For politics at its best, get up early
Sunday, November 1, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The next time the high-tech backbiting of a political campaign season makes you fear for the republic and despair of democracy, take a trip to Greater New Hope Baptist Church in Avondale.

There, for 21 years now, a few hundred church members and neighborhood residents gather in the church basement for their "candidates' breakfast." It's a must for every local candidate in the last frantic weekend of campaigning.

Pinkie Williams, a church member and a long-time political activist in Avondale, organizes the breakfast. Ladies of the church show up before dawn to cook big mounds of scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, huge tubs of grits.

The candidates file in and out all morning long, as the audience eats breakfast and reads the campaign brochures the candidates pass out table-to-table.

And they listen. They pay attention to every candidate for state representative or county commissioner or Congress who shows up. They eyeball them, give them the once over, listen for something that will make them go out to the polls three days later and punch a hole next to that candidate's name.

Too many of us are too used to seeing politics at its worst. Attack ads. Name-calling. Huge amounts of money being poured into campaigns by special interests.

But, at Greater New Hope, you can see politics at its best, and get a good breakfast out of the deal.

There, they practice the kind of politics you don't see much anymore, the kind where a candidate must show up, look people in the eye, and make his or her own case.

In Ohio and Kentucky, we have just gone through a political campaign season where candidates for state and congressional offices have spent $50 million -- and that's a conservative estimate -- on slick media campaigns devised, for the most part, by political consultants inside the Beltway, some of the same talking heads you see providing the incessant daily chatter on the cable news networks.

That $50 million does not count the millions more in "soft money" spent on "issue ads" to influence this election by the political parties and special interest groups on both the left and right.

Most of this money has disappeared into the black hole of television advertising. It has been spent on 30-second commercials that are not really meant to turn you into an informed voter; they are meant to leave impressions. And most of the impressions being left by the ads in this campaign are negative ones, one candidate trying to tear down the other.

The governor's race in Ohio is a case in point. By the time it is all over, the two candidates -- Republican Bob Taft and Democrat Lee Fisher -- will have spent well over $20 million between them. And where will the bulk of this fortune go? For television advertising, of course, where each can call the other a liar.

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

Issues, in that race, as in many others this year, are simply elevator music, something that is there just to fill the gaps in the name-calling.

In races like this one, voters are left only the thinnest impressions of what the candidates are all about. This has been the year of the child in American politics -- every campaign commercial, it seems, is chock full of fresh-faced kids, to show that the candidate cares about their future.

Well, who doesn't? Do they mean to say we have candidates out there who don't want children to have good educations, good health care, good futures?

Of course not.

That kind of bland, cookie-cutter, belabor-the-obvious message is fine if all your campaign consists of are 30-second commercials designed to sell you like a bag of fat-free potato chips, but if you have to show up in public in front of real voters, you might want to think of something more substantial to say.

That's why the voters who show up in the basement of Greater New Hope Baptist every year on the Saturday before the election have the right idea; they know what being a citizen in a democracy is all about. They want more from the people they elect.

Go join them for breakfast next year.

And try the smoked sausage. It's very good.

Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail