“Your uncle Gordie is running for mayor.”
That’s how my father opened a phone call we had late last winter. At first, it was the source of a good laugh. I honestly thought Dad was kidding. His preferred form of humor is a smart-ass remark under his breath, but he’s not above the occasional practical joke. But when he added a slightly-embarrassed, “Joe, I’m not kidding,” I knew we had a serious situation on our hands.
My uncle Gordie is not the first person you’d think of as a candidate for mayor of my hometown of Porter’s Bay. In fact, Gordie isn’t anywhere near the top of the list. Think of the kindergarten kid who dines on paste and hasn’t quite zeroed in on the location of the bathroom and you’ve got someone higher up on the list than Gordie. You could call him the Black Sheep of the family, but that implies a Rebel Without A Cause sort of Devil May Care attitude. Gordie, on the other hand, is just a f**k up.
And that’s not only my opinion. The facts will bear me out on this. My father comes from a family of three brothers. Dad’s established himself as a respected small business owner. My uncle Mel is a sheriff in rural Minnesota. And Gordie is a fifty-three year-old pizza delivery man. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. Gordie is a fifty-three year-old PART-TIME pizza delivery man.
I might’ve offered a modicum of support to Gordie’s candidacy if there had been a particular issue he was fighting for; safer streets, a boost in tourism, a cap on property taxes, better schools, etc. But as near as anyone can tell, Gordie launched his campaign after a night of doing tequila shooters with his friend/former co-defendant, Butch. Did I say after? I’m sorry, I meant during.
My father seemed less concerned about Gordie’s obviously-impending defeat than he was about whatever embarrassment the campaign would cause the family. For people like me, my uncle Mel and my brother Kevin, this isn’t a problem. We all live out of town. But my parents and my brother Owen still live in Porter’s Bay. Gordie hasn’t exactly been a source of family or civic pride to this point, so Dad was worried about his brother’s assing about on an even bigger stage.
On top of that, my father had a good relationship with Rick Nordvold, the outgoing mayor. Rick had served Porter’s Bay honorably and well for the last ten years. Besides, Hizzoner routinely lost money to my father in golfing side bets and had been instrumental in getting Dad a loading dock for the store. Clearly, a loss to the community.
Gordie was entering a rather crowded field. With the job finally open, it seemed the mayoralty appealed to every swinging dick and…y’know what, I don’t have a female metaphor to go with that. Let’s move on. There were sixteen people entering the mayoral campaign. My graduating class wasn’t that large. (Okay, it was, but just for comedic effect…y’know what? I shouldn’t have to explain my writing. Again, let’s move on. This whole paragraph was problematic.)
Gordie’s competition was stiff. Nearly every member of the City Council, at least one past mayor, the chair of the school board, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and a few of the town’s more politically ambitious lawyers all launched campaigns. And Gordie didn’t exactly hit the ground running. In one of his early appearances, he vowed to lead the people of Porter’s Bay like “lambs to the slaughter.” Later, in a handshake line, Mr. McGillicutty complained about the safety of the bike lanes, saying his teenage son had broken his leg after getting hit by a car. Gordie, however, was distracted by Mrs. McGillicutty’s cleavage and just said, “Great. Say hi to him for me.” During the first debate, Gordie was asked about improving business opportunities. He thought about it for several seconds, then announced he had to take a leak and left. He was found later in the parking lot, shotgunning beers with Red Hasselbeck.
Still, a funny thing happened on the way to embarrassment: Gordie got noticed. Behavior that would have doomed a normal (or sane) politician actually made him stand out. In a race that was slightly less crowded than a mosh pit, it was enough to get him traction. Most people thought Gordie an incompetent buffoon, but he was an incompetent buffoon people recognized.
The one thing Gordie lacked, though, was a campaign issue. Buffoonery could take you a long way, but sooner or later people have to believe you stand for something. (Doesn’t have to be much, but it has to be SOMETHING.) Said issue was found when Gordie’s buddy, Wee Dave, walked into the Corner Bar one night and started bitching about the couple who had just moved to town and opened another antique store. “How many antique places this town need?” Wee Dave reportedly said, before vomiting up the complimentary popcorn.
Wee Dave both does and does not have a point. Yes, Porter’s Bay is overflowing with antique stores, so much so that I’m convinced nothing in that town has ever been sold for the first time. It also has an abundance of coffee shops, bookstores and cafes. But it sits on the scenic North Shore of Minnesota and relies heavily on the tourist trade. If the town had a motto, it would be: “We’ve got quaint coming out of our ass!” My father has been able to keep a family-owned hardware store in business lo’ these many years because the locals don’t want big box stores uglying up the landscape.
But Gordie, in one of the few inspired moments of his life, realized the issue was not so much the antique stores as the idea of people moving to Porter’s Bay just to open them. What good was dotting the countryside with Mom and Pop stores opened by carpetbaggers from the Twin Cities if they didn’t hire people who already lived in Porter’s Bay? How many citizens could a big box store employ if only the City Council would see its way to clear to letting one move in? It was time this quaint nonsense was called on the carpet. Gordie proclaimed this message in every bar he could find until his throat was sore and his sobriety seriously compromised. And then there was the scary part:
It wasn’t as if the whole town was marching in the streets, but Gordie had found his issue and his campaign, strangely, was becoming legitimate. It worried my father enough that he called me one night just to talk. I tried to calm him down, telling him there was no chance the City Council would approve the idea. The town has nearly a zero percent unemployment rate, meaning most everyone’s employed at one of the stores that would be driven out of business by the appearance of big box stores. Why would people get behind an idea that didn’t represent their own interests?
My father could only sigh. “Because pride defeats logic every time,” he said.
And that was the problem. Gordie’s campaign hadn’t talked about the consequences of big box stores moving in, but instead focused on those goons from the Cities coming in and taking everyone’s jobs.
“What jobs?” I asked my dad, “Someone opens a small business in a space that’s otherwise empty, they’re just filling a gap. They aren’t taking anyone’s jobs.”
“That’s not how Gordie’s people see it. According to them, these people from the Cities are taking opportunities away from the people in Porter’s Bay.”
“You mean like Gordie and his buddies? The same guys with eight brain cells and maybe one GED among them? THEY’RE losing opportunities?”
“That’s how they see it,” Dad said, “Oh, and Gordie’s got a campaign slogan now. Porter’s Bay: Let’s Do This!”
“What the hell does that even mean?”
“I don’t know, but he’s got caps and t-shirts that say it.”
Another advantage Gordie had was that none of the other candidates took him all that seriously. As a result, they were more inclined to sling mud at each other than at Gordie (who made a rather filthy target to begin with.) The two leading candidates were Earl Bird, a member of the City Council, and Carla Hebner, a local attorney and DFL activist. Of the two, Bird seemed to have the early lead, having more experience in local government. But Hebner is a good speaker and a vigorous campaigner and proved to be a stronger competitor than anyone expected. Gordie decided to start attacking Bird because Bird had once cited Gordie for keeping too many rotted out cars in my grandparents’ yard. So clearly, this was an ancient grudge.
The idea of doing any actual research into Bird’s history on the City Council would have required the kind of time and effort Gordie wasn’t used to putting in. So he found a shortcut: he just made s**t up. He began talking about how Bird spent long hours at the office and that his secretary suddenly left town. Shortly after seeing her OB/GYN. Gordie was guessing at the first part and outright making up the second. But the rumor spread fast and took on such interesting permutations in the retelling that by the time Bird was aware of it, the rumor had altered enough to give Gordie plausible deniability. Hebner, of course, jumped on the rumor with both feet. She didn’t outright say it was true, but called it “interesting” enough times to both convey the message and give HER plausible deniability. Bird fiercely denied the rumors, but the angrier he got, the more it sounded like he had something to hide.
Gordie followed this up by pointing out how Bird’s grocery store was thriving and that the city’s deficit just about matched Bird’s profits. Even a cursory glance at the city’s books would reveal that to be utter hogwash and Bird was more than willing to comply. But nobody took him up on it. The citizens were already convinced of his guilt. And in a campaign, that’s as good as being actually guilty.
By the time the primary rolled around, Bird was reduced to maniacally screaming at anyone who impugned his integrity. Which, of course, made it REALLY look like he had something to hide. The results of said primary bore this out, as Bird finished a distant third to Hebner and Gordie, in that order. It didn’t seem to matter that the two finalists, combined, had scored less than 50% of the vote. In an overcrowded field, it was enough. And to the thrill of some and the horror of many, my uncle Gordie was now in measurable distance of becoming Porter’s Bay’s next mayor.
And when I’m talking the horror of many, I’m talking chiefly about my father.
Dad sounded resigned when he called me with the election results. But he sounded out-and-out panicked during a follow-up phone call a few days later. Apparently, Gordie had stopped by for a few drinks and, flushed with victory (not to mention the contents of my dad’s liquor cabinet), he started boasting about his plans for the city. The entire experience left my father shaken, if not stirred.
“You have any idea what that idiot wants to do?” he said, “He’s going to make himself dictator.”
“Dictator? How in the hell is he going to do that?”
“He has it all planned out. Apparently, it’s in the city charter. If put to a popular vote, the charter can be redrawn to reduce the number of City Councilors. If Gordie gets elected, he could call a vote as soon as the spring.”
“It’ll never get passed.”
“I never thought Gordie would get past the primary, did I? And if he’s mayor, he’s got every business owner in town by the balls. He can impose fines, reject construction plans, do whatever he needs to do without getting approval from the City Council. Business owners will have to line up behind him and then the damn thing will get passed for sure. And he’ll make sure the Council gets reduced only to people who support him.”
“And then everyone will be afraid to vote against him the next time.”
“Exactly. He’ll be set for the rest of what passes for his life.”
And I couldn’t help but think what having Gordie in the mayor’s office, with very little oversight, was going to mean. There is virtually no chance Gordie will not use that to his own (corrupt) advantage. My little town might soon be a shell of its former self.
“What are you going to do?” I asked my dad.
“From Porter’s Bay?”
“No, from the country. Some place Gordie could never find me.”
“Where would that be?” I asked.
“Canada should do the trick.”