Those who bothered to check out the Rocky Mountain News before the Democratic National Convention were greeted by a picture of the enigmatic Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, whose nickname and job description — rural advocate — became indelibly marked in my consciousness this past spring during John Edwards’ doomed primary campaign.
Pondering the cultural baggage of elitism, slickness and otherness that adversaries have been trying to saddle on the Democratic nominee — a clever trick considering that Barack Obama is as much a poor white boy from Kansas as he is anything else — I wondered if ol’ Mudcat would be doing any advocating for the campaign of the rural sort, and set out to find him.
Through some third-party diplomacy, I got Mudcat’s cell-phone number. He happily received my call and informed me he was on his way to a mountain whose peak afforded a near-endless view. I thought he must be going somewhere up in the Colorado high country and had visions of accompanying Mudcat on some kind of wilderness adventure during which we’d have to rely on his ability to live off the land in order to survive. (The nickname Mudcat supposedly harkens back to the days when he’d proven adept at pulling catfish from the mudflats of Virginia.) Alas, Mudcat was heading for the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, having decided to skip the DNC in Denver.
This should have been a clue to the answer to my first question. I asked Mudcat, who is widely credited with helping the Yankee Doodle Dandy Mark Warner to get elected Democratic governor of Virginia in 2001, and who was a senior adviser to Jim Webb’s successful underdog bid for the Senate in 2006, if he’d been in contact with the Obama campaign.
“I heard from them a day or two after Edwards got out, but I haven’t heard back,” he says. “I understand. They have their strategy and they have their team and it’s worked real well for him. Well, up to this point.” He laughs. “I mean, they beat us.”
“What do you think of Obama’s strategy so far?” I ask.
“I don’t understand what it is. I’m hoping Joe Biden will get after the real enemy — and that’s unchecked greed.”
Mudcat is fond of stating that the number of registered lobbyists has gone from 15,000 in 2001 — at the beginning of the Bush years — to 30,000 today.
“They’re not lobbying for you and me,” he says, “believe me.”
The subject gets Mudcat hotter than a pig’s knuckle in a deep fryer — or something like that. The point being, he’s pissed about this stuff.
“The big sons of bitches are kicking the little sons of bitches’ asses,” he says in a voice that is equal parts molasses and pack-a-day habit.
He traces the problems back to the Reagan deregulation revolution.
“They didn’t deregulate anything but the corporations,” Mudcat says. “It’s unchecked greed.”
Mudcat is also fond of pointing out that when Reagan took office, the richest 1 percent of the country controlled 8 percent of the wealth. Today, they control 25 percent. Mudcat would be happy if the Democrats spent more time aiming their weapons at this issue than on trying to constantly look like nice guys above the fray. (See: Al Gore 2000, John Kerry 2004.)
“It’s the worst economic disparity since the 1900s,” he adds. “It’s high time we used the redistribution of wealth against the Republicans.”
It’s a curious line of work, this rural advocatin’, and when I ask Mudcat how he got into it, he replies with a series of Southern-fried metaphors. “I went out to get an egg biscuit with a fella. I’m the millionth guy to walk in the grocery store. I’m the accidental tourist.”
Whether being modest or trying to maintain his mystique, Mudcat is elusive when it comes to his own background. He claims he’s nothing more than “a country-boy trader” and alludes to some real estate doings that went bad in the early days of bank deregulation. (“I got caught up in their bad deals.”) He says he went to Virginia Tech for about five years (“I never did graduate”), where he played baseball. When he realized he wasn’t going to make it to the pros, he took a gig as a sportswriter for a few years.
As for his accidental tourism in the theater of campaign politics, “I said that if I ever get a shot, I’d try to make a difference.”
His shot came with Mark Warner, exactly the sort of Beltway Democrat who makes the good ol’ boys who abandoned the party during the Reagan years uncomfortable. Mudcat, who had been building a political alliance among African-Americans and the blue-collar whites he calls “Bubbas,” helped Warner bridge the gap. To use shorthand, he taught Warner redneck.