Friday, February 27, 2009

FLASHBACK: 1952 and 1956. For the first time ever, America's presidential candidates visit Bay County

IN THE 37 PRESIDENTIAL elections since Florida's admission to statehood in 1845, Sunshine State voters have chosen the eventual winning candidate 28 times.The last time Floridians backed a losing candidate was 1960, when they chose Richard Nixon over John Kennedy.That makes ten straight presidential contests in which Floridians backed a winner!

As we know from the 2000 elections, when victory in Florida put George Bush in the White House: As Florida Goes, So Goes the Nation!

It seems curious, then,that past presidential campaigns have all but ignored Florida's Panhandle. In fact, it wasn't until the 1952 Democratic presidential primary that America's major party candidates brought their campaigns to Bay County.

On April 30, 1952, Senators Richard Russell (Ga.) and Estes Kefauver (Ky.)arrived in Panama City, seeking votes in what was then known as a "preferential primary" (which didn't necessarily bind delegates to a particular candidate).

Kefauver--the Kentucky senator who was as famous for his trademark coonskin cap as his crime-busting legislation--spoke to a crowd of 500 soon after arrival at the municipal airport. The folksy Kefauver placed his cap atop a young boy's head as the crowd cheered.

Later that evening, Senator Russell spoke to 1,200 locals at Tommy Oliver Field, flanked by Panama City Mayor Carl Gray and Congressman Bob Sikes. On May 27, Russell--bouyed by heavy support from the Panhandle--defeated Kefauver in the primary.

Neither man, however, would win the '52 nomination. That summer, convention delegates drafted Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson (who would lose to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in November).

IN THE SPRING OF '56, Stevenson and Kefauver--battling for the nomination--brought their campaigns to town.

Stevenson took a walking tour of Harrison Avenue, the heart of Panama City's downtown, where he shook hands and schmoozed customers. After lunching at the Cove Hotel, Stevenson spoke to about 500 supporters on the hotel lawn, praising Panama City as an exemplar of Florida's rapid growth. The candidate, known for his wit, quipped, "My friend Bob Sikes has served 16 years in Washington, and I'm only asking for half that the White House!"

Kefauver's '56 visit included a speech at the Civic Center and a night at the Dixie-Sherman Hotel. Although he would go on to win the primary, the Democrats again nominated Stevenson, who then choose Kefauver as his running mate.

No matter. America liked Ike just fine, thank you, and Stevenson and Kefauver were soundly defeated that November.

The 1952 Democratic campaign, though unsuccessful, evokes memories of the first time the eyes of the nation turned to Bay County during America's race for the White House.

FLASHBACK: 1972. More presidential politicking in the Panhandle

THE DEATH OF John Lindsay in December 2000 at age 79, and Shirley Chisholm in January 2005 at age 80, evoked memories of the 1972 Democratic presidential race, when these high-profile candidates came to Panama City a-courtin' Panhandle voters.

At the time, any visit from a presidential wanna-be was big news. Not since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson, Estes Kefauver, and Richard Russell brought their campaigns to Bay County, had major candidates stumped the Panhandle. 

Lindsay, you'll recall, was New York's dashing, debonair mayor during the turbulent 1960s. His February 1972 visit just happened to coincide with the first binding presidential primary in Florida history, held March 14. At stake: the Democratic nomination and the right to face President Richard Nixon in the fall.

The field of candidates included George Wallace, Henry Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Lindsay. All but McGovern visited Bay County. The front-runner was clearly Wallace; when he spoke at Panama City's Municipal Auditorium on Feb. 4, a standing-room crowd of 4,000 cheered his law-and-order, anti-busing platform with near religious fervor.

Lindsay arrived the next day, and several hundred people gathered at Panama Plaza on 15th Street to glimpse the 51-year-old, Kennedyesque mayor. Lindsay's platform--anti-war, pro-busing--attracted mostly students and youthful supporters. After all, a new law had just granted 18-to-21-year-olds the right to vote; for these young Bay Countians, this represented a first electoral opportunity.

Lindsay spoke to the crowd, vowing to change the Panhandle from a "low wage area...(where) the man at the bottom ranks of labor is just as bad off as ever." He argued for tighter pollution-controls: "Unless we change things," he said, "these magnificent beaches will be ruined forever." Then Lindsay removed his jacket and worked the crowd.The candidate made a final stop in Bay County, at Jinks Middle School, where he handed out basketball trophies before heading to Pensacola.

Come election night, however, Lindsay's Florida politicking had failed miserably; Wallace won handily and Lindsay finished fifth. Among Bay voters Wallace received 11,000 votes (66%) to Lindsay's 420 (1%).

Within days Lindsay announced his withdrawal from the race and the nomination eventually went to McGovern.The campaign would be John Lindsay's final fling at national politics.

AMERICA CELEBRATED ITS first-ever Black History Month in 1976. Four years earlier, Shirley Chisholm transcended black history and entered mainstream American history as the first African-American woman to run for president.

Chisholm--then a New York Democratic Congress-woman--brought her historic campaign to Bay County on March 11, 1972. Local resident Myrtle Rhodes recalls Chisholm's appearance at the Safari Restaurant on 11th Street. "There was standing room only," Rhodes recalls, "and everyone was excited. We knew this was history-making."

Rhodes remembers Chisholm, the self-proclaimed champion of the poor and disenfranchised, declaring herself the only candidate in the field who was "unbought and unbossed"--a reference to Chisholm's fierce independence. The phrase became Chisholm's campaign slogan. She finished her speech with this admonition: "If you people don't get out and vote, I'm coming back to Panama City and bawl you out." The crowd stood and cheered, and afterwards Rhodes made her way to the front of the room and shook Chisholm's hand. 

Rhodes could identify with Chisholm's experiences as the first of her race and sex to serve in the House of Representatives and the first to run for president. When Rhodes joined the local Navy Base in 1966, she was the only African-American professional employed there.She retired in 1997 as head of the Technical Library.

In Bay County on primary election day, Chisholm received 841 votes, finishing third behind Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Sen. Scoop Jackson of Washington. Chisholm left politics in 1982 and retired to Williamsville, N.Y. Her pioneering presidential campaign is recalled today as an important step forward in America's march toward equal opportunities for all.

FLORIDA'S FIRST-EVER binding primary brought two other Democratic heavyweights to town in the spring of '72: former veep Hubert H. Humphrey and Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson.

Humphrey's arrival, the evening of January 21, 1972, brought 3,000 folks to Panama City's Municipal Auditorium, attracted by free bar-b-que and as powerful a dias as had ever assembled in town: HHH supporters State Senator Dempsey Barron, Gov. Reuben Askew, and U.S. Senator Lawton Chiles--in jeans, boots, and cowboy hat, no less.

Humphrey, who had contested unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination twice before, addressed the crowd: "To those who say my time has passed, I say: 'You're looking at the wrong clock!' "He promised to "pull our troops out of Vietnam," and proclaimed Florida's March 14 primary "the most important in the nation because it represents people from all over America."

Humphrey exited the building surrounded by fans. City cops cleared a path to his limo and Humphrey--ever the "Happy Warrior"--waded into the crowd, shaking hands and speaking personally to as many folks as time allowed.

SCOOP JACKSON ARRIVED the evening of March 2 accompanied by two heavy hitters of his own: Legendary long-time Congressman Bob "He-Coon" Sikes and local business leader Charles Whitehead.

Dawn the following day found Jackson greeting workers at the paper mill, then on to Gulf Coast Community College to talk with students. At noon Jackson spoke to 200 members of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. "Jackson covered military spending, crime, amnesty for draft dodgers," reported the News Herald, "with the biggest applause for his stand against forced busing."

Despite their efforts, neither Humphrey nor Jackson were able to sufficiently stir voters. Humphrey finished a dismal fifth locally and would never again seek the nomination. He retired to Waverly, Minnesota and died in January 1978 at age 66. 

Jackson managed 2,400 votes in the March 14 primary, still a far cry from George Wallace's winning total of 10,700. Jackson would serve in the Senate until his death in Septmeber 1983 at age 71.