She’s black. She’s gay. She’s … a Libertarian?
Yet another sleepy mayoral campaign was settling upon the politically narcoleptic city by the harbor — until the Republicans switched candidates in midstream. Their first challenge: Find the right campaign slogan.
Following is the first installment in a fictional campaign serial. It will run through New Year’s Day.
Repeat: This is fiction. About fictional people. In a fictional city.
- * * * *
Sept. 6, 2007
Lenora Garvey stared at the end of the bar. Then she let the puck fly.
Well, it wasn’t exactly a crash.
The sound was more a rapid procession of clicks, followed by a slap. Loud enough to bring a smile to Lenora’s face as she watched the puck slide past the metal clips. Tthe plastic miniature pins clicked upward with military precision.
Could it be an omen?
From behind the bar, W. Wheelock Willoughby III watched the pins flip. He thought back to when the crash of full-sized wooden bowling pins — real bowling pins, not little plastic ones from a Rack ‘N Roll set — had reverberated through Wheelock’s Clubroom, back in the days when his father tended bar.
Wheelock’s drew a crowd then, every night but Sunday. The city had true captains of industry then, men who had the time to nurse Cognacs at the upstairs bar and throw strikes in the basement bowling alley in their own private club by the town Green.
“Nice aim, Lenora,” Wheelock said. He said it almost as an afterthought as he finished wiping the counter top with a gleam to match his prematurely bald pate. “Hope you can keep it up through November.”
Tonight, as on most nights, the basement alley was dark, abandoned. As on most nights, the clubroom was empty, too. Except for the two cigar buddies and the Rack ‘N Roll.
Wheel returned the towel to its place by the sink, sat down beside Lenora. He refilled both their glasses from the open bottle of Kentucky Gentleman.
“I’m with you all the way, Lenora. You know that. It’s your year,” he said. “But do you think the city’s ready?”
Originally, this was supposed to be Wheel’s year. He had grudgingly accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for mayor, when no one else could be prevailed upon to run. He had agreed to serve as sacrificial lamb for the Grand Ol’ Party, or what was left of it in this Democrat-deluged one-party city. Everyone pretends they can run for mayor here, although no one ends up really running. But that was OK. It was easier that way. Wheel would get quoted in the paper. He’d get to debate the mayor. And that would be it – no door-knocking needed, or even worth the effort, since the Republicans would have no canvassers or vote-pullers or phone-bankers backing him up. Hell, the party didn’t even have candidates for aldermen in 28 or the city’s 30 precincts.
And Al “Elbows” Pneumonie (“Alfred E.” for short) would waltz into an eighth two-year term. He’d make the history books: Tied for longest-serving elected mayor.
Sixteen years! Pneumonie would match the record of his mentor, The Mayor Eternal. The Mayor Eternal beat a Republican in 1953. The Republicans had lost every election since. Gave up trying. Meanwhile, the city lost all its big employers except for its world-famous university. The city lost its middle class. Wheelock’s private club for captains of industry lost its bowling league, not to mention its captains. It could have lost its liquor license; no one would have noticed.
Wheel saw a connection among all those losses.
Sure, Wheel had told his fellow Republican survivors. They needed a name on the ballot, preferably a name attached to someone who could utter a coherent sentence and summon a hint of color in the cheeks. Wheel had said yes out of respect for the memory of the old-timers who used to keep dad company every night in the clubroom. Before the factories and the middle-class families and Republicans moved east and south.
Then Lenora appeared. A sentient being still too young to show up on AARP mailing lists. She bore no resemblance to the pallid ghosts in the portraits adorning the clubroom walls. She showed up one night for a drink. She and Wheel hit it off – they shared a favorite drink, a favorite cigar, a favorite author, even a favorite philosopher. Bourbon. Macanudo. Oscar Wilde. Ayn Rand.
Who knew you could still find a soul mate in this city?
She came back every night. She was new to town. District manager for Regiontrust Bank. Nowadays “district manager” was the top position. It used to be different. The bank used to have its own CEO back when it was called Third National. The CEO bowled strikes; you could hear the pins crash upstairs in the clubroom. That was before the local bank was bought by a bigger bank in Hartford, then Boston, then Charlotte, then Luxembourg.
At first Wheel and Lenora bonded over opera, over history trivia, over his tales of old New Haven. She commiserated with his tales of his recent romantic break-up. He delighted in the latest adventures of her new romance with a geology grad student.
Then, one night, she offered to help him on his “campaign.” A volunteer!
At first Wheel had found the prospect enticing. Until he realized it meant he might have to leave the club and actually campaign.
Finally, Wheel had protested that he was too “busy” to get energized in this campaign. Lenora saved him the embarrassment of admitting he was too shy to meet voters and assemble volunteers. She offered to replace him on the ballot and run herself. Give him time to devote to “running the club.”
After four bourbons, the idea sounded just wild enough to take seriously. This one-party city needed shaking up! Someone who could challenge the corrupt, tax-and-spend, immigrant-embracing, patronage-bloated, dumbed-down Democratic machine!
Wheel asked Lenora if she thought the city was “ready” for her.
“Do I think the city’s ready, Wheel? For a black mayor? It’s not like I’d be the first one,” Lenora reminded him.
“I know that. That’s not what I meant.” Wheel knew the city had changed. The Republicans all knew that. They didn’t know that as recently as 1991, when the Democrats had their first incumbent black mayor, and the Republicans put up their last great white hope in response, The Unicorn. An eight-term alderman, son of another mayoral candidate who once took on The Mayor Eternal back in the day. The Republicans figured the Unicorn could collect enough white ethnic votes by running against “scattered-site” (read: “black”) public housing. Who knew you could put blacks on the East Shore and get away with it? Who knew the Unicorn would get crushed, even on the East Shore?
Yes, the city had changed.
“Do I think New Haven’s ready for a lesbian? Yes I do,” Lenora pressed on. “I mean, the Republicans were willing to put you on the ballot. And you yourself said there were no fag jokes.”
“They nominated me three times,” Wheel reminded her. Three moments in the sacrificial spotlight – for Congress, for Senate, for Probate. “And I topped 20 percent each and every campaign.” He didn’t even drool on camera. And the inbred, cadaverous WASPs and random misfits who constituted what remained of the city’s GOP army hadn’t once complained about having an out-of-the-closet gay man on their party’s ticket.
Maybe times had changed more than people realized. Or maybe the Republicans were just grateful to have a candidate.
“It’s true you may lose some votes on the Shore,” Wheel said. “But think of the Jews. They love gays and lesbians! At least in concept.. They’ll vote for you for that reason alone. Except for the pistol-packing rabbis on mopeds in Precinct 24…”
The Jews! Not again. Lenora prepared herself for one of Wheel’s rhapsodic tales of the days of The Colonel, the underwear-garment factory owner who had bankrolled a genuine Republican machine, back in the day. He turned out enough Jewish – and black, and Yankee, and Italian – votes to elect aldermen in wards all over the city. Not to mention mayors. In the Pleistocene Two-Party Age.
Of course The Colonel would never have been welcomed if he tried to schmooze with the other captains of industry in Wheelock’s father’s clubroom.
Of course the Republican Party back then was still, at least in New England, Abe Lincoln’s GOP.
And of course that was 50 years ago. Before the city became practically a Soviet outpost on the Sound. Before the urban renewal money poured in, purchasing a permanent government-dependent Democratic voting base.
Lenora had stopped pointing that out to her friend. Just as she had stopped suggesting that French onion soup no longer qualified as an “ethnic” menu item on the club’s menu.
She changed the subject instead. She knew what Wheel meant when he asked her if the city was “ready” for her.
“With all these angry people complaining about taxes, even with all the money spent on schools they can’t send their kids, too,” she said, “I mean, here of all places. You really don’t think they’re ready for a Libertarian?”
Wheel didn’t press the point. Who knew? Lenora was persuading him. Maybe she could persuade the voters, too. Maybe the city could stomach someone who didn’t believe you solve problems by spending more money, by knocking down old buildings and building huge new ones.
The idea of this campaign was growing on him. Why not go for broke? A black Republican candidate for mayor… For all he knew, maybe Colin Powell would pay a visit. Was Sammy Davis Jr. still alive? Just as long as they didn’t play up the “Libertarian” part…
It was Wheel’s turn to change the channel.
“We need a slogan. How about, ‘We Can’t Afford More Of The Same!’”
“You said it. More of the same.”
“‘We need a bitch in City Hall’?”
“I did the ‘inner bitch’ thing. It’s a glossy magazine now. That’s so ’90s, Wheel.”
Wheel was stumped. Lenora gave it a try.
“‘Five feet ten, 200 pounds of change’?”
“Uh… ‘It’s Our City – Take It Back’?”
“‘It’s a Grand New Party’?”
“From Lazy Fare to Laissez-Faire?”
“‘We’ve Suffered Enough’?”
“‘Black, Lesbian, Libertarian & Proud?’”
Surely there was a slogan out there.
Surely there were votes out there, too. Nine thousand votes. That’s all you needed anymore to win the mayor’s office, in a city of 130,000 subjects, most of them unregistered, uninterested, uninspired.
Surely there were people who were tired of failing schools, killer taxes, ethics scandals. People who would even come to the polls on election day.
Lenora grabbed the puck, sent it flying down the five-foot-long lane of the Rack ‘N Roll.
“Strike.” Wheel noted.
“Strike back!” Lenora exclaimed.
Clinking their empty bourbon glasses, they declared in unison:
“Strike back with Lenora!”
Destiny – and the 2007 mayoral campaign no one had expected – were waiting.
- * * * *
Have a suggestion for a campaign slogan for Lenora? Post your suggestions or feedback below. This series is already written, but reader comments and variant plot twists are welcomed along the way.
Next installment, Chapter 2: Garvey Finds An Issue