Except for a four-day break to study and then sit for the Oklahoma Bar exam, each day of the summer and fall after my graduation from law school was the same as all the others. Before daylight would stretch itself across the old, aspirational “Indian Territory” that hugs Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas, my work hours had already begun to link themselves one to another like freight cars on a long-haul journey. Each hour spent doing my part of a successful statewide team effort to return an Army veteran from Tulsa to the United States Senate.
My part of the 1996 campaign had me working Oklahoma’s northeastern 20 counties. And it would often be long after dark before my work train could stop for the night. I might, for example, have a 10 pm meeting at an all-night coffee shop near Ft. Smith, Arkansas before I could start the return trip to Tulsa, where I could see my family and get a few hours’ sleep ahead of another meeting or event or trip to a rural airfield to pick up the Senator for one or more of his campaign-related appointments.
It had been that sort of day when, on a sultry evening before the Oklahoma primaries, I pulled into an overstuffed dirt parking lot next to a large steel building that housed a volunteer fire department south of Tahlequah, capital city of the Cherokee nation.
Our campaign had signs. We had organization. We had consultants. We had experience and money. We had relationships. And we were led by a former U.S. Naval attaché and oilman who for decades brought together Oklahoma Republicans and Democrats for pro-business policies. As U.S. Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK4) said when Herb died two years after that 1996 campaign, “There are very few people with that much political influence that the public didn’t know.”
The Republican senator’s re-election campaign also had the benefit of creative ad folks who with a single TV spot could bump our candidate up or down in the polls overnight. Between a well-executed statewide media strategy and the early days of political campaigns exploiting the internet, the statewide campaign that was paying me sometimes left me to wonder if Lyndon Johnson’s aphorism that “all politics is local” was still true.
My primary task on that campaign was to coordinate volunteer activities among several interest groups comprised of many “blue dog” Democrats and fewer, generally socially conservative, Republicans who occupied part or all of three U.S. House districts. With the exceptions of the Tulsa metropolitan area and, to a lesser degree, Bartlesville and Muskogee, the area is primarily rural. Pro-military. Pro-2nd Amendment. Pro-God. Passionate, hard-working patriots who were already in 1996 getting buffeted by blows from the globalization of business.
The folks there came by their strict law-and-order sensibilities honestly. As I explained when I wrote about a KIA Cherokee “Delta Force” operator from one of those twenty counties,
“For the ancestors of the area’s current residents – family whose stories get passed down from one generation to the next – living in Indian Territory meant living with little, if any, meaningful law enforcement. And the law officers they did have kept getting killed. The National Park Service reports that from 1875 – 1896, 65 Deputy U.S. Marshals were killed in the line of duty in “Indian Territory.”
I gave speeches, kept an eye on “the other guy” and reported back. It was my job to represent the candidate at parades, rattlesnake roundups, peach festivals, and calf fry festivals. On the days when the Senator was scheduled for campaign business in my corner of the state, it was my job – personally or by delegating – to make sure that he got where he needed to go, met with the media or others he was scheduled to see, and to get him out of town quick enough to give him a shot at staying on schedule and maybe getting some time with family.
It was also my job to speak for the Senator at pie auctions.
I don’t recall the first Oklahoma pie auction I attended. But whether the first or last, they all had a common theme: some local organization seizes the opportunity during an active political season to raise money for a good cause – tonight, it was a volunteer fire department nestled in the woods of Eastern Oklahoma.
Regardless of cause, pie auctions don’t have many moving parts. Organizers schedule an event, and then they invite candidates running for various political offices. These can be county offices such as sheriff or assessor or county commissioner. It might be the office of district attorney for the local judicial district. Frequently, the offices folks were fighting for are state house and senate seats.
Those who put together these fundraising events frequently invited candidates running for U.S. House seats or, in my case that night, the United States Senate. And 1996 was also a presidential campaign year.
It was impossible to schedule a pie auction for a date and time that would work for everyone, so why try? Local organizers simply put out the word that candidate so-and-so and sheriff so-and-so and congressman so-and-so had been invited.
But even if a candidate knows about a scheduled pie auction and agrees with the cause its sponsors are trying to fund, there are a lot of times when a candidate can’t make it. This was often true of the U.S. senator our team would re-elect that year. After all, Oklahoma has 77 counties, and I only had 20 of them. Besides, a U.S. senator does have a professional job to do.
Organizers frequently expressed surprise and disappointment when we told them that a candidate couldn’t make it. But for most of them, this was not their first trip to the rodeo. So, while “the Senator very much wishes that he could be here tonight,” I was the campaign staffer who would have to do.
It’s true that money is the mother’s milk of politics. And whether it’s a cause or a candidate makes little difference. Experienced pie auction organizers know well that the unspoken reason why a candidate can’t make their event might be that it competes with an intimate, in-home gathering with wealthy donors.
But these organizers show few scruples when it comes to taking advantage of those of us who’re paid political professionals. They knew we’d show up. Campaign-charged, caffeine-fueled highwaymen, ever fearful of the missed opportunity, who tried by hook or crook to get our candidates’ campaign signs up on the walls, on top of patriotically draped, pie-laden tables, or in spots that concealed a political opponent’s signage. At least for that night.
The unwritten rules were pretty well known. The Master of Ceremonies would give each of us a chance to speak for his or her campaign. Of course, at some time during the night, pies would be auctioned. Big pies. Little pies. Fresh pies. Seldom stale pies. I could count on my favorites, pecan pie and lattice-topped apple pie, being among the pies to be auctioned.
The folks who run these pie auctions aren’t newbies. They’re practiced and technically proficient. They have style. They have tempo. They’re shrewd. And like a lot of country folks I’ve dealt with over the years, they’re better at understanding human nature than they’ll disclose.
By dangling a chance to speak during a hyper-charged political season, local organizers drew to their cause political campaigns both rich and poor.
But the candidates, and those who speak for them, had settled into our own tactics and patterns when approaching a pie auction. One I remember ran for almost any office any time there was an election. And she made sure that folks remembered her by sporting an elaborate, brightly-colored clown costume, complete with wild hair, a big red nose, and oversized clown shoes.
But candidates who intended to win didn’t do that sort of thing.
Among political professionals, our own techniques had a common thread. Bring a pie and auction it off in the name of your candidate. That way, the crowd gets to hear the candidate’s name. And, who knows, maybe they’ll think the candidate cares deeply about this particular cause. Maybe the candidate does.
But whether one buys a pie or not, you’ve got to play the game. No matter how good or bad a pie might turn out to be, these rural communities can pretty quickly detect a distance, or arrogance, on the part of a candidate, if you don’t at least make it look as if you’d fought hard to buy a pie. And that’s where skill and experience showed themselves.
The true pros that you see at pie auctions are those who will bid for one pie and then another. And each time he bids, the worker enthusiastically shouts his candidate’s name for all to hear. Yes, again.
Those who’ve reached journey level at these events know how to quit just in time to avoid actually having to buy a pie. And if by chance that campaign worker bids one time too often, he or she will simply find another pie auction further down the road and auction it off there in their candidates’ names. It’s all quite cyclical. Predictable, even.
I have no idea how many pie auctions I attended that summer and fall. Probably fewer than I think I did. But they’re small-town political happenings that loom large in my memory.
But one of these fundraisers sticks with me. As divisive and rancorous as the American political climate is in 2018, that pie auction, that night, at a volunteer fire department south of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, reminds me that measures of wisdom and foresight still undergird the American political experiment.
I was running late that night, and the dirt clearing that served as a parking lot was stuffed full. I parked my Bronco under a tree. And I glanced over the barely legible notes I had jotted for a speech that I had given, in one form or other, countless times before. A speech that I would once again deliver in a few minutes.
I gathered a stack of push cards, stickers, and other campaign swag. I checked my cowboy boots and slapped a campaign sticker on my chest. And I made my way toward the open door of a crowded, stuffy, oxygen-deprived steel barn.
I didn’t have a pie.
Excusing my way through those gathered in the doorway, I made sure to acknowledge those I thought I had never seen, as well as those I always saw at these events. Trying to at least appear discreet, I hunted around the room for spots to place the Senator’s signs. I then took my place along the wall with other sleep-deprived politicos.
Candidates for every office from county sheriff to U.S. Senator had been invited to the event that night. But it was a local event for a local cause. Tonight, local candidates would get to speak first.
Going through in my mind the list of other campaign tasks that I still had to get done that night, and still being several counties from my family in Tulsa, I wasn’t happy about being in the last group to speak.
But that’s the way these events are sometimes. It’s all well and good that the U.S. Senator I worked for is one of 100 lawmakers who occupy the upper chamber of the United States Congress. A legislative body with the power to impeach federal officials, ratify treaties, approve ambassadors, and determine whether a president’s nominee will sit in the Cabinet, lead a government agency, or serve on the United States Supreme Court.
But Jed’s son is now back from the Marines. He did a good job taking care of momma and the family business after his daddy died. And now he’s running for county commissioner. We’ll hear from him first.
It’s been a few years, and I don’t remember the name of the local candidate who that night reminded me of some pretty great values that my country’s built on. But I remember what he looked like. And I remember what he said.
The gentleman was new to the political game, and he was running in a three-way Democratic primary for county sheriff. He wasn’t expected to win. He didn’t have much money. He didn’t have a strong organization. And he wasn’t backed by the local establishment who, no matter where or when, almost always seem to support the incumbent. I suspected this candidate knew that.
But without hesitation and with military bearing, the wiry political newcomer stepped to an imaginary line in front of the local pie bakers, politicos, interested towns folk and the unpaid firemen who time and again risk their lives to keep their community safe.
The gentleman who now stood before us had shined his cowboy boots to a respectable gloss, and they looked as they should below his worn-in blue jeans. A bright silver buckle, like the ones earned by rodeo champions, marked the border above strong legs – legs that may have carried this man through the pastures to rescue a lost calf or through the jungles of Vietnam to rescue a fallen brother. Above the buckle, a spotless white t-shirt could not conceal a strength earned somewhere other than in a city slicker’s health club.
“I’m not like these other guys,” the man said.
His words were firm, and they lacked any evidence of uncertainty. And neither the man’s demeanor nor his tone hinted at being abrasive. The man spoke from a clean-shaven, weather-tempered face that was only partly obscured by the brim of a cowboy hat that looked as if it was saved for special occasions.
“I don’t have a fancy suit, and I don’t have fancy words like these . . .”
The candidate looked toward the wall, eying without condemnation nor envy those of us being paid to wage and win political warfare.
“. . . professionals.”
No vinegar came from this man’s words. And he displayed respect to all of us who were cooking slowly in a steel barn on an Oklahoma summer night. But the way this man uttered the word “professionals” as he looked over at us made our work seem sort of dirty.
“But y’all know me,” he said. “And y’know my kinfolk. . .”
The political tenderfoot executed his pause like a pro. “I want t’be your sheriff. And I’ve got some good ideas to make that office work better for folks.”
One by one, without direct or even collateral attack on the incumbent sheriff, that political postulant told all of us – both the jaded and the naïve – the specifics of how he would improve the Sheriff’s service to the County and to his fellow Oklahomans. As I listened to this rarest of political speeches, delivered by a man whose candidacy wouldn’t survive the primaries, I was reminded that one reason our American democratic experiment didn’t die in the womb is that Americans like this man talked to their friends, spoke up in their communities and churches, declared independence from the Crown, and took up arms to secure the birth of our nation.