The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Election Day Proposal
November 2, 1976
For anyone with a lifelong interest in politics, Election Day is the ultimate excitement, a day of tension, anticipation, and depending on circum-stances, of elation or despair.
This one is also, I realized with a jolt after looking at the calendar, a day for nostalgia.
The election of 1946 30 years ago was the one time I got elected.
I'd been discharged from the Naval hospital that summer and on my first weekend home in Kansas I went with some friends to Topeka to a state Democratic meeting. My father, who had died the year before, had always been an active, though non-office holding Democrat.
Before the day was over I was persuaded to put my name up for state representative, just "to fill out the ticket."
No Democrat had been elected to the legislature from the county for years, so there wasn't much worry about interrupting my college education.
So I enrolled in summer school, unworried about the August primary in which I was unopposed, but determined to wage a vigorous campaign in the fall, just to do my civic duty, and accept the inevitable defeat grace-fully.
But the primary turned out to be my undoing. The Republican incumbent, a well regarded Abilene lawyer who would have easily defeated me, was himself upset in the primary by an elderly, but somewhat eccentric, temperance crusader who was determined not only to save Kansas from illegal liquor, but to ban Coca-Cola as well.
A few days after the primary, I was summoned to the office of the county seat daily newspaper. The elderly editor, who sized me up over his roll-top desk, was one of the few remaining pillars of the robust early day Kansas journalism, and a pillar of the state Republican party as well.
"Young man," he rasped. "We're going to support you." I nearly came apart from shock and confusion. He explained how Kansas, after 80 years of constitutional prohibition, was faced with thousands of thirsty veterans. State Republicans did not intend to let the Democrats, who had already come out for a repeal of prohibition, elect a governor on the issue.
So the Republicans had brought back from Washington a highly respected, deeply religious, politically moderate congressman, and were running him for governor.
The Republicans weren't exactly saying they were for booze. Rather, they were saying that, "in the interests of basic democracy, for which our boys have been fighting" the people should have a right to vote on the issue. It would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature to put the question on the ballot, so every legislator election was crucial. My opponent was opposed, and I had already said I was for submitting the question to the people.
"So," the old editor reminded me, "we're not asking you for anything you're not going to do anyway. And don't let anyone tell you that you owe us more. No go out and campaign. I've lived in this state 80 years and I want to take a legal drink before I die."
It was a political milestone. Legend was that no Democrat had ever had his picture on the front page of that paper unless in connection with some serious crime. But mine was. I even got some quiet support from the Republican county chairman.
Every weekend I drove my Model A Ford from the college town, 90 miles away, to campaign up and down the dirt roads of the county. I tried to talk about taxes and school reorganization, but liquor was the big issue and the campaign got dirty. At one point, an organization of 40 churches in the county put out a flyer declaring that "A vote for McCormally is a vote for sin!"
Election night was wild, and the votes weren't all counted until noon the next day. I won, as I recall, by 87 votes out of 8,000. My friends never knew why I'd been so smugly confident all night. It had nothing to do with the vote.
One Friday night in October, when I should have been racing to a rally in Abilene, I had, on the spur of the moment, pointed the Model A in the other direction to Wichita. Such contempt for the voters should have been enough to lose the election.
In Wichita, before dawn, I asked a kindergarten teacher to marry me. Then I tore off, without sleep, for a day of door knocking in the county seat.
Shortly after the polls opened on Election Day, the depot agent called to tell me that he had a telegram for me. We still have it, preserved in the family scrapbook, the brief message on the ticker strips, still pasted on the old yellow paper:
"People's choice or no, I'll go where you go. Peggy."
Either way, I knew I'd won.
Return to Columns.