Heartland Politics: Some Historical Anecdotes

For three summers in the 1970s, I worked for the state of Tennessee: one summer at a state park, and two more on a road maintenance crew for the county office of the state Department of Transportation. These were patronage jobs, as were almost all state jobs; you had to have some kind of pull to get one.  During my last summer on the road crew, the summer jobs set aside for local youth (presumably needy ones) were held by: the son of the former mayor of the county seat; the son of a state highway patrolman; the son of one of the area's most influential black preachers; and me, the son of a former mayor of one of the county's smaller towns – and a distant relative of the man in charge of the DOT county office.

The full-time workers were all patronage hires as well. Most of them were nearing or even over retirement age, while also farming, either full-time or part-time, on the side. Their talk was full of crops and weather – and politics. If you could get past the dialogue that began every single working day – "You get any rain over your way last night?" "Naw, we didn't get any rain. You?" "Yeah, we got a little shower of rain." "Well, we need some rain. My beans are about burnt up." – you could get a good education in real live Heartland politics just by listening to conversations and reminisces.

A couple of old-timers were particularly informative in this regard. One of them had been a "square" years ago, he kept saying proudly. I didn't know what he was talking about at first. Was it some kind of Masonic thing? Finally I realized he was saying that he had been a "squire" – a member of the County Commission, the local legislative body. In the old days, the County Executive had been called the County Judge, and the commissioners were called squires. "Squire" was a font of information and folksy wisdom, although the latter was confined largely to exhortations to us young men to eschew protection when engaging in congress with the fairer sex. "Go barefoot, boy!" he'd cackle, as he slapped his hand down on my leg. (We rode in close quarters: four people in the cab of a dump truck, on our way to some appointed station on the highway to begin that day's long walk down the median or on the roadside, spearing trash with pitchforks and tossing it into the truck.) "Go barefoot when you're with them gals! Don't need no rubber."

But beyond this attempted contribution to the substantial rate of teen pregnancy in the area, Squire had a lot to say about how politics were conducted in the trenches: chiefly by bribes and bought votes. He waxed nostalgiac about election days of yore, which he spent driving the backroads, dispensing free whisky and wads of dollar bills to lubricate the gears of democracy and guide it in the right direction. A white person's vote would usually cost ten dollars, while the going rate for black votes was five dollars per head.  There were also the usual duties of putting up signs for your faction's candidates – and stealing or defacing the signs of the opposition. These methods – and their ubiquity – were confirmed independently by the testimony of other workers at the DOT office and the state park, and were always related matter-of-factly; it was just the way things were done.

I hasten to add here that my father, Edsel Floyd, never ran for a county or state office,
and was unopposed in his two elections as mayor of our small town, so he never had to avail himself of these highly effective political techniques. Most of the vote-buying went on in state campaigns, which were usually the only ones that had that kind of money to spread around. In Squire's heyday, state politics had been dominated by the political machine of Frank Clement, who served several terms as governor. Because state law then prohibited a governor from serving two successive terms, Clement – like Vladimir Putin today – would have a placeman, in this case Buford Ellington, serve in between his own stays in the governor's mansion. It was a powerful machine at the time, and a mighty dispenser of patronage. (Patronage jobs were not necessarily featherbedding, although of course there was -- and is -- plenty of that. They were for the most part real jobs that someone actually needed to do; it's just that the choice of that someone depended on their connections or political reliability.)

My father had supported Clement in an informal way, talked him up around town, as he did for Albert Gore Sr.'s Senate races, and later for Al Junior. He even landed a patronage job himself with the state for a couple of years – a clerk position that suddenly became vacant after the previous jobholder supported the wrong side in the Democratic primary – before he returned to work in my grandfather's feed store. Once, he told me, someone mistook him for the Clement bagman in Watertown during an election year. The man came into the feed store, demanded ten dollars for his vote, and was outraged by my father's demurral: "Ain't you the one buying votes this time?"

(In those days, the Democratic primary was the election for the top posts. There was no serious Republican opposition in the state until the Civil Rights Act, the desegregation of public schools and Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" of coded race baiting drove a substantial number of white people away from a traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party that went back to the Civil War. For these "traditionalists," the party that was most committed to keeping the darkies down was where they wanted to be. For many decades, it was the Democrats; for the past 40 years, it's been the Republicans.)

There is an interesting modern postscript to the incident with the frustrated vote-seller. Last year, the state legislature named a local highway bridge after my father, in honor of his many community services. He had to appear before the state House of Representatives' transportation committee when the bill was introduced. This was in the middle of one of the Tennessee legistlature's periodic (and chronic) bribery and corruption scandals, when several legislators had been hauled up on fraud charges. Edsel was introduced by our local state representative, Stratton Bone, who then invited questions from the committee. The chairman asked my father if he thought he deserved to have a bridge named after him.

"No, sir," said Edsel, "but I expected it."

"And why is that?"

"Because during the last election, Stratton Bone came to me and said he'd get a bridge named after me if I gave him so much money."

Bone went deep red, even hid his face behind a sheet of paper, as the committee broke out in nervous laughter. Was this yet another revelation to bring down one of their number? Then someone asked: "How much did you have to pay Senator Bone to get this bridge?" Edsel answered: "Fifty cents." At which a visibly relieved Bone emerged from behind the paper and said into the microphone: "Well, that helps a bit." No doubt everyone in the room knew how the game was often played behind the scenes – and Edsel's joke had hit them at their most tender spot. "Poison, in jest," as Hamlet said.

*(This might be continued at some point. Then again, it might not.)*