Back on Stage with Ed

20 09 2015
Interviewing Ed

Interviewing Ed

The summer trumpets have sounded. Into the autumn we go. Noise of political campaigns consume much of my days and nights — my reporting automatic at this point. I can see what is coming and avoiding danger, drama and becoming a jaded, bitter journalist is what keeps me on guard.

I have joined a monthly writer’s group separate from my two main employers. This gives me hope. At our first meeting, they ripped up my writing style pretty good. Call it an intervention on my addiction to clichés. My writing needs more description, they say. More color. More flavor.

Well, here we go.

When I shook Ed Asner’s hand I was surprised at its strength. It was a firm grip from a meaty hook. We were in Orlando, at the Doubletree Resort at a conference for mature people. Asner is 85 and he doesn’t forget easily. The legendary actor remains ever vigilant in the causes he holds dear. Fighting for the disadvantaged and working poor.

“For so many of us he embodied what being a man was all about,” said Tomcat, the conference organizer.

At this conference, I was the moderator on a panel of two — Asner and moi. My chief concern was not embarassing this Hollywood legend. Asner was cranky and cut me off on several occasions, much to the audience’s delight. My youthful inexperience during the program seemed to be part of the draw. I told the audience this was a first for me — sharing the stage with a Hollywood legend.

But it was not my first time standing before a crowd.

Flashback to 2010 and the race for the Florida House.

On an early Friday morning on the campus of Florida State University, candidates gathered to give speeches to the business community. This chamber of commerce function was attended by all levels — local, state and federal.

I dressed in a suit with pin-strip black pants. During this campaign I was intent on demonstrating an air of worldliness. I knew — we all knew — I would be defeated so I might as well go down in style.

Introduced to the audience my the former Speaker of the House, I spoke atop a wooden structure called a “stump” that had been placed on the stage. It was my desire to deliver words that would make my campaign stand out. I wanted to be remembered and I knew that the issues I was championing would not be a big hit in this room. Panama City, once a stronghold of Democratic values, had been flipped, like much of the South to represent Republican positions.

I was not speaking to the choir — and that was part of the fun.

And so from atop a staged stump, wearing Wall Street threads (Even mentioned to the audience, I was wearing Prada label shoes) I basically for all intents and purposes told those assembled to fuck off.

“Let me close with these words,” I said — slowly and softly — into the microphone. “It is a complicated world out there and only the naive see it in black and white.”

Later in the campaign, the Democratic Party chairwoman would say that speech was a turning point. The Republicans began to fight my message even harder.

“You scared them, John,” she said.

Five years later, I was on a stage in Orlando with labor activist and screen titan, Mr. Ed Asner. This manly man, as his admirers describe, fought the establishment many times in his career and lived to tell about it. I felt rejuvenated by his side and ready for the fight once more. Asner was blacklisted by the Reagan administration. I was by the local GOP good ol’ boys.

Common ground, through adveristy, was forged.

 

 

 

 

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Closing one door, opening another

23 06 2014

Greetings from the far reaches of North America. I am corresponding from Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. The rivers are flowing fast and hard here as the snow continues to melt atop these spectacular mountains.

Together with Waterton Park in Canada, this area of wilderness was declared in 1932 to be the world’s first International Peace Park. At this point in my life it is the perfect place for me.

I have recently made peace with Panama City. The sale of our house is final and a decade long culture war has come to an end. I fought authority and challenged convention in one of the most conservative sections of the country and while I no doubt have battle scars to prove it, closure is vitally important.

And now we move on.

I find myself in Glacier hoping for nature’s healing hand to guide me again. The job is, quite frankly, the most responsibility ever bestowed upon me and I eagerly look forward to the challenge. I am managing a fleet of 27 vehicles and more than 50 drivers — each with their own unique personality.

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From my concierge desk inside historic Lake McDonald Lodge, I also oversee a staff of four concierges whose job it is to see that our guests and visitors not only enjoy their stay to the fullest, but also find their way onto one of the red buses, Glacier’s iconic touring cars. This is the centennial season for Lake McDonald Lodge and events are planned for throughout the summer.

No pressure for the guy named John McDonald.

Admittedly, the first month here was challenging. With a new company taking over the park’s lead concessionnaire contract, there was some confusion as we prepared to open our summer season. This was expected. There are obviously skeptical locals and those loyal to the former company whose grumbling I have experienced first hand.

For me, the transition from a labor activist to a middle manager is conflicting to say the least. I am beginning to see things from the other side. I am doing quite a lot of pausing and reflecting.

My father built a 30-year career in management — with one company, no less. I am hoping some of those skills are hereditary.

Lake McDonald is a nine-mile long glacial lake over a mile wide and 472 feet deep. When calm its royal blue waters reflect the neighboring mountain range in an amazing  mirror-like display that draws thousands to this remote location every year. It was named after Duncan McDonald, a fur trapper, trader and important negotiator with the natives. Duncan McDonald is described by one former red bus driver as a “Métis.”

“He was a half breed,” said Robert Lucke, a longtime employee at the lodge. “You can’t say that now because it is politically incorrect, but that’s what he was. He was half Scots-Irish and half Indian. He traveled this area in the 1870s and carved his name on a lakeside tree.”

Lucke, who at the age of 71 is retired from the Glacier Park lifestyle and now resides in Havre, Montana, has been a wealth of information for me as I continue my on-the-job training. He is a colorful character in his own right, who writes for several local papers around Havre and the lounge in the lodge bears his name.

At last week’s centennial celebration, Lucke entertained a large audience that had gathered inside the lodge’s auditorium on a wet and cold day with stories from his time driving those red buses. The stories clearly eased much tension associated with the new company in town, but could not overcome the question on everyone’s mind.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road and when will it open?

That, my friends, is the million dollar question here.





The Comeback Kid

3 06 2013

The convention roared to life on a Friday night with the arrival of former President Bill Clinton. “Bubba” — as he is affectionately known — was brought in to shepherd the Obama/Biden campaign to victory in a way no other politician could. Clinton could sell the President’s plans because he could communicate in ways Obama could not. Blue collar workers, independents and conservative Democrats were willing to listen to Clinton even if he is basically sharing the same message as Obama. Those voters remembered the 1990s and while Bubba had his problems keeping sexual desires in check, the economy under the Clinton Administration was booming.

In Charlotte, Clinton did what he needed to do — rev up the base with cold hard facts in the process calling out Republican wonder boy and Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan for his underhandedly “brass” tactics. It was vintage Clinton, the crowd loving every minute and it came at just the right time. Leading up to Clinton’s speech there were manufactured controversies afloat from the proper place of God in the party platform to should the convention’s final night be staged at nearby Bank of America Stadium. The irony of Obama delivering his convention speech inside a stadium named for a bank that received the biggest government bailout seemed lost on many tone deaf DC insiders.

Meanwhile, David continued to get me into high level events and functions as we rubbed elbows with senators, congressmen, media elites and high profile candidates. Meeting Barney Frank was especially fun. Frank, the openly gay congressman from Massachusetts, is a longtime liberal warrior and widely respected for his knowledge of financial issues. At a luncheon headlined by First Lady Michelle Obama, I nudged my way to the front of the room and got our picture taken with Barney. We all three were smiling from ear to ear.

Michelle baring arms

Michelle baring arms

Like Clinton, the First Lady was a real crowd pleaser who attracted attention with her wardrobe decision to “bare arms.” Michelle Obama had made fitness and healthy eating a major part of her agenda as First Lady, giving overweight Southerners yet another reason to loathe her husband. I had met Mrs. Obama before, during the summer of 2010 as my campaign for the state house was just beginning and so too was the fallout from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Michelle Obama came to Panama City Beach to address concerns of the spill, but before she could step foot on our sugary white sand beaches, she was greeted with an ignorant redneck response that is so common in the region. Postings across social media, on internet sites and echoed through talk radio did not exactly roll out the red carpet for Michelle and ultimately forced her appearance to take place in front of a limited, small audience of community leaders and local officials. As the Democratic nominee for state rep, I made the cut and was able to get a spot along the rope line just yards from the Gulf where I thanked the First Lady for coming. I then told her, I was running for state rep, to which she replied, “Oh you must really be hurting.” To this day, that response still puzzles me. I was hurting that summer. A lot of folks were. Fast forward to the end of the summer of 2012 and the hurt remained. A nation was bitterly divided.

As the convention’s final day loomed, the DNC braintrust decided to move proceedings from the originally scheduled Bank of America Stadium indoors to Time Warner Arena. They said it was due to inclement weather, but it was also a face saving move for the President. A half empty football stadium would have been a horrible image to overcome this late in the campaign. There was also a noticeable energy gap to deal with particularly among young people who were vital to the 2008 campaign of “Yes We Can.” Bank of America had gotten their bailout, but not these kids.

What happened next I’ll never forget. David gave up his seat for me. It was a incredible act of kindness, generosity and sacrifice. The nominating process was complete and all that remained was the pageantry. I would attend the convention on his delegate pass, sit in his seat, listen to the President’s speech and absorb all the evening had to offer. For a lifelong political nerd this was the ultimate show. And the curtain was rising on a comeback.





The Initial Descent

7 04 2012

Starting to get settled in here with the initial shock of moving across country and into a completely different climate now fading away. I got a couple of paychecks under my belt too which helps in the confidence department.

And I finally descended into the Canyon, bringing clarity and perspective to the big picture. I have always enjoyed hiking, whether it be the backcountry of Arizona or the concrete jungle of Manhattan. Hiking — which is walking essentially — can tell you a lot about yourself.

As I hiked down the Bright Angel Trail, my mind raced with thoughts dominated by fear. Had I brought enough water? Were my shoes appropriate?? Would I go too far down and not be able to make it back up???

All indeed valid questions. The Park Service does not supply the trail with water until the summer months, but it is in the spring — if the wind cooperates — when conditions are best to descend into the Canyon. The difference in temperature between the bottom, where the Colorado River flows, and the top of the South Rim is usually between 25-30 degrees. The deeper you go the hotter it gets.

On this day the trail was full of hikers and tourists disguised as hikers. I have been surprised by the large numbers of foreign tourists that come here. I have engaged in more conversational French in one month than I had in 10 years in Panama City. This substantial presence of not only Europeans, but Asians has made me realize how foolish I was to believe that I was living in an international tourist destination in Panama City. That was a lie floated by the power brokers to build a new airport. Panama City may get a handful of international tourists, but it is far from an international tourist destination. It is a regional tourist destination at best and will remain that way until a better strategy of attracting visitors is implemented.

Back on the trail, hikers had to make sure they not only avoided mule droppings, but also watched their step for loose gravel and leftover snow and ice. I wore my trusty adidas running shoes, the same pair I bought at the Ross discount store back in Panama City a couple years back. I have a habit about wearing shoes for a long time and this pair of adidas felt good on my feet. They may not look hiking professional, but they were light and comfortable and I was able to make my way down the trail without any missteps.

There were a few tense moments like when the wind would gust up as I approached a narrow overlook with oncoming hikers headed my way. Fortunately, most of the people who hike are considerate and will always ask how you’re doing. I was relieved to make it to the first rest station, one and half miles down. Coming back was much tougher and required a couple stops to catch my breath and hydrate.

What I learned about myself on this foray into the Canyon was I’m in better shape than I thought, but still have a ways to go to make it to the river. That is the goal during my time here — To hike to the bottom and back. It will take more than an afternoon to do it and I will have to be well prepared for the trip.

And I probably shouldn’t go it alone.





Greetings from the Grand Canyon

14 03 2012

So it has been a while since I have been consistently blogging and a lot has changed in my life. I am writing to you from the Grand Canyon in Northern Arizona where I have accepted a job working — and living — inside America’s most famous National Park. It was a very hard decision to come here and I still am not sure if I have made the right decision.

The bottom line is I need to work and it was becoming obvious to everyone that it wasn’t going to happen in Panama City. I had revealed my political leanings and championed labor during a state level campaign and for that I was blacklisted, just as my campaign manager had warned.

“You’ll never work again in Panama City after this, John. You realize that.” she said.

But I didn’t realize it and instead continued to apply for jobs and attend job fairs with the hopes that my public community service would be beneficial in landing a job. Ironically, it was my very public service that was keeping me from being employed again.

Frustration began to set in after Sears canceled an interview. If I couldn’t get on at a shopping mall department store, it was truly a lost cause.

It was around that time that a phone call came from Arizona. It was Thom, Jim’s friend from the Grand Canyon, and he was curious as to why Jim did not make his annual visit. I had to inform Thom of Jim’s untimely passing which led to a long conversation. I was glad Thom called, I enjoyed his company. He was a gregarious burly man and very bright. Thom was also a published author and quite the authority on the Grand Canyon, having lived there for more than 30 years.

It was during our telephone chat that I relayed to Thom how depressed I had become at my long term unemployment. I asked him if the Canyon was hiring and he said yes, but added the conditions “could be hard a tender fellow from Florida.”

Of course, I took this as a challenge and when the application arrived in the mail a few weeks later, I promptly filled it out and mailed it back. Having completed so many applications I really didn’t give it much thought. It had become so routine.

But then the email came with words that were almost unrecognizable: “Job Offer”

Surprised by this sudden turn of events, I talked it over with David, who was happy for me. If anyone knew the struggles of the last four years, it was David. The next step was breaking the news to my family and friends. Mom and Dad were very hostile at first, worried that I was going off on some mid-life crisis. Most of my friends were supportive.

“How many times do you get to live inside one of the seven wonders of the world?,” my whimiscal artist friend Paulette asked.

To satisfy the folks, I made one last run at employment in Panama City. With a job offer in hand from a world class tourist destination, I attended the Windham Job Fair at Bay Point in Panama City Beach — just a few blocks away from my house. It was at this job fair where I became convinced I was indeed blacklisted in Bay County.

The human resources manager had a look of distain as she reviewed my resume and application. She was anything but pleasant. When I pressed her about the job opportunities available, she promised to be in touch. Of course, a call never came.

Roseanne, my dear sweet campaign manager, was right all along.

I would never work in Panama City again.





Campaign Memories

20 06 2011

Last night, during a visit to a local bar & grill on the beach, I was asked again if I intended to run for public office.

It’s flattering, I guess. Particularly when it comes from a registered voter. And a government employee, no less.

I told the fellow, that I had no immediate plans of challenging our vaunted State Representative again.

“You have to chip away,” he said.

I appreciated the young man’s encouragement and over a few brews we shared our thoughts on the local political scene. I shared with him, some of the bizarre scenarios I encountered during my run — from the rousing ovation by the Muslim community to boos at a gay bar.

The 2010 campaign was a hard one for all Democrats, but for a political novice in Northwest Florida, it was downright impossible.

I had very little resources and no help from the state party. Still, I stuck to my values and provided an option that 10,000 people bought into.

My presence at the Bay Islamic Society’s annual Ramadan dinner was a fine illustration of the campaign’s message. We were intent on reaching out to everyone in the District to show the value of diversity. How I would be received, however, was in doubt.

The media was still ignoring me at this point. I arrived at the dinner to find a large and welcoming community and when one of the Muslim leaders asked that I address the crowd, I was completely caught off guard.

No speech in hand, I took to the podium and told the crowd that I was their Democratic nominee for the State House of Representatives. Coming into the event, there was an air of bitterness in the campaign rhetoric. The Republican primary for U.S. Congress had been recently decided and, in the closing weeks,  one of the candidates decided to slam Islam at a debate in a cheap attempt to curry favor with religious conservatives.

It didn’t help that this same man shared the first two letters of my last name. He was a “Mic” as the slang goes.

I knew I had to quell tensions in the community, tensions that had also been stoked by one of the local right-wing talk radio clowns.

So, without much preparation, I spoke from the heart that night.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” I said. “And we have to stop hurting each other.”

It was a short and sweet message and I thanked the audience for inviting me to the dinner. The applause I received that night was humbling. As I look back now, it was amazing.

A group of people who have every reason to doubt your intentions and judge your lifestyle showed me compassion and kindness that evening.

After the dinner, a woman approached me, her head covered in traditional Islam clothing. “You said what was on everyone’s mind,” she told me. “Thank you for speaking, Mr. McDonald.”

It was definitely one of the high points of the campaign. One to remember. Our goal all along was to make a difference — and on that night, we did just that.





The Agony of Defeat

21 04 2011

Well, another campaign is in the books. Defeated again.

I had high hopes this time around. We had a quality candidate, adequate resources and energized volunteers. In the end, we just didn’t have enough absentee ballots.

So Panama City has a new Mayor and there is much work to be done. If the Old Guard is to claim victory here then it is incumbent upon those ‘powers that be’ to follow through with the campaign rhetoric and lift this City out of despair.

Panama City needs jobs. Skilled jobs in high tech industry that provide a living wage. We are in danger of losing a generation of talent because of lack of opportunity. This must be addressed.

It is interesting to watch the evolution of a community. Many themes from my campaign were carried on. Issues such as poverty relating to the homeless, revitalization of Downtown and environmental procedures were debated. Hopefully, solutions are on the way.

For all the anti-government rhetoric that seems to dominate any debate in Panama City, the fact still remains that the government is the No. 1 employer here. If the private sector is the job creator, as we are led to believe, it would be nice to see some tangible evidence.

Perhaps this is sour grapes speaking. I have been unemployed going on three years now and this journey has taught me many lessons. I now know how to produce more with less. I understand value in relation to price and, most importantly, I believe in shared sacrifice.

So now the task is to fight off bitterness and the sting of another election loss. There is temptation to fold and look for opportunities elsewhere in a climate more conducive to my thinking.

I tried that before, in New York, and it didn’t work out too well.

Deep down inside, I hold faith in these losing battles as preparation for greater things to come. Perhaps, God is testing me and City leaders are watching to see if I will break.

I won’t.

I’ll find that happy place one day and, trust me, you will know it.