The ride into rusty Mingo Junction — population 4,297 — was slow; the smell and sights of urban death surrounded us.
Hovering over the nearly abandoned one-road, two-lane downtown were huge smokestacks that stood as stubborn monuments to what had been. It was Labor Day 1982, and Jerry Springer, with me as his political aide, had come to town to get its weary people to help make him governor of Ohio.
I took a cardboard campaign sign from the trunk while Jerry began to walk the empty downtown street. At one point he remarked that it looked like you could stand in front of one boarded up store window and reach across the narrow street and touch the other side.
We were an hour early for the Mingo Junction Annual Labor Day Parade, and we made our plan to have me walk in front of him holding the campaign sign chest-high while he waved to the people.
Yeah, right, we thought. Who in the hell had ever heard of Jerry Springer? And with the economic predicament this town was obviously facing, who in the hell would care? It would be Springer and I looking like a couple of Cincinnati dweebs walking in foolish silence.
Even our shirt sleeves and ties started looking stupid.
But as people began trickling in and placing their aluminum-and-plastic-strip lawn chairs in front of those boarded-up storefronts, I saw that gleam come to Springer's eyes. What he did next was all instinct, the same one I had seen countless times in Cincinnati neighborhoods, where he had been a city council member and mayor in spite of a squirmy prostitution scandal.
He stepped off the curb — no vehicles that would threaten his backside seemed to even come down this dingy street — and began to converse individually with each man and woman now sitting along the street. I started to see smiles. Then came some laughs. I caught a few pats on the back. Then from a guy in overalls I heard a good-natured, "The Reds? Yeah, they're good. But I'm a Cleveland fan."
Slowly, he began a political relationship, albeit surface, with everyone on both sides of the street, humble people who came to that parade for an hour of relief from life.
When the parade finally formed, we were behind the town's fire truck. In front of that was the mayor in a convertible leading the whole thing. Behind us was the high school band. And that was it.
But remarkably, as I held that "Springer for Governor" sign high over my head, begging for votes, sounds began to build. "Springer!" came a yell from one side of the street. Then, "Yeah, Springer!" shot back from the other. Before we knew it, and lasting for the 15 or so minutes that we walked in the sun down Main Street in Mingo Junction, the crowd all began chanting, "Springer, Springer!" One old guy even stood up for emphasis.
Boys and girls, take notes. In politics, it's all about connecting. Any fool who says Jerry Springer isn't electable to public office, even after holding a spotlight on America's dysfunction for over a decade just to make money, doesn't understand the soul of politics: Connecting.
Look. Count me among those who yearn for a day that Jerry Springer realizes he has enough money and enough celebrity and refocuses his immense talents on public policy.
Every now and then, something sparks discussion about a political comeback. Sure, some who once loved Jerry politically would resist loving him again, saying he sold out. For damn sure, those who previously hated him politically would doubly loathe him now for having done his aimless show.
But politics always sets its table with only two items on the menu: This candidate or the other one. In that choice, Springer's ability to connect with people and to bring back old political friends make him a wild card that defies political prophecy.
For years I watched him move about conservative neighborhoods like Western Hills — he actually lived on Western Hills Avenue longer than he's lived any other place in his adult life — and win votes he had no right to philosophically. But when a beer-drinking guy heard his out-of-tune rendition of some Willie Nelson song or watched him boldly argue for HUD housing at a west side town meeting or read that he slept a night in the old workhouse jail to witness its archaic conditions, they often gave him their vote.
So when the Republican bosses start wagging about how they'd just love to have a chance to kick Jerry Springer's political butt under a pile of scum in whatever place he'd dare show up, they're speaking either from political ignorance or with false, strategic bravado.
It's not that Springer is politically invincible. He lost decisively in his statewide primary race for governor. But in some ways he has more candidate power now than before he refereed his first televised food fight. These days he would draw huge crowds. Even if they came for an autograph from the king of TV sleaze, they'd still be there when he shifted the talk to the populist issues that shaped his political career with working people, African Americans, students and progressives.
Yes, his philosophical opponents would pour in with money and foot soldiers and try to slay him with personal and moral attacks. But as the public began to say, blah, blah, blah, we've heard all that show garbage before, the attacks would shift to his positions. At that point, Jerry would have the debate on his ground, political ground, ground he's stood on many times before, usually with victory.
Hey, don't laugh at the idea of a Jerry Springer candidacy. Wish for it.