Seeing Red

28 07 2014

No matter how hard I try, I cannot escape politics.

This summer I stepped right into it, unaware of just how delicate a situation I was entering. For the first time in decades, a new concessonaire contract was awarded at Glacier National Park. This contract includes the park’s historic fleet of red buses, which have been masterfully rebuilt from the frames of the original 1930s White Motor Company models. The red buses have come to represent Glacier, providing an iconic symbol associated with the park’s renowned Going-To-The-Sun Road.

The buses were previously operated out of East Glacier, their hub being the Glacier Park Lodge, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. That all changed last year when the National Park Service, much to the locals’ surprise, awarded Glacier’s concessionaire contract to Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Xanterra, in turn, pitched its tent on the west side of the park near the rapidly developing tourist towns of Whitefish and Kalispell.

Red Ride

Red Ride

Losing the contract and its red buses has left East Glacier isolated and angry, its community suffering from a dramatic drop in revenue. There are hard feelings in the park. I experience them every day.

I lost count of how many times locals, posing as tourists, came in to question me about Xanterra’s operations. I found the questions odd at first, but then began to notice a trend and with it an unpleasant demeanor. I was a target no doubt, the new guy with the 10 gallon hat, riding in to represent the big corporate outfit from Denver — unaware of just how many roots had been ripped out in this move.

Early on, I tried to keep a positive attitude, but the constant attacks have worn me down. There are incredible logistical challenges here — it is a remote area drawing affluent visitors who expect every modern luxury while experiencing a true backwoods wilderness adventure. Delivering this total package is the challenge that gets me out of bed at 6 a.m. every morning.

Through all the complaints, raised voices and temper tantrums, I have managed to keep my cool. I am determined to leave here with my dignity intact. Again, I think of my father often now and what it must have been like to go through those hurricanes back in Florida — as he did many times — and manage to keep emotions in checks while restoring power to the masses.

Here in Glacier, appeasing tourists is just part of the equation. A big chunk of my time is devoted to our red bus drivers. Keeping them happy is as vital — if not more — than our guests. Affectionally known as “Jammers” for their gear shifting driving style, red bus drivers do require a certain skill set to succeed. The Going-To-The-Sun Road is no piece of cake with its twists and turns, falling water, ice and rock and God knows what else lurking in the other lane just behind the bend.

Jammers provide commentary along the way, each with their own unique personality. Some have been doing this upwards of 40 years, others like me, thrown into the fire for the first time. In the old days, it was college aged men driving the red buses across the Continental Divide. This year, in another first for the park, we have an equal number of women Jammers, including several college aged girls.

Evelyn, one of our veteran Jammers, is quick to cite statistics showing women to be much safer drivers than men. I’m not sure where she gets her data, but Evelyn is not one to pick a fight with. She’s a motherly hen type, her beautiful white hair braided in a long ponytail and her knowledge of wildflowers is unmatched. Evelyn recognized early on that I was in for a rocky ride this summer.

“Hang in there, John McDonald,” she said during a recent stop by my concierge desk at the Lake McDonald Lodge. “You are halfway there.”

 

 

Advertisements




Cheering Charlie

14 06 2013

Barack Obama delivered the speech he needed to, energizing his base and sending the faithful out of North Carolina fired up and ready to go. The convention gave the President a much needed boost in the polls and set the stage for the campaign’s final stretch run.

The convention’s final night had a rock concert like feel. In between the parade of speeches were performances from musicians the likes of James Taylor, Mary J. Blige and the Foo Fighters. There were also moving videos from Democrats across the country and tributes to US troops stationed abroad. Surprisingly, Democrats had outflanked Republicans on issues of defense and national security. While Mitt Romney failed to even mention the troops during his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in Tampa, President Obama’s decision to go after, and subsequently kill, Osama bin Laden was duly noted in nearly every speech in Charlotte.

“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” declared Vice President Joe Biden.

The Foo Fighters rocking out at the DNC 2012.

The Foo Fighters rocking out at the DNC 2012.

I had arrived at the convention early, prepared for an eight-hour day. Pat and Brenda were waiting, having already claimed our seats in the Florida delegation. Man did Florida have great seats, thanks in part to the state’s all important battleground status, its coveted 29 electoral college votes and being the home of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Debbie even paid a visit to the delegation before her speech and we gleefully snapped a few pictures with the distinguished congresswoman. But it was another Floridan who would grab even more attention that night for completely different reasons.

His name was Charlie Crist.

Yes, the former Republican governor of Florida was granted speaking time at the Democratic National Convention much to the surprise of many a political observer. Crist had been basically run out of the Republican party for his “moderate” views and an infamous hug of President Obama that did not sit well with the GOP’s base. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Crist left the GOP and ran for US Senate as an Independent, losing to Tea Party darling Marco Rubio in a three-way race which included a scandal saddled Democrat, Kendrick Meek.

But here in Charlotte was the beginning of Crist’s comeback — an opportunity to curry favor with party bosses for a future run of some kind. I saw it as a payback from Obama, acknowledging Crist had suffered from his embrace and rewarding him with a primetime spot, on the convention’s final night, to state his case for redemption. When Crist was announced over the PA system about half of the Florida delegation rose to its feet, myself included.

“Why are we applauding him?,” asked the wise cracking geezer from Fort Lauderdale sitting next to me.

“Because he is from Florida,” I replied.

“So what?!” the geezer shot back. “Do you not remember the Jeb years?!”

I didn’t because I wasn’t politically engaged during that time, but like Crist, I had been a Republican so I could identify with his plight. And soon, people were identifying me — from all across the country. Unbeknownst to me, television cameras had been quick to capture the reaction from the Florida delegation to Crist. There I was, front and center, clapping away.

Once I had left Time Warner Arena and my i-phone service had been restored (communications were jammed throughout the day) messages began to pour in from friends who had seen me on television. Some of the messages were from people I had not talked with in years. People who were no where to be found when I crashed out of the Panama City News Herald four years ago. Funny how fame works.

David and I left Charlotte the next morning bound for my brother’s house in Alabama before reaching the Florida Gulf Coast. The trip felt like Sherman doing a reverse burn through the Deep South. I had been away for six months, but little had changed. Romney had the region locked up with the exception of Florida. I eagerly looked forward to the campaigns in my home state, knowing 2012 would be much different than 2010. I was healthy again, had money in my pocket and, best of all, my name was not on the ballot.

I have a feeling Charlie felt the same way.





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.





On the Ground in Charlotte

24 05 2013

I landed in Charlotte with a headstorm of energy — and Democrats sure needed it. Dismal employment numbers and the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) had left the President’s re-election campaign in a vulnerable position. Luckily, the Republicans had nominated a Plutocrat in Mitt Romney who had failed to energize the Grand Old Party’s base. If anything got Republicans motivated to oust Obama, it was the Supreme Court’s ObamaCare verdict.

Evening hours in downtown Charlotte.

Evening hours in downtown Charlotte.

Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation was wildly unpopular in the Southern red states. It was bad enough they had to accept his Presidency, but a reform of America’s health care system was just too much for Joe Six Pack to take. And yet here, in the heart of the old Confederacy, the Democratic Party had gathered to nominate President Obama for a second term. There were already signs of trouble on the horizon. Romney was leading in the polls in both North Carolina and Florida — states Obama had carried four years ago.

David picked me up at the airport. He rented a car in Panama City and drove up for the convention. I was surprised he had been able to become a delegate. Although the Florida delegation was one of the larger ones, most of the state’s power and influence came from the southeast counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. For someone from the Panhandle to break through all the horse trading that goes on leading up to delegation selection was truly remarkable. I just didn’t think David was quite that shrewd.

He is loyal, however, without a shadow of a doubt and I was glad to see him again. I wondered if he recognized a difference in me.

Our hotel was in downtown Charlotte, which was surrounded and guarded by the largest police and security presence I had ever witnessed. All of the cops in their urban riot gear reminded me of some scenes from the latest Batman movie. The media were everywhere as well. MSNBC had its own “village” where the cable network broadcasted several of its daily shows live to masses of adoring fans. On my first night in town, David and I managed to get close enough to the cameras to show up on Chris Matthews’ Hardball show. During the commercial break, I gave Chris a thumbs up and he smiled. It was a clear connection.

The next morning we attended the Florida delegation breakfast, listening to politician after politician speak about the importance of the upcoming campaign. There we were joined by Pat and Brenda, two ladies from Bay County, who much like David had successfully navigated the delegate selection process into a ticket to Charlotte. Brenda was a fresh new face in Panama City politics, pumping much needed vigor into the women’s club. Pat, a yellow dog Democrat if there ever was one, had been a vital financial supporter of my run for state representative and was known for speaking her mind.

MSNBC host Chris Matthews meets his fans.

MSNBC host Chris Matthews meets his fans.

In a room full of power suits and enormous egos, I came down to breakfast in a pink Lacoste polo, khaki shorts and flip flops. I was comfortable in my own skin and never felt the least bit awkward or intimidated. This was a huge jump from four years ago when I was scared to leave my room, scared to go to Wal-Mart. Just plain scared.

I cannot begin to explain how much the Canyon had worked wonders on my human spirit. All those hikes had filled me with strength and confidence, only now I had the compassion and humility to go with it. The confidence I exuded before from influential journalism jobs was, admittedly, filled with arrogance and entitlement. While I am indeed grateful and fortunate to have lived a life of great privilege for thirtysomething years, the hard times of the last four years had reshaped my world view and given me much needed perspective. I knew the Romney crowd we would be battling. I knew them intimately and I knew their weaknesses. The ground game would be where this campaign would be won.

Forward!





Leaving Los Angeles just a Shadow of Myself

6 05 2013

I almost missed the train back to Arizona. “John, what time is your train?,” Normen asked as Joel and I browsed the sales racks at the Gap store in Hollywood.

“Oh yeah, the train,” I realized, pulling out my iPhone to check the time. I had one hour till departure. “We better go.”

And we did, briskly walking through the heavy crowds of people gathered on the sidewalks outside the Chinese Theater and down Hollywood Boulevard to where we had parked the car. On the windshield, a parking ticket courtesy of the City of Los Angeles greeted us. Union Station wasn’t that far away, but the traffic was thick and it was almost five o’clock. We would never make it, I thought.

Normen gives the victory sign, as Cheng Yew and Jastine figure out the parking meter.

Normen gives the victory sign, as Cheng Yew and Jastine figure out the parking meter.

Crowds packed Hollywood Boulevard.

Crowds packed Hollywood Boulevard.

The guys were staying a few extra days in LA before driving up to San Francisco then flying across country to New York before departing back to Singapore. It would be one of those trips they would remember for the rest of their lives. I had made a similar journey to Europe as a teenager and those memories are still very much alive. I was thankful to have been a small part of their American experience.

Somehow we made it to Union Station with a few minutes to spare. Jastine and Cheng Yew accompanied me to tracks, where we said our goodbyes and had our hugs. They asked me to visit Singapore one day and promised to show me around. I said I would and thanked them for our friendship — a friendship developed over the course of living and working together for the past 10 weeks in the isolated, desert climate that is Grand Canyon. I would miss them. A lot.

The ride back to the Canyon was depressing. I was alone again — with still two months of work to go. Despite a nearly full train, I was the only one who made late dinner reservations in the dining car. The food was fair, the rolls hard as rocks, but the service was super. I enjoyed chatting with the Amtrak employees and conductors. They all were approachable and friendly, unlike those stuffy 50-something flight attendants often pushing the drink cart on a Delta plane. Most of the crew were in for the long haul to Chicago. One of the conductors asked me where I was from. “Florida,” I said and then he grinned and replied, “Interesting Governor you got there.”

Elected in 2010 during the Tea Party wave that swept me and many other Democrats out to sea, Florida Governor Rick Scott made a name for himself as an ideologue, hellbent on fighting the Obama Administration every step of the way. So when the federal government offered funds to the states to construct a high speed rail network, Scott refused the program and the money went elsewhere.

“They’re building a new connection from LA to San Francisco with your money,” the conductor gleefully said. “It’s projected to be the fastest route in America.”

“I’m sure it will be,” I replied, adding just a tinge of sardonic wit.

Florida was very much on my mind during those last months I spent working at the Canyon. I knew it would be a battleground state in the upcoming Presidential election and polls were showing Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, to be leading in the Sunshine State. My break from politics had been refreshing and reinvigorating. Nature had truly heeled a lot of old wounds and now I was ready to return to the game.

I spent the remainder of my time at Grand Canyon hanging out with my roommate Brian, who was eagerly anticipating the start of the college and pro football season. We traveled down to Flagstaff on one scorching Saturday afternoon to attend Arizona Cardinals training camp. The crowds were enormous that day and it was quite clear the people of the desert southwest were starved for a good NFL team.

Arizona Cardinals training camp in Flagstaff.

Arizona Cardinals training camp in Flagstaff.

When I wasn’t working or hanging out with Brian, I would go to the employee recreation center to lift weights, write, read the New York Times and visit with the international workers. I had gotten fairly close to a few of the Turks. One, a shaggy haired teenager named Ozgur, had become my table tennis buddy. He was quite gifted with the paddle. His English speaking skills were another story. I helped Ozgur with his English and he, in turn, taught me a few key phrases in Turkish. I would learn to say “Merhaba” and “Arkadas” with an Istanbul accent. Ozgur wanted to come to Florida with me after his work was finished. I really didn’t know what to say to this request, afraid he would not be able to understand my world back home.

I had not been entirely honest with my co-workers and friends from the Grand Canyon about circumstances involving my being there. But September was on the horizon and I would soon be stepping out of the shadows.





The Tipoff

27 07 2012

We talked a lot on the way down the trail, mostly about international affairs, politics and why Americans are so fat.

I’m not sure if Americans realize that we have become the butt of the world’s fat jokes. In many countries, McDonald’s is comically referred to as the American embassy. I told Desmond that the American obesity rate was much higher in the Southern states because of an affinity for sugar and fried foods.

“Is not the South where your least educated and poorest population resides?” he asked.

It was an innocent enough question, but for a native son of the South, it stung like a sharp prick of a cactus.

“Yep,” I said.

“And they consistently vote Republican,” he continued.

“Yep.”

“Why?,” he asked, again with an innocent, inquisitive tone.

“Desmond, if I knew the answer to that, I would not be on this hike with you today,” I said.

He smiled and we continued to chat, not realizing how quickly we were descending the trail. The sun was still rising above the Eastern Rim as we reached Skeleton Point. The views here are breathtaking. Dark orange rock formations jutting out of the earth. We were certainly no longer in the pinyon pine tree forest of the South Rim.

Some of the folks from the bus were here resting and I spotted the woman who I had sat next to. I asked her if she would take a couple photos of Desmond and I and she gladly obliged. We put our arms around each other in a brotherly fashion. It had been quite a while since I had experienced this type of male bonding. It reminded me of college. It was refreshing.

After a short break, we pressed on and it was my turn to probe Desmond about his country’s politics. I was, admittedly, igonorant as to Singapore’s culture. I did know it was a former British colony, which put me ahead of most Americans. It had become quite comical when the American tourists would remark how good the Singaporean workers spoke English, always assuming they would be producing a Chinese accent.

Desmond was quite proud of his homeland. He boasted of Singapore’s high GDP level, zero homeless population and alluring tax policies. He is, after all, a business student.

Most of the Americans — or Ang Mohs — as they are referred to by locals, come to Singapore not for pleasure, but rather for business.

“We encourage free market capitalism,” Desmond said.

But if there is one aspect of his homeland that Desmond would like to see changed, it is the media. The press, he said, is run by the government and never questions authority.

In other words, it’s like MSNBC today and Fox News circa 2004.

Meanwhile, we continued to descend at a healthy pace, stopping for a quick rest at the junction to Tonto Trail just before what is called “The Tipoff.” It is at this point where hikers get their first glimpse of the Colorado River — looking down into the massive gorge that resembles a scene out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

At the Tonto Trail junction we encountered the mule train coming up from Phantom Ranch, carrying mail and supplies. I marveled at the stamina and strength of these beasts of burden. It was starting to get hot and they had one steep climb awaiting. Amazing that they do this everyday.

We took a few pictures as the wranglers tied them up to a man-made steel rail in the middle of nowhere.

“Don’t get too close,” one of the wranglers shouted at Desmond. “They kick.”

The Tonto Trail Junction is a flat area surrounded by nothing but knee-high scrubs and prickly pear cactus for miles. The trail runs horizontal between rim and river and at this junction, with the South Kaibab, there is a rail to tie up the mules and a small outhouse for human waste. Desmond used the facilities, while I used the shade that it provided. I wasn’t the only one who sought escape from the sun. Sitting next to the outhouse was a tall middle-aged man who had been hiking the Tonto Trail from the east.

“I’m headed to the Bright Angel,” he said. “What about you?”

“The river,” I replied.

“Well, you’re close,” he said.

I plopped down next to the man and started swiggin’ water and eating peanuts and raisins. Desmond, having finished his business in the outhouse, joined us and the three of us chatted while fending off hungry squirrels. The man was from New York and an experienced hiker.

“I come here once a year,” he said. “Never gets old.”

It was definitely a different picture than New York. As I looked around, I felt so small. Just a blip inside a vast desert canyon. Far, far away from civilization.

“Shall we?,” Desmond asked.

He was ready to continue, knowing the rewarding part of our adventure was close.

“Good luck,” said the New Yorker as we parted ways. This was one part of the hiking culture that I had come to appreciate. Nearly everyone acknowledges each other on the trails and checks to see how you are doing, especially at rest stops, and always offers tips, provisions and well wishes.

I would likely never see that man again, but for a few brief moments we shared in each other’s extreme outdoors experience. Conversely, Desmond and I were just getting to know each other as the most strenuous stretch of our adventure loomed.

The rising sun set to test our stamina.





Putting politics on hold

9 11 2011

Florida’s Democrats gathered inside Walt Disney World last weekend to plot a course for the 2012 elections. Twenty-one of us from Bay County were in attendance, including former mayors and state representatives.

‘Former’ being the key word.

It’s no secret the Republican Party has taken a dominating hold of the Sunshine State. The midterm elections gave the GOP a sweep of cabinet positions, the Governor’s Mansion and a ‘super’ majority in both the House and Senate. Simply put, these are tough times to be a Democrat in Florida.

And yet there is no place to go but up.

I was excited just to be getting out of town and to be surrounded by true believers. David and I shared a ride with Don and Fran, two wonderfully honest and caring men, whose conversation made the seven hour drive to Orlando go by effortlessly.

Don handled the driving and Fran, with his effervescent personality, was quick with the quips. As a gay interracial couple living in the Florida Panhandle, nobody had to tell these two about adversity.

We arrived at the convention just as Vice President Joe Biden was addressing the delegates who were fortunate enough to afford the $175 ticket for Friday night’s opening dinner. We would have to wait for the second hand reviews Saturday morning.

Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bill Nelson and Jill Biden at the 2011 FDP Convention

Being my first convention the entire weekend seemed a tad overwhelming with more issues at play than glad handing politicians and overzealous activists. David was not in good health and frankly I was amazed he decided to make the trip.

The man who nursed me back to health — who has supported me through the toughest period of my life and stood by me when everyone else scattered, was now suffering and in pain.

His condition was never far from my mind and faced with this, I felt helpless in room after room full of power.

Earlier in the week, I had tried to talk David out of making the trip. He was battling a case of the shingles and it was not pretty. My vanity would have never allowed me to attend this convention in his condition, but David, as I have so fondly come to learn, is nothing like me. He’s an Aries and much like the domesticated symbol of the Democratic Party, he’s stubborn.

Much of the focus during the weekend centered around getting out the vote efforts in various communities. Outside the general assembly, there were a host of caucus meetings and parties designed to bring people together around one central theme. We tried to make as many as we could, but there would be no late night hotel room hopping.

On the drive home, David’s condition began to worsen. Don, ever the sympathetic driver, must have pulled off on the side of the road 20 times so David could run into the bushes in an attempt to relieve himself from the pain. His plight put a lot of the weekend in perspective for me.

Politics has consumed too much of my life. In seeking to make a better community, I have neglected my own household. No more.

As I prepare to go down a new road in my life and open a chapter of caregiving, it is time to put things aside that are out of my control. Politics can wait. My partner’s health and well being is of the utmost importance.

Your thoughts and prayers are much appreciated.