Eating the Bait: Three

The whole sick, sad, silly, sorry, sordid story of the destructive, polarizing, maddeningly frustrating and ultimately hilarious battle over whether a city in the Shenandoah Valley -- where little happens, nor should it -- should build a golf course. Caution: the story is carefully doctored by a key player to make it more exciting and occasionally uses 4-, 11-, 12, and 7-letter words to express frustration and drama.

Thursday, June 29, 2000: Prose and Cons

"You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose."

That was me, quoting Mario Cuomo, two days before we took office, as the five council members faced a television audience and three rows of reporters, randomly chosen citizens and each other. I was answering a question from a Channel 3 reporter, Rachel DePompa, who had just played a clip of me on May 3, the day after Election Day, saying weíd shut down the golf course. It might have been a rash promise. Not because I no longer wanted to, but because it wasnít 100 percent clear we could do so. The city had signed a contract, and despite our repeated claims that it had an escape clause, the clause cost $200,000 to the party invoking it. It was, in reality, a penalty for breach of contract. In addition, two of our attorneys said donít screw around with the bond. One of them, the one whoíd represented us pro bono in an attempt to stop the golf course on procedural grounds, said it explicitly. The other, the one we were interviewing for city attorney, said it across a table with some eye contact that told me he might want the job badly enough to screw around with the bond, but the thought gave him indigestion.

I had more to say on whether weíd shut down the golf course, but Rachel cut me off when it became clear I was willing to do anything but answer the question. The answer was we didnít have any choice but to finish the damned thing. The bond, the contract, the cityís credibility.

Not to mention the damage to the land itself. Not many people had seen it. A construction fence surrounded the area, and threats from various activists on the periphery of CHANGE had given the construction crew an impetus for more security than might have been necessary. Police overtime totaled $26,000 for some period before the election. How justified that was is anybodyís guess. They were making arrests, but the court was dismissing or downplaying them. The only people I actually talked to were people surprised while walking their dogs. The first item at our first meeting with City Manager Steve Stewart was to ask him to lighten security around the construction site because enough damage had been done.

I first saw the area the week after the election. It was a wasteland. I will always remain convinced that every effort was made to strip, rip, pillage and destroy as much of the golf course site as possible before we took office. Nothing will ever make me doubt that people involved in its construction took a scorched earth policy toward what had been Hillandale Park. They can all get in the same room and swear on a stack of Bibles and Iíll still know that the order of construction was tweaked in order to make sure the land was as far from reclaimable as the self-serving architects of mediocrity could make it. It would be perfectly in character with the blind, tone-deaf, stone-headed approach to the project.

Ironically, they could have held off and things might have turned out better for them. All it would have taken was one statesmanlike or conciliatory gesture from the old council. If they had agreed to hold off on construction until after the election, that might have taken enough of the rage and drive out of the opposition. Then they might have eked out the last few votes they needed to hold a majority on council. And then they could have presented that as evidence of community support for the golf course. But apparently they either couldnít believe they would be thrown out of office over a golf course or they thought the golf course was more important than their political futures. "It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world ... but for Wales?" Sir Thomas More laments in "A Man for All Seasons." I could see making a major political sacrifice for a highway or a school or a water source -- any of the things local government is supposed to do -- but for a golf course?

When Rachel moved on to Larry, I thought the show would finally pick up. He had a talent for making things more exciting. Like when Ben would get up at one council meeting after another and ask one question after another until one council member after another would get annoyed and scowl at him. They all seemed to understand, though, that Ben was a citizen asking questions and that meant something. Right up until the night Larry suggested that if Ben wanted to know all these things he should go to the city managerís office during regular hours and not get up grandstanding at the council meetings.

I casually walked up to him after the meeting and told him, "Ben was asking questions, Mr. Rogers. You were the one grandstanding." He showed up at the Democratic caucus when I was nominated to grump about my comments. While he was there, he signed a pledge to support me. He broke the pledge 10 minutes after he left the meeting, telling a reporter the pledge was like a poll tax. He was gentleman enough to call and congratulate me after the election, but made up for it by lying about the conversation at a council meeting.

All this in three months. He and I had quite a history. I kept thinking if I gave him one more try, Iíd consistently see the human being inside the Terminator. Instead, the flesh kept melting off the metal.

Thatís why I was surprised when his answer noted that he couldnít quote poetry like me. It wasnít what he said -- since I hadnít quoted any poetry to begin with -- but rather the fact that he said it in what could be called a friendly fashion. By his standards anyway.

There had been some friendly moments during the campaign, but not a lot. Part of the problem was the tension created by trying to minimize the golf course. It meant we had to find something else to criticize them for. And it meant they had to pretend the election wasnít a referendum on the golf course.

Which is why we ran on open and responsive government, which meant we wouldnít build another golf course. And thatís why I began to feel guilty as our campaign began to gather steam. Until the third of April, I never did believe we had a chance of winning. But around the middle of March, when it looked like we might get 40 percent, I figured Iíd better let my ticket-mates know that my wife had landed a job in Charlottesville.

I suppose everybody has gone through a time when he knows heís screwed up and heís going to have to explain how it happened. But all I had to offer was that I didnít think we could win. More than that, I was dead certain we would lose. Snowball in Hell, never in a million years, not in this lifetime, not on planet Earth. The lottery ticket said right down there on the bottom what the chances of winning were.

But my colleagues never asked the one question I thought I owed them an answer to, which was why I hadnít told them. On a Sunday afternoon in March, Ben and Betty Anne sat with me in their dining room and told me to do what my conscience told me to do. And that was to issue a terse statement that personal circumstances might keep me from finishing my term if I was elected. Then the others, except for Warren, showed up and had a better idea. I could get elected and then resign after six months once we had shut down the golf course project. Because getting two elected wouldnít shut down the golf course and apparently that was what we were about.

I suppose I might have been angry if it wasnít a situation I had created. Angry that it was all about the golf course again, and angry that they could so casually ask me to lie to the people we were asking to vote for us. Instead I was just disappointed.

All they wanted me to do was run a campaign and then bail out. And they didnít see anything wrong with that. I had been perfectly willing to do that if we were going to lose. But not if we were going to win. I still think thereís a difference. But I still acknowledge the problem was my fault. I had obviously made a huge blunder in declaring for city council. Because I viewed it as a rock-hard fact that there was just no way I could win.

I thought I was playing Russian roulette with an empty cylinder.  Turned out it was an automatic.

And because I was so certain Iíd lose, I had placed myself in an ethically untenable position. Tell or donít tell, serve four years or donít serve at all. Off or on, zero or one, black or white. Others thought the middle ground was to win, then leave in six months, and to mislead by omission because we needed to shut down the golf course, because we knew what was best. We would decide in a secret meeting to deceive the city in order to shut down the project that we were against because -- read the campaign literature -- it was not open and responsive government.

Some candidates are more equal than others.

Twelve years with daily papers had taught me a few odds and ends about elections. One was that the incumbents win. Another was that people with the most money win. A closer check might have shown me there are exceptions. For instance, in the five city council elections since Iíd been in Harrisonburg, 12 incumbents had been up for election. Five had chosen not to run, four had been reelected, and three had lost. Thatís a high percentage, so something should have told me Green and Eagle were in trouble. (related issue.)

The third incumbent that year was John Byrd, the city building official for many years, whoíd decided not to run again. Byrd was serving what should have been a swan song, summing up a long career with the city through a quiet and valedictory term on city council. The golf course screwed him out of that, one of its many wounds.

He was replaced on the ballot by Rudy Propst, whose open and friendly face the first time I met him helped remind me not to let the campaign get too personal. (The tendency went the other way when Green got cranky at the public forums, or when Hugh used the invocation at the council meeting to ask the Lord to protect us -- or maybe them -- against special interest groups.) 

For Green the campaign was a continuation of a 28-year mission to shape the city he loved, and for Eagle it was fairly simple, to hear people talk; one person after another would tell me after the election, "That man just loved being mayor."

Just as one hoped Carolyn would if we won. I'd made that commitment in an almost off-hand way, sometime back in the winter, before it became obvious we were going to win. I thought it would make a good symbol, to promise the city its first female mayor. The job had two main duties, cutting ribbons and running the meetings, and only two real advantages: you got the honor of the thing, and you got $250 a month salary instead of the $200 a regular council member got. The thought of someone being up to the job never really occurred to me. After all, we weren't going to win. And by the time we had won, the commitment was made.

But one commitment was never made. We never promised to shut down the golf course. We sued to shut it down, but that failed. But we avoided any promise to shut down the project. Dorn and I even went so far, talking to the Kiwanis two weeks before the election, to say that we'd be stuck with the project even if we were elected. The News-Record ran the story under a headline that said something about being between a rock and a golf course. Two weeks later we got 55 percent of the vote and I knew we had to at least try stopping the damned thing. If that wasn't what the people wanted, they never said so. I don't really expect the great mass of the Harrisonburg electorate to remember that level of detail. But it does still annoy me to hear about the "campaign promise" to shut down the golf course. We didn't make the promise in order to get elected. We made it because we'd been elected.

Nobody got that, possibly because the local newspaper wasn't reporting subtleties. Which is not surprising, since most don't, or don't know how to. Many reporters think in templates: candidate says, council decides, police arrest, and other transitives waiting for an object, salted with a smattering of weepers and inspirational stories.

And polls. This one ran on Monday, April 3, and it said 74 percent of those polled would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposed the golf course.

I knew enough about money and incumbency to know that we had been underdogs. But I knew enough about statistics to know we were going to win.

Never mind that they could outspend us. Never mind that Rodney spent half again as much of his own money as the total spent by the CHANGE coalition. Never mind that their ticket spent three times what ours did. Never mind the advantages of incumbency. The voters of Harrisonburg didn't feel like they'd been heard on the golf course, the poll said, and they wanted a referendum, and they were likely -- extraordinarily likely -- to elect three newcomers to their city council.

And that was before some of our coalition began knocking on doors. I skipped that part, telling my colleagues I wasn't very good at it. I was good at designing newsletters, and put together three of those, two before the campaign, one during. Later, when we'd been elected and I wasn't voting the way CHANGE wanted me to, various radicals in the group would grump that I didn't go door-to-door, and therefore I didn't do as much to make us win, and therefore I didn't have as much right to my one vote on council, and therefore I was a betraying SOB when I didn't let council votes be decided at CHANGE meetings the way we'd charged they used to be decided at the Elks Club. Based on the April 3 poll numbers, though, we'd already won before the door-to-door campaign really heated up.

I guess my newsletters must have done it. A thought that never occurred to my CHANGE colleagues later when we parted political company and they asked me to resign because I hadn't gone door to door and wasn't voting the way they thought I should. Their door-knocking came after the poll. But Green, who'd run in more council elections than the rest of us combined, maintained the election was decided by a massive misinformation campaign. Even allowing for some self-serving exaggeration, I was really the only one producing massive misinformation for mass mailing. We might have won without the door-to-door, but not without my newsletters.

I, and some others, kept waiting for the other side to do something similar: a joint mailing, an out-of-town professional, a sudden and massive negative attack on the CHANGE ticket. It never materialized. I spent a month waiting for it. April went by in a daze. If we didn't do anything stupid, we were on council, and there wasn't a thing we could do about that. People were that angry about the golf course.

Election night was almost anti-climactic. We marched around Court Square, producing some really great visuals for Channel 3. Then I suggested we tell them we were going to shut down the golf course. And eight weeks later we sat in their studio and obfuscated.

There was no news and no real excitement in the half hour we were on the air. As in most things political or governmental, the interesting parts came afterwards. I approached Larry in the studio to try making peace again. Two months of cheap shots since the election needed to end before we were sworn in, I thought. I started by mentioning that we had some back ground in common, both being Democrats from Tazewell County, in the far southwestern part of the state, him from Bluefield, me from Richlands. It wasn't all that much to base a conversation on, but Larry had something else.

"Look here, Joe," he began. It was a phrase I'd learn to look out for. It meant Larry had a proposition. This one was that he was going to nominate me for mayor.

I stood there staring Larry in the eye for a good five seconds. Three things popped to mind immediately. If I took the offer it could split the CHANGE coalition, which would be good for Larry. And it could make me mayor, which would look like it would be good for me.

Being mayor was not high on my list of priorities. For one thing, the issue of where I'd be living in a few years was not settled, and the mayor ought to be in the city as much as possible. For another, I hadnít run anything but a newsroom, and had never really run a meeting. For another, Iíd committed to voting for somebody else.

But the simple fact of the matter was that at that moment I became the one guy who could get five votes for the job, if I could gather the votes of the two people Iíd run with. Carolyn could look absolutely magnanimous by giving up the job in the name of consensus, and the council could get off on the right foot by showing it could work together. On the other hand, there didnít seem any way I could take the job as part of a 3-2 vote. From a pragmatic, if not cynical viewpoint, there was no way I could let Hugh and Larry make me mayor unless I also joined in a vote to shut down the golf course. If they made me mayor and I then voted to continue the project, I could whine for four years that there was no deal and nobody would believe me or have any particular reason to. If I was ever to have any political credibility at all, then I would have to vote to shut it down. And then it would be for purely selfish reasons. Iíd know it if nobody else would.

 At the same time, there was no way I could campaign for myself as the compromise candidate. A policy commitment you could change. But a personal commitment you couldn't. Carolyn was the only one who could decide to give it up, and she'd never see the reason why.

Which would have decided things, except that Larry was still going to make the nomination. And that meant that right up until I voted for Carolyn, I'd be tempted to take the job. Because I was starting to have a few doubts. We had a lot more than the golf course to worry about, but you couldn't have told it by listening to her questions during the orientation sessions with the department heads. If the topic was water, the question was how much was used on the golf course. If the topic was streets, the question was whether the department had loaned dump trucks to the golf course construction. If the topic was police, the question was how much overtime they'd invested on security at the golf course. I wasn't sure how much of a mayor she could be until we could get the golf course off the table.

"I'm not your man," I told Larry. And I'd remember standing there looking him in the eye, because the same thing would happen when he was reelected two years later, and I looked at him at his election party and wondered how to talk him out of another proposition. "Look here, Joe," he began, before telling me he'd support me for mayor, but only if I'd vote to throw Dorn off council. But that's a story for another day.

That night in the studio I chatted with a few folks and noted the raw tension in many of the people there. I wondered if it was like that all over town, and if it was from people wondering what we'd do about the golf course we'd promised to shut down.

Jeff Mellott came up to me with his notebook balanced on top of his tape recorder, a ploy I couldn't really complain about since I'd complimented him on it while I was his boss at the News-Record. He told me the Heath commission had voted 10-0 that day to urge the new council to continue the golf course. I remember stringing out a vague and unusable quote, and Jeff clicking off his recorder because he knew that's what I was doing. And once he'd turned it off I told him the golf course fight was like watching somebody die. He could have used it if he wanted to, but didn't, either because he felt like turning off the recorder meant it was now a private conversation or because he didn't think it would be clear to most people what I meant. But you know the person is sinking, you don't know when, and you don't know when your thoughts should turn from hope to mercy.

What I was really thinking was, "Where's my ten days?" The Heath commission wasn't going to come back with a decision before July 1, I had been assured the night before. Now they had. I'd think about that in the coming days when people asked me why I couldn't have given them the ten days, but I never said anything.

I went home and watched a tape of the town hall meeting while reading the day's News-Record, trying to make sense of a story about the golf course bond. The writer read like another stone-head, a reporter who plugged new words into pre-formed sentences, avoiding responsibility for his work by using fill-in-the-blanks sentences while claiming originality by plugging the blanks in odd ways.

The phone rang. It was the reporter. He was asking me for comment on a story that City Manager Steve Stewart had been offered a job in South Carolina. I gave him a nonsense quote about opportunity being no stranger to a man with Steve's talents. What I really wanted to say was that if we started off our term with no city manager, we were screwed. Steve called a few minutes after that to tell me he'd gotten a job offer in South Carolina. I started wondering who was going to run the city.

We were going into this adventure with our unity shattered. We had a shrewd politician trying to widen the gap. We had a commission weíd appointed telling us we were stuck with the golf course. We had the prospect of starting out with no city manager. And we had the mayorship promised to someone who might not quite be ready for it.

We were going to get our train wreck.

Friday, June 30, 2000: Executive Sessions: Government is like an iceberg in that you only see the top 10 percent. Itís easier to make decisions when nobodyís looking ...

I will gladly post the emailed responses or comments, so long as they are non-libelous and not too silly, of any person mentioned by name in Eating the Bait

Last Revised: 04.12.07    Publisher: Joseph Gus Fitzgerald