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.
“He’s the only Democratic candidate to run statewide in 30 years to get a majority of the rural vote, and he’s a Yankee from Connecticut and a telecommunications millionaire who lives in Northern Virginia,” Mudcat says. “He was genuine in the only thing he had to be genuine about, wanting to learn the culture.”
Warner made it clear to the dukes and duchesses of Hazzard that he wasn’t coming to take their guns, or interfere with their personal liberties, and that he was a fiscal conservative who cared about their economic burdens.
“We said, ‘Well, the son of a bitch likes us, we’re going to like him.’”
For his next magic trick, Mudcat literally talked (and he could talk corn out its husk) Jim Webb, a Marine officer in Vietnam, not to mention Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, into running for the Senate as a Democrat against the party’s choice, Harris Miller. Webb beat Miller in the primary and went on to best former Virginia governor George Allen, the Republican Senate incumbent, in the general election, effectively crushing Allen’s presidential hopes.
Much of Mudcat’s success comes from tapping into the undercurrent of anger in rural America, an anger that Dems have been prudish about exploiting. “It’s not enough that we get our jobs back in blue-collar, rural America. It’s not enough that we get our health care or dental care back or our crumbling infrastructure or our kids back,” Mudcat says. “We want to hurt somebody. We want to screw those who screw us.”
Webb, who’s written about the Scottish-Irish warrior tradition of Appalachia in his book Born Fighting understood the cultural terrain he was battling in. He promised to fight for his people.
I ask Mudcat if he thinks Obama’s been too soft in this area.
“What he needs to do is hurt those people who hurt us. Any enemy of our enemy is our friend. That’s the prevailing culture in rural America. Where he’s going to get the juice is when he hits at the greed, at the Exxons. The greed, that’s all it’s about,” Mudcat says. “If you’re going to win Virginia, southern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and Michigan, you better be shooting at the big corporations, not John McCain. This is not a Southern strategy; this is a blue-collar strategy, which takes you into the middle class, with the disparity in wealth.
“Why shoot at John McCain when you can shoot at greed?”
Mudcat pauses to place an order at a diner he’s obviously been to before. “Hey, darling,” I hear him say, “I want a bacon-and-egg sandwich on white toast, no mayonnaise. Have you been to the racetracks? Any fights?”
After telling me the waitress is pissed at him for not backing her boyfriend’s race car, Mudcat gets back to the business at hand. He sees an opening for the Dems on the issue of economic justice but wonders why they aren’t more aggressive about taking the fight to an eager audience. “The Republicans take rural America for granted,” Mudcat says. “The Dems don’t come out here and fight them, because they think they’re going to get knocked out.”
I suggest that it might also be up to rural America to address some of its own ignorance about who and what is good for them.
“Why are the Dems so ignorant they won’t come out and fight?” he responds. “That’s ignorance.”
Of course, I ask Mudcat what he thinks of McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska for the past two years, whose previous political experience was as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population 6,715.
“I think they got to be careful of hitting this small-town mayor and saying she has no experience. The truth of the matter is, a small-town mayor makes more decisions in a week than a congressman makes in five years,” he says. “To make fun of that is just a cut at rural America. Rural is more than geographic, it’s a mindset.”
But, he adds, “I’m not one who thinks that a vice president makes a hill of beans difference — I’m for Obama, I just wish they’d go ahead and swing a little. I want to see a little fight.”
While the idea of a (somewhat) college-educated former real estate guy making a career at teaching elite politicos how to whistle “Dixie” may make some folks incredulous, Mudcat contends he’s never made any money off his political consulting. And, he says, if this phase of his life goes to hell in a hand basket, he’ll be fine. “I’ve lived off rabbits and blackberries before. I can do it again.”
Meanwhile, as the Obama campaign spent its convention trying to shed the trappings of a movement and crystallize a message that resonates with middle America, the rural advocate remains at rest. Or, at least, out of the spotlight, spending his time on the sidelines hunting, fishing and writing. In 2006, he wrote with political consultant Steve Jarding a book called Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland, and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ’em Out. (“The Harvard kids helped with that,” he jokes.) He says his next one will be titled The Half-Assed Christian’s Guide to Loving: Psalms of a Pathological Heathen.
“I’m going to start taking up for Jesus. Jesus has been fucked, and I don’t like it.”
Even over the phone, however, it’s clear that Mudcat champs a bit at sitting on the sidelines during this battle. “I want to win. Fuck feeling good about ourselves,” he says. “I want to win.”