Rupert Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Negative politics not Cliff’s style

While still wiping the political slime off from the nasty U.S. House election, I continue to remember why negative politics had a profound effect on me.

I was still a teenager when in 1971 Cliff Finch was making his first state-wide race in a run for Lieutenant Governor. I was one of only a few paid staffers.

Finch had been elected to the Mississippi Legislature and was later elected and re-elected to the position of district attorney by simply out-working all opposition at a break-neck pace with un-exhaustable energy.

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Finch began his state-wide race doing much of what he did in his previous district races, but learned that Mississippi was too large and voters too numerous to shake every hand and call every name like he so confidently did on a smaller scale.

He didn’t have time to woo the voters like he had as district attorney running from county-to-county, community-to-community, rally-to-rally shaking hands, kissing babies and asking about family and kin.

Beginning the race without formally naming a campaign manager, he called everybody “my campaign manager” but that’s another story. He set forth to conquer the world (or in this case, the state) with zeal. He would later hire a Columbus PR guru, Mearl Frazier, as campaign manager to add some organizational skills to his campaign. It was also Frazier’s first state-wide campaign.

In those days people still flocked to political rallies and those voters loved Finch’s populist style. He would score points at every rally, large or small, and would always have a local contact to keep him abreast of what was important to the area.

As the election drew closer Finch’s numbers improved but his major opponent was a well known political figure by the name of William Winter. Although Winter’s name was familiar to this state’s voters, Winter was also labeled as “liberal” by many of us red-neck types because he was too sympathetic with black voters and integration issues.

With about ten days remaining before the election, Finch’s henchmen or political know-it-alls mostly from the Jackson area begged and pleaded for him to go negative. It was completely against his nature and way of doing business that he relinquished.

In the WLBT station in Jackson Finch recorded the negative ads against Winter as we staffers watched knowing that words coming from his mouth went completely against his “be-for-everything-and-against-nothing” attitude and style of campaigning.

Just a couple of days earlier we had learned that the campaign, as often was the case, didn’t have the $10,000 needed to buy the air time and would have to borrow it. When all eyes searched the room for answers they seemed to fall upon me and a consensus was quickly formed.

It was my turn to call Mr. John at Batesville Security Bank and ask for the additional loan–not an enviable task for a 19-year-old with one year of junior college under my belt.

Mr. John somewhat reluctantly agreed, the air time was purchased and Cliff went negative. Up until that point, the numbers were increasing. From then on they were either stagnant or dropping and Cliff Finch lost his first election.

None of us then or later thought that he would have defeated Winter if the negative campaigning had been avoided, but at least we would have finished the election on a positive note.

But that might not have mattered. Despite protest from local political know-it-alls, Finch ran for governor four years later and defeated William Winter for the Democratic nomination–and the rest is history.

I don’t think negative advertising won him the governor’s chair.