How they got their starts in politics

By John Maginnis
On a quiet week-day morning at the home office a few months ago came a knock at the door and, with it, my first personal contact with the great non-campaign of 2011.

It was a college-student volunteer for Gov. Bobby Jindal, canvassing the neighborhood to spread the good word and to ask if the governor can count on my support and, also, if I wanted to volunteer for his campaign or just write him a check.

Thoroughly canvassed, I thought nothing more of the encounter, until a few weeks later came another knock on the door from another of the governor’s young campaign workers, trolling for votes, volunteers, checks. The Mormons have nothing on the Friends of Bobby Jindal.

Besides admiring the relentless efficiency of this campaign without opposition, I felt grateful to the young men, without whom many of my neighbors might not ever hear from a live person that there is an election on Oct. 22. It will be the ceaseless robo calls instead.

Door-to-door canvassing, in the heat of summer, is the province of the young, and is often the first taste of politics for those who will go on to practice the art themselves. Or to manage campaigns. Or to write about them.
That got me thinking of my own first time, on a cold evening in early 1960, as an 11-year-old putting flyers on car windshields in an A&P parking lot for Chep Morrison, in his doomed runoff against Jimmie Davis. It was not my idea, but my father’s, who was far better at talking politics than at picking winners. He went 0 for 3 with Chep, though, later that year, he would get JFK right.

Swept up by the nostalgia of campaigns past, I soon was on the phone asking politicos how they got their starts in this business.

Ex-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, at 13, also started out putting flyers on windshields, also at her father’s behest, except that he was the candidate, unsuccessfully challenging the incumbent assessor of Iberia Parish. The losing experience would have been easier to get over, she said, had he not run and lost again four years later, for clerk of court. “We all had a fit,” she said, when he announced. “It really soured me on politics.” It also taught her a lesson about picking her races, for she never lost one herself.

Congressman Rodney Alexander has better memories from his dad’s run for Jackson Parish Police Jury in 1956. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said, “sitting around the table with my brother and sister, stuffing envelopes.” Father and son campaigned together and, 15 years later, served together when 25-year-old Rodney was elected on his own.

Others started far from home, like former Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown, who, while working in New York City in 1965, joined John Lindsay’s campaign for mayor. It may have been someone’s idea of a joke to assign the kid from Ferriday, La., to the campaign office in Harlem. Yet the experience must have been rewarding, because Brown, in many campaigns on his own, always ran well in African-American precincts.

Former Sen. John Breaux was starstruck by John F. Kennedy’s visit to Crowley in 1959. The next year, as class president at St. Michael’s High, he remembers “all the nuns out there pushing” for Kennedy. Their students got the message and did the same.

Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden started out in Scotlandville as a teenage volunteer for community activist Acie Belton, founder of the Second Ward Voter’s League. In 1988, when Metro Councilman Holden was elected to the Legislature, he named Belton to serve out his council term.

Normally, young volunteers are sheltered from the ugly, dirty business of street politics. Not James Carville. As a 13-year-old working for Price LeBlanc’s legislative campaign against Boysie Jumonville, Carville recalls, “My job was to tear down Boysie’s signs.” As the twig is bent . . .

So too, in a way, for young Bobby Jindal, who, running for group president at summer camp, learned the value of outspending the opposition. According to his press office, he “offered free candy to anyone who voted for him.” I don’t know why he got away from that, but I will be sure to ask when his next volunteer knocks on my door.

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