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pinion Best of 2012: Money Talks... Integrity Walks


Wednesday August 15, 2012. 8:30 a.m.

It was a dark day in Manatee County, both literally and figuratively, as my son and I headed down Manatee Avenue toward the office this morning, under an oddly uniform black cloud that enveloped the sky above. We were coming from the special preview at the new Fresh Market, where we'd popped in so that he might nosh on some breakfast samples, while I guzzled strong coffee after a late night of reporting dismal returns that should have been printed on green paper, as I'm sure they smelled like cash.

Sullivan – named for history's first world champion prizefighter – is only eight, but suffers the acute interest in local politics that comes with being a political columnist's son. He's also something of a math prodigy, but it didn't take his sharpest skills the night before to notice the consistent patterns appearing on my screen, which tracked both candidates and their fundraising totals. We were sitting side-by-side at the command center I always set up for election nights, which looks something like James T. Kirk's station at the helm of the U.S.S. Enterprise; a giant recliner in front of a big-screen TV, flanked by laptops and Rhum Barbancourt 5-star, an 8-year old Haitian rum that serves a medicinal purpose when the inevitable election night headaches set in.

“In almost every race, the person with the most money is winning,” he sighed early into the returns. “That's not fair.”

I reminded him that unless we're talking weather, fair is usually an irrelevant term.

“But it's supposed to be about the best ideas and who does a good job,” he protested. As sad as it was to watch him shed his naivety at such a youthful age, I figured it was best to get it out of the way young, before it could be compounded by deeper understandings and greater vested interests, sort of like having your first gut-wrenching crush on the babysitter when you're ten, instead of the girl who sits next to you senior year.

“Michael Bennett!” he screamed. “Isn't that the guy who said we should have to walk to Africa to vote? He's actually gonna be in charge of voting? Please tell me you're joking?”

I explained that wasn't exactly what Senator Bennett suggested, but he seemed to find little difference in the spirit of the quote, rolling his eyes as I read it off from my notes. Sullivan pointed to the contributions column and noted that the Senator had raised nearly three times what the rest of the field could muster combined. I didn't have the heart to explain to him that some of it came from eye doctors in Miami, or the energy to go into how that could even make sense.

One after one, from big races to small, the results came in. Swimming in money, Connie Mack slid into a U.S. Senate nomination without even having to debate an opponent, while Larry Bustle fended off his primary challenge from Nathaniel Leonard with the help of a 30-fold contribution advantage. On and on and on (click here for full results) the theme played out. Money wasn't only talking, it was snickering in our ears as it spoke. Then of course, there was the McClash/Benac race, which he'd been following like the Santa tracker on Christmas Eve.

Yes, Joe McClash is TBT's publisher. Sullivan spends a lot of time around the office and the Commissioner is quick to ask him about school and sports, but there's a deeper understanding of his role as a public official than you might imagine. Mr. McClash has always been something of a hero to a kid who won his school's science fair in 1st grade for a project demonstrating how to use colored rooftops to reduce energy use when heating and cooling homes. The next year he made a solar hot dog grill out of a Yuengling case, some tin foil and a coat hanger, which we still use on camping trips. We've spent countless weekends in Manatee County parks and preserves, enjoying the beautiful resources that made this area so attractive when I moved here more than a decade ago. Commissioner McClash's role as a thoughtful steward of those resources has been inspiring to us both.

Hence, all the words in the world couldn't have explained to my son why some special interest group's weekend-long robo-calls attacking the commissioner for having received the endorsement of the Sierra Club – a group whose mission is “to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources” made sense in modern politics. And not because he lacks comprehension. With an IQ north of 160 and a habit of correcting people when they split an infinitive or refer to Holland as a country, rather than a region in the Netherlands, there's surprisingly little he doesn't understand.

He just hasn't been jacked around often enough to expect the house to win, to palm his thigh in order to assure his wallet is still intact when we part certain company, or to wash his hands obsessively after a shake with the many sleazy characters we tend to run into – and that's something that his jaded old man treasures in him. But modern politics is no place for an innocent heart – or a logical mind. When a person so committed to right to life that they are the lone county candidate to receive an endorsement from a group so conservative it has fetal personhood in its title has to spend time explaining to voters that mailers accusing him of being pro-choice are demonstrable fabrications, playfully thrown around by interests so powerful that such costly communications equate to a crank phone call, any idea of level playing fields disappear.

So McClash is gone and those who lit the way are dancing on his political grave to be sure. One down, two to go – and you know who you are. Fall in line or we're coming for you next is the message coming over the wire. Bailey and von Hahmann – thanks for coming out. Get into the orthopedic shoe game, because 200 miles is a long walk and Manatee is choc full of old feet. Mr. Leonard, nice try. Ditto Mrs. Schaich. You all came armed with facts and good ideas, ran clean campaigns with old-fashioned budgets and good old, door to door, retail politicking. With the exception of Mr. Leonard, none of you were grass-roots candidates, and I mean that in a good way. You had names and followers – brands even. You had records of service and at least enough money to let people know who you were.

But it wasn't enough, and sadly, it doesn't look like it ever will be again. Pop a bottle, the build until it hurts era has arrived and the phosphate merchants can sleep tight tonight on sheets of fine linen. It cost nearly half a mill, but the status quo is in place, and those in the know can squeeze that back out tenfold in no time flat with the help of some friendly faces and a few sympathetic votes.

As my son and I made that dreary drive this morning, there was but one shiny beacon under the ominous black blanket in the sky. The “Watchdog,” Dave Miner was literally dancing in the streets, doing some sort of two-step Irish jig on the corner of 15th Street West at 7 a.m., as he held up a crudely-fashioned sign toward the cars approaching in the crowded eastbound lane of Manatee Avenue. While all of the other candidates were enjoying a well-earned sleep, the salty old Marine who is making his third run at the board was up and at 'em. For all I know, that crazy jar head could have still been out there from the night before, but there he stood nonetheless, thanking voters as he heads into a November 6 runoff that might finally see him get a well-deserved seat on the other side of the podium.

“Well, there's at least one thing that went right,” Sullivan said to me as he waved to one of his favorite candidates while we passed. “Someone who cares about kids and schools did good.” Alas, it took his 8-year old eyes to spot the silver lining on what was otherwise a dark and putrid cloud. Keep dancing Dave, just get yourself a pair of those orthopedic shoes. Me... I'm saving my feet. Something tells me it's gonna be a long walk.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.  


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