Sunday, May 25, 2003

Springer tests populist appeal

TV host would like to go from King of Silly to Senator of Ohio

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer


Jerry Springer's trip across Ohio
YOUNGSTOWN - George Fairchild, a 70-year-old retiree from the Youngstown Air Force Reserve Station, had heard enough of Jerry Springer's explanations, rationalizations and excuses about the Jerry Springer Show.

"I know you try to defend the show, but I wouldn't," Fairchild told Springer during a morning radio show on WKBN, Youngstown's answer to Cincinnati's WLW. "Don't worry about it. If you have the right issues, if you're for the working people, I'll vote for you."

Springer knows that Cincinnati voters can see him as a former mayor and respected news anchor. But what about places like Youngstown, where his reputation as the king of trash TV precedes him by 12 years?

"I've got to get through the clutter of my show. I don't know if I can do that. If I can get people to think about something other than my silly show, I'll run," he said.

As Springer pondered a 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate in interviews, speeches and union hall meetings around Youngstown this month, not one voter demanded contrition for cavorting on stage with portly prostitutes, love-struck lesbians and two-timing transsexuals.

Springer once called Cincinnati "the most forgiving city in the world" after being re-elected to Cincinnati City Council despite being caught up in a prostitution scandal in 1974. Voters in Youngstown seem unaware that he has ever sinned.

Perhaps that's why Springer has been to the Mahoning Valley three times in the past two months. Youngstown's 14 percent unemployment rate - the result, locals say, of national trade policies that have shipped thousands of steel jobs overseas - is the highest of any major city in Ohio. The town is so blue-collar that Youngstown State University is the only institution in the country with a major in working-class studies. The region has a history of electing mavericks such as James A. Traficant Jr. to Congress.

Born: Feb. 13, 1944, in London, England; emigrated to Queens, N.Y., in 1949.
Education: Bachelor's in political science, Tulane University, 1965; law degree, Northwestern University, 1968.
Political career: Aide to Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, 1968; led campaign to lower Ohio's voting age to 19, 1969; ran unsuccessfully for Congress, 1970; served on Cincinnati City Council, 1971-74, 1975-1981; selected mayor, 1977-78; sought Democratic nomination for Ohio governor, 1982.
Broadcast career: News anchor, WLWT (Channel 5), 1982-1993; host, Jerry Springer Show, 1991-present.
Residence: Chicago and Sarasota, Fla.
Family: Wife, Micki, and one adult daughter.
If Springer can't beat Republican Sen. George Voinovich here, he can't beat him anywhere.

Springer's trips to Youngstown - and indeed, to every corner of the state over the past few months - show that the former Cincinnati councilman's drive to get back into politics is no mere fanciful flirtation or publicity stunt.

"He sure looks like a candidate, acts like a candidate and smells like a candidate," said state Sen. Eric Fingerhut, Springer's likely primary opponent in 2004. "Until he says he's not, you have to assume he's a candidate."

Even Fingerhut admits that Springer's potential entrance into the race has helped him, by raising the profile of what would otherwise be a sleepy Senate campaign. After 16 years of nonstop Republican rule in Ohio, Democrats are desperate for a winner.

"Folks in the valley are diehard Democrats, and Springer offers to put some life back in the Democratic Party," said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, who has studied Mahoning Valley politics.

"These folks have a high tolerance for colorful behavior. It's unclear to me that they will end up backing Springer in the 2004 primaries or general election, but for the moment he's exciting."

After a four-mile limo ride from Youngstown's WKBN to the Western Reserve Building Construction Trades Council, Springer told a small group of union leaders that he would make an "unemotional assessment" of his chances by July.

"I got lucky. I made some money. But I'm not trying to get famous anymore. That's been done," he told them. "Ordinary people relate to me. Maybe it's because of my show. But I like to think it's because I'm talking about their issues."

The union leaders were encouraging.

"I hate your show," said Tom Warga of Laborers Local 125. "But I see you as someone who I don't find much in the Democratic Party - and that's someone with a chance to win."

Darrell Tibbs, of Laborers Local 809, said he doesn't think the Springer show is real.

"But the puppet show they have in Washington is actually destroying lives," he said.

Fighting an unfavorable rating

If Springer made his decision based solely on encounters like these, he would already have declared himself a candidate, joining Fingerhut of Cleveland in a race against Voinovich, he said.

But Springer insists that any decision to run will be based on evidence that he can improve on the 71 percent unfavorable rating in a University of Cincinnati poll conducted in February.

To do that, Springer will conduct polling, assemble focus groups and run a "mock campaign," his advisers said.

"You want to get an idea as to whether, with all the negative stuff they're going to throw at Jerry, whether the transition can take place from talk show host to political candidate," said Springer strategist Dale Butland.

"The attacks will start almost from day one. But I think Ohioans have this innate sense of Midwestern fairness. We're operating under the assumption that the attacks will work for a while, but there will come a point when people will say, enough. Now we want to hear about his message, his policy prescriptions," Butland said.

The process of honing that message started in Cincinnati two months ago, during a March 25 visit to the Hamilton County Young Democrats at Carol's on Main. Springer paid for a five-man video crew - with a truckload of lighting equipment and cameras - to tape his downtown appearance. Like overnight Nielsen ratings, focus groups will use hand-held dials to register their pleasure or displeasure with Springer's every sentence.

At Carol's, Springer gave a vague outline of his platform. "Don't hold me to the details, because I'm not a candidate yet," he said.

Taxes: Springer would cut payroll taxes for low-income Americans, eliminating the tax on the first $10,000 to $20,000 of income. Those cuts would be offset by increasing payroll taxes on Americans who make more than $80,400 a year.

• Education: Springer would increase spending on early childhood education and provide free college tuition to anyone willing to teach math or science in poor school districts.

Foreign policy: Springer has opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars with equal fervor. He supports a Palestinian state.

A self-described "pinko liberal," Springer is a walking contradiction.

Dressed in Armani suits and bowling shoes, he gets from place to place in a private jet and chauffeured limousines - to give speeches decrying the elitism of American government.

He is, even his detractors admit, one of the brightest and most articulate potential candidates around. But he is a man who has been almost singularly blamed for the dumbing-down of America.

Indeed, even as he tries to differentiate between the talk show host and the candidate, the show is always in the background.

It happens almost every time he enters a room. The bigger the room and the younger the crowd, the more it happens.

"Jer-RY! Jer-RY! Jer-RY!"

The trademark chant that opens every episode of the Jerry Springer Show follows him everywhere. Sometimes, he'll hear it walking down the street.

Springer doesn't say so, but his body language suggests that he would just as soon leave the hoots and hollers on the set of his show. But he starts every speech acknowledging the baggage.

"May you never be on my show," he says, followed in recent weeks with the punch line: "Unfortunately, I can see that for some of you, it's too late."

Man of many voices

Anyone who's watched the movie Ringmaster, or who has seen Springer sing a set at the Blind Lemon bar in Mount Adams, knows that Springer is an incorrigible ham.

No one is more at home in a television studio. And as he arrived early for a midday interview at WFMJ (Channel 21) the NBC affiliate in Youngstown, his grande mocha from one of Youngstown's two Starbucks was starting to kick in.

Turned loose in a television studio with some time to kill, Springer gave a performance to an audience of a few crew members and two high school interns.

For a sound check, he belted Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon." When the microphone turned out to be dead, he sprung up out of the chair, looked straight into the camera, swung his hips and sang Elvis Presley's "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You."

Sitting back down, he did an impersonation of John F. Kennedy, "Youngstown, I wanna be yaw senatah," and Jerry Lewis, "Hey, Lady!"

His goofiness continued into the interview.

"Who is the real Jerry Springer?" asked midday anchor Susan DeLeo.

"Actually, a lot of people don't know this, but the real Jerry Springer is Jimmy Carter," Springer said.

"What are four adjectives that best describe you?" DeLeo asked.

"Very tall. A great dresser. A huge nose. And just a nice person."

Off the air, Springer immediately realized that he flubbed the answer. "Hey, that's our new campaign slogan," he said sarcastically. He got some laughs. He didn't dwell on the answer.

Kissing the ring

From the television studio, Springer walked down the street, past the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority. An autograph-seeking mob of young people stopped traffic for 10 minutes, and then it was off to the law office of Don L. Hanni, the former Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman.

Hanni is part of a dying breed of old-style political boss that exists only in places like Youngstown. He will tell visitors that tales of the Youngstown mafia are greatly exaggerated, and then add that there's really no difference between taking money from lobbyists and taking money from racketeers, anyway.

Hanni is just one of perhaps hundreds of influential party leaders whose ring you have to kiss if you're serious about running as a Democrat in Ohio.

And Springer has some history with the 77-year-old defense lawyer, who called his visitor, "Jerome."

"Too bad you didn't run for governor," Hanni said. "This nitwit Taft - if brains were dynamite, he couldn't blow his nose."

Hanni reminded Springer that under his leadership, Mahoning County was the only county party in the state to endorse Springer for governor when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 1982.

"And you've been paying for it ever since," Springer joked.

Hanni compared Springer and Traficant, now serving time in federal prison on corruption charges - charges many in Youngstown think he's not guilty of (or, at least, no more guilty than the rest of Congress).

"He is tacit proof of what happens to you if you go against the establishment," Hanni said.

All over the Mahoning Valley, comparisons between the two politicians were inevitable. Springer wants to leave his talk show for Congress. Traficant was accused of trying to turn the floor of Congress into a talk show. Both are seen as champions of the underdog, outsiders, people willing to speak the blunt truth.

"He reminds me of Traficant. He's for the people," 74-year-old retired union printer Walter Labozan said of Springer. "Traficant was down to earth. If you had a problem you could call him and he would take care of it."

"(Springer) started sounding a lot like Traficant here, some of the things he was saying. He's a populist," said William E. Kelly Jr., general manager of seven Clear Channel radio stations in Youngstown, including WKBN. "But he's going to have to sell it to the rest of the state. I like that he's doing what he's doing, but I don't think he's still going to be in this thing when the sun starts to shine."

Expensive campaign coming?

Based on the speculation that Springer will run, Republicans are making him out to be the very face of the Democratic Party in 2004.

A recent fund-raising letter from Ohio GOP Chairman Robert T. Bennett mentioned Springer twice - and President George W. Bush only once.

"We can't waste a minute in telling Ohio's nearly 8 million registered voters that trash-talking TV host Jerry Springer has no business in the United States Senate! ... The Democrats know that carrying Ohio is vital to winning back the White House and they're convinced that electing Jerry Springer or some other liberal holds the key to taking back the U.S. Senate."

Voinovich's campaign already has $2.3 million in the bank. Springer probably has more personal wealth than any Ohio candidate since Howard Metzenbaum, and is using some of it to finance his possible return to politics. But he said he has no intention of self-financing the entire campaign and would give Voinovich a run for his fund-raising money.

Given Springer's name recognition and money, Voinovich is taking Springer seriously. "We never underestimate the opposition," said Ohio Republican Party spokesman Jason Mauk.

But some Democrats, such as Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, have worried publicly about the effect Springer would have in nationalizing the election - helping GOP fund-raisers, possibly hurting other Democratic congressional candidates and the party's presidential nominee.

"I think we can do a lot better than that, and I'm sure Ohio will," Daschle said.

But at the county level, Ohio Democrats think Springer can only have a positive impact.

As he has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks, Springer has spoken to Democrats from Cincinnati to Youngstown, Athens to Toledo. Hopping from place to place in a small Beechcraft jet, he can sometimes hit two or three counties in the same day.

Skipping into small towns like New Philadelphia, Hicksville and Oak Harbor, Springer is often the biggest celebrity to come through in years.

It's the celebrity factor that brings the often-skeptical audiences in the door. Often, Springer is introduced to polite applause. Twenty minutes later, it's a standing ovation.

Springer says he's pleasantly surprised by how quickly he's been able to convince voters to get past his talk-show persona and listen to him about issues - to "cut through the clutter of the show."

Almost every chicken dinner he attends has two or three times the typical turnout. Local parties charge as much as $100 a ticket. And unlike other big-name candidates, Springer doesn't ask for half of the money to go to his campaign committee (he doesn't have one) or to recoup his travel expenses. The result: thousands of dollars for grateful local candidates.

In suburban Youngstown, now 12 hours into his day, Springer worked the room of 300 Democrats at Mr. Anthony's Party Center - and then made a grand entrance next door at the Cardinal Mooney High School prom, cracking one-liners about how grade school sweetheart Phoebe Nelaboff dumped him the night before his prom.

"I think Jerry Springer is a Youngstown Democrat," said Ronald Gerberry, the Mahoning County recorder, watching Springer work the room. "Jerry's not traditional, and quite frankly people are fed up with the traditional politicians like me.

"Some of these guys on TV, they're phonies. He's not a phony."


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