OIB rewind: There’s something special about old-time political scribes from 35 years ago who remember the days kissing the keys of Underwood typewriters and editors screaming for copy under threat of cutting off your cashews. Editors those days were benevolent compared to political leaders who had the ultimate weapon if you dared cross them: they’d stop talking to you. As a scribe it’s preferable for a pol to blow out their lungs versus icing you. Prehistoric noises at least allowed for a quote. No comment is no comment is no comment. A noise? You could wrap a whole story around that. The late OIB correspondent John J. Gilmore spent one-third of his life in Bridgeport observing political players in the cause of enlightening readers, enduring prehistoric noises for the greater cause. Reproduced here is the final St. Patrick’s Day story he wrote for OIB.
Looking back through history, many immigrant groups came to America and became proficient in a particular trade or industry. For many Irishmen, the trade was politics. And Bridgeport, where many describe politics as a blood sport, has handed up some of the best players around.
Many years ago on a hot August night during a Bridgeport mayoral primary, people regularly came to the downtown headquarters to hang out.
Frank McGee, political appointee and professional ward healer, was often there. On this night, in his favorite fedora hat and working a good cigar he was feeling reflective.
Long before the era of exit polls and computerized voter profiling, Frank learned and practiced a style of politics now found only on yellowing pages between the covers of musty books. He was one of those guys who would walk into a tavern and tap the mahogany bar with two fingers and the bartender immediately understood that his signal was an order for a whiskey and a beer back. Just as the bartender understood Frank’s signal, Frank understood the signals of his voter bloc, who was upset, why and what was needed to appease them. He was a master of reading the pulse of a city. His career as a professional politician evolved because he understood his voters and the methods necessary to maintain control over them, often by means not openly discussed.
This night Frank recalled his youthful initiation into the profession and his role in a campaign generations earlier and long forgotten. It was a battle fought long before television and the Internet. It was a battle that taught Frank to care more about his deal than the New Deal.
Trying to catch a breath of cool air in the summer heat, Frank’s mind drifted back in time. With his grey hair slicked back with Vaseline and his hat pushed back over his forehead, Frank hitched his fingers into the pockets of his vest worn underneath a fraying sport coat. He blew a cloud of Topstone cigar smoke upwards and recalled with a smile the strategic role given to him in the battle for democracy called elective politics.
His lessons to younger ears of the present time were not those taught in traditional schools.
He regaled a few people gathered before him that night how political candidates in Bridgeport once traveled by flatbed trucks to popular street corners and gave speeches. Over and over, they gave the same speech in the belief that repetition somehow won a voter’s heart and mind, all underneath the city’s streetlights.
“We were kids, we never really understood what they were talking about,” Frank said of himself and his friends of the speech-making candidates. “We just did as we were told. As one candidate finished his speech and rolled onto the next street corner, another candidate would roll up and give his speech. All night long, candidates went from intersection to intersection to assembled crowds and gave speeches,” Frank recounted.
“But somewhere along the way, someone decided there had to be a way to increase the value of the street corner campaign stops,” Frank muttered. “We had to break this chain and slow down the opposition that followed us on our corner after we left.”
“That’s where I came in,” Frank said. “The ward boss gave me a pellet gun and told me to shoot out the streetlight as our candidate finished his speech. With our guy rolling away and no light above, the crowd dispersed and the poor guy waiting in the wings had to find his own way to drum up an audience. That’s tough to do in the dark!” he added.
And that was Irish politics in Frank’s city.