Monday, March 06, 2017

Lessons From A Bizarre Career

During my morning trip through the obituaries in search of dead voters to kill, I noticed a long-forgotten name who inadvertently taught us some valuable political lessons. This is definitely NOT the most important political story in Iowa today, but it's certainly colorful.

Rosanne Freeburg, formerly of Cedar Rapids, passed away last month in North Carolina. Her brief, bizarre political career happened during my transition from professional journalist to campaign staffer in 1992.

Freeburg had filed in the Democratic US Senate primary against Jean Lloyd-Jones, then a state senator and very clearly the favorite. The legislative session was dragging on and I was having trouble pinning Jean down. So I interviewed Freeburg because I had a half hour of dead air to fill and because I wanted some leverage to get Lloyd-Jones to move me up her schedule.

The answer to my first question took 15 minutes of my allocated 30, and by three minutes in I knew this lady was nuts. I can't remember exactly what she stood for, I just remember the long, impossible to edit sentences (back before digital editing; we actually used razor blades and tape) incorporating multiple unrelated topics. Thus, the first lesson from Freeburg:
  • The paradigm of objective journalism does not allow reporters to state the obvious when a candidate is clearly nuts. This turned out to be extremely important in 2016.
I was already on my way out of journalism, largely because of the objective paradigm, but I knew the rules. By about 10 minutes in I knew that her answers and syntax would be a load of work to slice and splice, and I knew how she would answer any question. So I condensed my seven or eight remaining questions down to two and just let her ramble. Since I wasn't allowed to say "this woman is nuts," I would have to let the listeners conclude that.

I may still have needed to edit for time because answer three took her past the half hour; if I remember right I just lopped off the end of the tape at the 29 minute mark when she briefly paused for breath. I do very clearly remember almost pushing her out the door because she wanted to keep going, and she kept repeating the phrase "self-anointed, self-appointed."

That phrase leads us to our second lesson:
  • Be very, very careful about playing favorites in a primary, especially if you have a party title and especially if you're dealing with a candidate who is clearly nuts.
Freeburg's beef was that state party officials were very clearly in favor of Lloyd-Jones, on account of Jean was not crazy. Specifically Freeburg was mad that Jean's campaign was under the same roof as IDP HQ. I don't know the legalities but presumably the appropriate paperwork was in order. The Objective Press made too much of this because the 1992 primary was a real yawner and like me they had dead air and column inches to fill. (This is back when there were far, far more working journalists than we have today.)

This was the legislative session when Iowa's famous $3 gift law was passed, because of a scandal involving a state senator. Lloyd-Jones was stuck with the chore of chairing the ethics committee, and all anyone remembered from the stories was "Jean Lloyd-Jones, blah blah blah, ethics committee." No no no people. She was the investigatOR not the investigatEE...

Between that, low turnout, and the wacky climate of 1992 - on primary day in June, Ross Perot was actually polling in first place - Freeburg won a shocking 39% of the vote and carried quite a few counties. Jean was frankly lucky that we had a high turnout supervisor primary here in her home county to boost her numbers.

Feeling vindicated by her strong showing, and still fuming at the Iowa Democratic Party for supporting (sic) the "self-anointed, self-appointed" Lloyd-Jones, Freeburg endorsed Perot and filed in the Senate race as an independent. Which leads to our third lesson:
  • Never, never, never agree to debate the third party candidates without your major party rival present.
The Iowa ballot was very, very crowded in 1992. We had a record 14 presidential candidates and the biggest ever non-presidential field, nine candidates, in the Senate race. Including one with the great name Mel Boring.

1992 was only Chuck Grassley's third Senate run but he'd already established an "unbeatable" reputation. So he saw little need to debate Lloyd-Jones. In an effort to shame him, Lloyd-Jones agreed to debate the seven third party contenders, with an empty chair for Grassley.

It backfired badly. Instead of singling out Grassley for not debating (he eventually agreed to one debate held the night before the election), it had the effect of lowering Lloyd-Jones to the level of the loonies (an actual party in the UK). And Freeburg was the looniest of all. When offered time for her closing statement, she sang "God Bless America."

Freeburg set out to run for something again in 1994.  My googling says Senate again, though that may be wrong. Or that may be right and she may not have realized that US Senate was not on the ballot that year. In any case, she never followed up and filed, and she left the state in the early 2000s.

The last lesson from Freeburg:
  • Recruit someone for every race, even the unwinnable, to avoid embarrassments exactly like Rosanne Freeburg.
Jean Lloyd-Jones was a long-shot against Grassley - she lost roughly 70-30 that fall - but she was someone the Democratic straight ticket base could support. Had she not run, Grandma Goofy would have been the Democratic nominee, the next name on the ballot below Bill Clinton. And had Art Small not done the Democrats the same favor in 2004, there would have been no Democrat at all on the ballot.

Democrats learned that lesson hard in 1992 when they failed to recruit an opponent for Jim Leach. Another eccentric fellow, who had run an asterisk independent race in 1990, had filed on the Democratic line.  When no genuine Democratic candidate filed, he became the nominee by default. The Democrats had to waste some energy that fall distancing themselves from the guy. He broke the straight ticket very high on the ballot, and in Linn County the Democrats lost three House seats.

No comments: