verge of exiting. One of the young union guys was pushing Mary Ellen in her wheelchair, which gave Harrison a chance to draw Ike aside for a moment’s chat.
There is no point in going over everything they said to each other. The key element was the deal that Johnny-boy had worked out. To his own surprise, the Irishman was immediately amenable, and no mention was made of his having wanted total power. Perhaps he thought he had it under this arrangement. The final exchange between the two men was as follows.
Ike said, “I’m glad you showed up today, Johnny-boy. Us old-timers still know a thing or two, don’t we?” To which, Harrison replied, “You betcha, Ike. Why we keep on banging our heads like this is still beyond me. Guess we just love the action.”
Replying, Ike laughed first. “And the pay ain’t bad, is it, Mr. Harrison.”
“Well, we sometimes get expenses.”
Finally, before they shook hands, Ike said, “I meant to tell you. Remember that old guy at the motel, the one everybody calls Bud? The night man, right? You pinned one of Ted’s buttons on him. You know that SOB has never voted in his life, but now he says he’s gonna sign up and give Ted his vote, thanks to you.”
“I guess that means we’re winning one-to-nothing,” Harrison said with a laugh of his own, and the two men, both smiling, shook hands.
Next, once he had procured his overcoat, the volunteer troubleshooter sought out Peter Warner III. A last loose end. Without preamble or excuse, he spelled out what Rufus Simmons had accepted. Pete would have the county, Ike the city, and Pug Dudzik would be Pete’s backup.
“Fair enough, I suppose,” was the lawyer’s only comment.
Harrison took this remark for acquiescence. Too open-ended, he realized, back behind the wheel, ready to ride off. Like politics itself, full of ambiguity.
Well, so what, he thought. Maybe that’s why he liked the game so much. It never seemed to have an ending. Election would follow election, and there was always interesting work to be done, new stuff, unlike his humdrum salesman’s routine.
Soon, John Harrison was on his way to the Interstate, headed home. But until the last rabbits-warren of city houses was behind him, he was glancing at familiar duplex residences and at least several single-story ranch houses. One of them had a man on the lawn, still mowing the grass. He was a muscular fellow, wearing a red-and-black checked lumberjack’s woolen shirt. With a slight squeal of his tires, Harrison pulled up at the curbing and lowered his window. “Mr. Jarvis,” he called, and when he had the other person’s attention, “do you remember me?”
The man cut his motor, came over and said, “Why it’s you, Mr. Harrison.”
Pleased, Johnny-boy said, “You’ve got a good memory, Mr. Jarvis.”
“No one forgets a favor like you did for me,” said Jarvis.
“Well, would you do a favor for me now in return?” Harrison asked, and then requested that he put out a lawn sign for Ted Alexander after he finished mowing.
A moment of hesitation left Harrison in suspense. “I don’t know much about him,” Jarvis replied.
“Ted’s top notch,” Harrison said. “Take it from me. If you ever need a favor again, he’ll be there for you, and I’ll be on his case if he doesn’t.”
“If you say so, Mr. Harrison. Sure. Why not!”
With that, Harrison took materials from his car, and they placed the sign on an already mowed section, where it had great visibility. Jarvis even asked for more signs, which he would prod his neighbors to display and also seek their votes.
Although unseen by the salesman, these actions later did take place, he was to learn from Ike.
Thus, the final image he took with him out of Warnerstown was of a partly mowed lawn and on it, tacked to both sides of a wooden stake, the green-and-gold cardboard exhortation to send Ted Alexander to Congress.
It seemed as proud as any banner rippling in the breeze. Or so Johnny-boy Harrison thought, while telling himself, What a glorious day I’ve had on the campaign trail!