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Stories

I Was a 10-Year-Old Political Consultant

Leading a political campaign can be a thankless job, as ex-Dean-campaign manager Joe Trippi well knows. But what if your candidate isn’t a Democrat from Vermont, but a woodland creature? Our writer recalls his electioneering days.

Joe Trippi, I feel your pain. Once hailed as the genius behind the meteor that was Howard Dean, Trippi became the official fall guy for the Dean implosion and was virtually forced into resigning last week when Dean appointed Al Gore’s ‘right-hand man,’ Roy Neel, as his new campaign CEO. Trippi shouldn’t feel too bad, though, since current conventional wisdom puts the over/under on the remaining days of the Dean campaign somewhere around the duration of Cher’s marriage to Greg Allman. Trippi had a tough job wrangling the unpredictable Dean, but as tough as Trippi had it, at least his candidate—despite appearances to the contrary in Iowa—didn’t have rabies.

But mine did.

The year was 1980, and in an effort to stoke early civic engagement amongst its tiniest citizens, the state of Illinois asked its grade-schoolers to vote on a new official state animal. The state legislature selected our candidates—the raccoon, the fox squirrel, the opossum, the red fox, the 13-lined ground squirrel, and the white-tailed deer—and campaigns were launched in schools across the Land of Lincoln.

At the time, I was a politically active fifth-grader. Just recently I’d organized the Greenbriar School mock-election campaign for Independent presidential candidate John Anderson, whose strong gun control message I’d spun into a winner within the younger set: guns can kill you; we aren’t old enough to buy them anyway; why have guns? In a stunner that had our town president/Republican Convention delegate picturing the Reagan Revolution stymied by these activist children, Anderson won the fifth grade and made a very respectable showing school-wide, creating a nearly three-way tie with Carter and Reagan.

So when the school campaigns for state animal were announced, I was a natural choice for one of the campaign managers. The different managers gathered in the principal’s office to choose candidates out of a hat in a live over-the-intercom broadcast.

Vulpes vulpes, the red fox, a ‘small, doglike animal’ with rusty red fur and ‘white underparts’ wouldn’t have been my choice, but what did I care? I was an unstoppable genius; the other campaign managers were conceding even before we began our electioneering. If I could take a presidential candidate who polled nationally in the low single-digits to victory, surely I could take care of business for a small, omnivore mammal. The only remaining question was if I could go so far as to convince even the other campaign managers to vote for my candidate.

As hubris appears to have brought down the once unstoppable Dean, so too it did in the humble red fox. I had a vision of strength for the state animal of Illinois, an image that represented Chicago, the City of Broad Shoulders—as well as the strong backs of our rural farmers, the feeders of the nation. For my campaign communication centerpiece I settled on a line drawing of my candidate in its natural woodland habitat, ears up and alert, one foot perched on a log, one of the other candidates—the fox squirrel—limp in its mouth.

No one was going to fuck with the state animal of Illinois.

I opted to exploit negative tactics on our opponents, breaking my piggybank on Xeroxed posters of the raccoon—a bandit, a criminal, borderline vermin—tipping over garbage cans. I showed the white-tailed deer in a hunter’s crosshairs: a vegetarian wussy unable to defend its land or itself. The 13-lined ground squirrel? Clearly unlucky. The opossum? French. I strutted down the school hallways, confident in the red fox’s landslide victory.

But the fox squirrel people came after us, and they weren’t afraid to play a little dirty themselves. I returned to school one morning to find ‘KILLER’ scrawled across our fox-with-squirrel-in-mouth posters. A bubble caption extended from the mouth of the slain fox squirrel: ‘HELP ME!’ Right in front of me I could see the political tide shifting. All of a sudden we were not the strong and capable red fox, but the cruel and heartless red fox, the kind of state animal that would pick on the helpless, the fuzzy, and the cute. Still, early polling at recess told us we could ride out the storm. The red fox fears only the coyote and lynx, not the fox squirrel. We clung to our message: strong, wily, capable red fox.

That afternoon the big story broke—a whisper campaign fortified by a World Book Encyclopedia entry—Red Fox: ‘lethal predator, susceptible to rabies.’

The campaign lurched out of control. You can’t spin rabies. Who among us hadn’t heard the treatment for a kid who got rabies? Dozens of shots in the abdomen over a number of weeks—borderline, but necessary, torture unless you want your brain to boil out of your ears. To further the damage, in a classic bit of misinformation the fox squirrel people floated around the idea that the red fox preying on their candidate was not just murder, but cannibalism, since they’re both ‘foxes.’ I tried to retool, pointing out that the red fox eats anything—berries, apples, corn, even birds—that it was a survivor, not a killer. But our message was lost. In my sixth-period campaign speech I made a final stand, railing against the namby-pambies who’d prefer a state animal that simply stared into the distance, looking dumb. I wanted to scream, but I didn’t. The teacher asked me to sit before I was even done.

Staying clear above the fray and relying on pictures of does with their fawns, the white-tailed deer won a huge victory in the school, eventually taking the entire state. Odocoileus virginianus, the leaf-eating pussy, my state animal.

No, I’m not bitter. And neither are Joe Trippi and Howard Dean, I’m sure.
 

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TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner