Chapter 20

When he stepped forward and gazed at the large congregation on Sunday morning, Ron Fisk had no idea how many pulpits he would visit over the next six months. Nor did he realize that the pulpit would become a symbol of his campaign.

He thanked his minister for the opportunity, then thanked his congregation, his fellow members of St. Luke's Baptist Church, for their indulgence. "Tomorrow, down the street at the Lincoln County Courthouse, I will announce my candidacy for the Mississippi Supreme Court. Doreen and I have been struggling with and praying about this for several months now. We have counseled with Pastor Rose. We have discussed it with our children, our families, and our friends. And we are finally at peace with our decision and want to share it with you before the announcement tomorrow."

He glanced at his notes, looked a little nervous, then continued.

"I have no background in politics. Frankly, I've never had the stomach for it. Doreen and I have established a happy life here in Brookhaven, raising our kids, worshipping here with you, taking part in our community.

We are blessed, and we thank God every day for his goodness. We thank God for this church and for friends like you. You are our family."

Another nervous pause.

"I seek to serve on the supreme court because I cherish the values that we share.

Values based on the Bible and our faith in Christ. The sanctity of the family-man and woman. The sanctity of life. The freedom to enjoy life without fear of crime and government intervention. Like you, I am frustrated by the erosion of our values.

They are under attack by our society, by our depraved culture, and by many of our politicians. Yes, also by our courts. I offer my candidacy as one man's fight against liberal judges. With your help, I can win. Thank you."

Mercifully brief-another long-winded sermon was surely coming next-Ron's words wereso well received that a polite round of applause rippled through the sanctuary as he returned to his seat and sat with his family.

Two hours later, while the white churchgoers in Brookhaven were having lunch and the black ones were just getting cranked up, Ron bounded up red-carpeted steps to the massive podium of the Mount Pisgah Church of God in Christ on the west side of town and delivered a lengthier version of the morning's comments. (He omitted the word "liberal.") Until two days earlier, he had never met the reverend of the town's largest black congregation. A friend pulled some strings and manipulated an invitation.

That night, in the middle of a rowdy Pentecostal holy hour, he grabbed the pulpit, waited for the racket to die down, then introduced himself and made his appeal. He ignored his notes and spoke longer. He went after the liberals again.

Driving home afterward, he was struck by how few people he actually knew in his small town. His clients were insurance companies, not people. He rarely ventured outside the security of his neighborhood, his church, his social circle. Frankly, he preferred to stay there.

At nine Monday morning he gathered on the steps of the courthouse with Doreen and the kids, his law firm, a large group of friends, courthouse employees and regulars, and most of his Rotary Club, and he announced his candidacy to the rest of the state. It was not planned as a media event.

Only a few reporters and cameras showed up.

Barry Rinehart subscribed to the strategy of peaking on Election Day, not when the announcement is made.

Ron delivered his carefully worded and rehearsed remarks for fifteen minutes, with lots of applause thrown in. He answered every question the reporters had, then moved inside to a small, empty courtroom, where he happily gave a thirty-minute exclusive to one of the political reporters for the Jackson newspaper.

The party then moved three blocks down the street, where Ron cut the ribbon across the door of his official campaign headquarters in an old building that had been freshly painted and covered with campaign propaganda. Over coffee and biscuits, he chatted with friends, posed for pictures, and sat for another interview, this one with a newspaper he'd never heard of. Tony Zachary was there, supervising the festivities and watching the clock.

Simultaneously, a press release of his announcement was sent to every newspaper in the state and to the major dailies throughout the Southeast. One was also e-mailed to each member of the supreme court, each member of the legislature, every other elected official in the state, every registered lobbyist, thousands of state employees, every doctor with a license, and every lawyer admitted to the bar. There were 390,000 registered voters in the southern district. Rinehart's Internet consultants had found e-mail addresses for about a fourth of them, and these lucky folks received the news online while Ron was still at the courthouse making his speech. A total of 120,000 e-mails went out in one blast.

Forty-two thousand solicitations for money were sent by e-mail, along with a message that touted the virtues of Ron Fisk while attacking the social evils caused by "liberal, left-leaning judges who substitute their own agendas for those of the people."

From a rented warehouse in south Jackson, a building Ron Fisk did not know about and would never lay eyes on, 390,000 stuffed envelopes were removed and taken to the central post office. Inside each was a campaign brochure with lots of endearing photos, a warm letter from Ron himself, a smaller envelope if one wished to send back a check, and a complimentary bumper sticker. The colors were red, white, and blue, and the artwork was obviously done by professionals. Every detail in the mailing was of the highest quality.

At 11:00 a.m., Tony moved the show south to McGomb, the eleventh-largest city in the district. (Brookhaven ranked fourteenth with a population of 10,800.) Traveling in a newly leased Chevrolet Suburban, with a volunteer named Guy at the wheel, with his new but already indispensable first assistant, Monte, in the front seat and on the phone, and with Doreen sitting by his side on the rather spacious middle bench of the SUV, Ron Fisk smiled smugly at the countryside flying by him. It was a moment to be savored. His first foray into politics, and in such grand style. All those supporters, their enthusiasm, the press and the cameras, the heady challenge of the job ahead, the thrill of winning, all in just the first two hours of the campaign.

The strong rush of adrenaline was only a sample of what was coming. He imagined a great victory in November. He could see himself springing from the mundane anonymity of a smalltown law practice to the prestige of the supreme court. It all lay before him.

Tony followed closely behind, relaying a quick update to Barry Rinehart.

At the City Hall in McComb, Ron announced again. The crowd was small but loud. There were a few friends, but the rest were total strangers. After two quick interviews, with photos, he was driven to the McComb airstrip, where he boarded a Lear 55, a handsome little jet built like a rocket, although, as Ron couldn't help but notice, much smaller than the G5 that had whisked him to Washington. Doreen barely managed to suppress her excitement at her first encounter with a private jet. Tony joined the flight. Guy raced ahead with the SUV Fifteen minutes later they landed in Hattiesburg, population forty-eight thousand, the third-largest city in the district. At 1:00 p.m., Ron and Doreen were the guests at a Prayer Lunch thrown together by a loose coalition of fundamentalist pastors. The setting was an old Holiday Inn. Tony waited in the bar.

Over badly fried chicken and butter beans, Ron did more listening than talking. Several of the preachers, evidently still inspired by their Sunday labors, felt the need to bless him with their views on various issues and evils. Hollywood, rap music, celebrity culture, rampant pornography, the Internet, underage drinking, underage sex, and on and on. Ron nodded sincerely and was soon ready to escape. When he did say a few words, he chose all the right ones. He and Doreen had prayed about this race and felt the Lord's hand in it. Laws created by man should strive to emulate the laws of God. Only men of clear moral vision should judge the problems of others.

And so on. He was unequivocally endorsed on the spot.

Freed from the meeting, Ron addressed a group of two dozen supporters outside the Forrest County Circuit Court building. The event was covered by the Hattiesburg TV station. After a few questions, he walked along Main Street, shaking hands with any and all, passing out his slick brochures, and ducking into every law office for a quick heyhowdy. At 3:30, the Lear 55 took off and headed to the Coast. At eight thousand feet and climbing, it flew over the southwest corner of Cancer County.

Guy was waiting with the Suburban at the Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport. Ron kissed Doreen goodbye, and the plane took her back to Mc-Comb. Another driver there would take her to Brookhaven. At the Harrison County Courthouse, Ron announced again, answered the same questions, then sat down for a long interview with the Sun Herald.

Biloxi was the home of Sheila McCarthy. It was adjacent to Gulf-port, the largest city in the southern district, with a population of sixty-five thousand. Biloxi and Gulfport were the center of the Coast region, a three-county area along the Gulf with 60 percent of the votes. To the east was Ocean Springs, Gautier, Moss Point, Pascagoula, and then Mobile. To the west was Pass Christian, Long Beach, Waveland, Bay St. Louis, then New Orleans.

Tony planned for Ron to spend at least half of his time there during the campaign. At 6:00 p.m., the candidate was introduced to his Coast office, a renovated fast-food franchise on Highway 90, the heavily traveled four-lane at the beach. Brightly colored campaign signs blanketed the area around the headquarters, and a large crowd gathered to hear and meet their candidate. Ron knew none of them. Nor did Tony. Virtually all were employees of some of the companies indirectly financing the campaign. Half worked in the regional office of a national auto insurance company. When Ron arrived and saw his headquarters, its decorations, and the crowd, he marveled at the organizational skills of Tony Zachary. This might be easier than he thought.

The Gulf Coast's economy is now fueled by casinos, so he throttled back his high moral comments and dwelled on his conservative approach to judicial thought. He talked about himself, his family, his son Josh's undefeated Little League team. And for the first time, he voiced concern over the state's crime rate and its seeming indifference to executing condemned killers.

Clete Coley would've been proud.

Dinner that night was a fancy fund-raiser at the Biloxi Yacht Club, a thousand dollars a plate. The crowd was a mix of corporate suits, bankers, doctors, and insurance defense lawyers. Tony counted eighty-four present.

Late that night, with Ron asleep in the room next door, Tony called Barry Rinehart with a summary of the great day. It wasn't as colorful as Clete's dramatic entrance, but it was far more productive. Their candidate had handled himself well.

Day two began with a 7:30 Prayer Breakfast at a hotel in the shadows of the casinos.

It was sponsored by a newly organized group known as the Brotherhood Coalition. Most of those in attendance were fundamentalist pastors from a dozen strains of Christianity.

Ron was quickly learning the strategy of adapting to his audience, and he felt at home talking about his faith and how it would shape his decisions on the supreme court. He emphasized his long service to the Lord as a deacon and Sunday school teacher, and almost choked up when he recalled the story of his son's baptism.

Again, he was endorsed on the spot.

At least half the state awoke to morning newspapers with full-page ads for candidate Ron Fisk. The ad in Jackson's Clarion-Ledger had a handsome photograph above the bold caption 'Judicial Reform." Smaller print gave Ron's pertinent biographical data, with emphasis on his membership in his church, civic organizations, and the American Rifle Association. Still smaller print listed an impressive collection of endorsements: family groups, conservative Christian activists, panels of ministers, and associations that seemed to represent the rest of humanity; doctors, nurses, hospitals, dentists, nursing homes, pharmacists, retail merchants, real estate agents, banks, savings and loans, finance companies, brokerage firms, mortgage banks, insurance companies (health, life, medical, fire, casualty, malpractice), highway contractors, architects, energy companies, natural gas producers, and three "legislative relations" groups that represented the manufacturers of virtually every product to be found in any store.

In other words, everyone who might get sued and therefore paid insurance premiums as protection. The list reeked of money and proclaimed that Ron Fisk, heretofore unknown, was now in the race as a serious player.

The ad cost $12,000 in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, $9,000 in the Biloxi Sun Herald, and $5,000 in the Hattiesburg American.

The two-day cost of the Fisk rollout was roughly $450,000, which did not include travel expenses, the jet, and the Internet assault. The bulk of the money was spent on direct mail.

Ron spent the rest of Tuesday and Wednesday on the Coast, with every minute planned with precision. Campaigns habitually run late, but not with Tony in charge. They announced at the courthouses in Jackson and Hancock counties, prayed with preachers, stopped at dozens of law offices, worked a few busy streets handing out brochures, and shook hands. Ron even kissed his first baby. And it was all recorded by a film crew.

On Thursday, Ron made six more stops throughout south Mississippi, then hurried back to Brookhaven for a quick change of clothes. The game began at six. Doreen was already there with the kids. The Raiders were warming up, and Josh was pitching. The team was in the dugout listening to an assistant when Coach Fisk hustled in and took charge.

There was a nice crowd at the game. Ron already felt like a celebrity.

Rather than researching law, Sheila's two clerks spent the day collecting press accounts of the Ron Fisk rollout. They gathered copies of the full-page ads from the different newspapers. They tracked the news online. As the file grew thicker, their moods sank.

Sheila tried gamely to go about her job as if nothing was happening. The sky was falling, but she pretended to ignore it. Privately, and this usually meant a closed-door session with Big Mac, she was stunned and thoroughly overwhelmed. Fisk was spending what looked like a million dollars, and she had raised virtually nothing.

Clete Coley had convinced her she had light opposition. The Fisk ambush was so brilliantly executed she felt as though she'd been killed in battle.

The board of directors of the Mississippi Trial Advocates met in an emergency meeting late Thursday afternoon in Jackson. Its current president was Bobby Neal, a veteran trial lawyer with many verdicts under his belt and a long history of service to the MTA. Eighteen of the twenty directors were present, the highest number in many years.

The board, by its very nature, was a collection of high-strung and highly opinionated lawyers who worked by their own rules. Few had ever had a boss. Most had clawed their way up through the lower rungs of the profession to reach a level of great respectability, at least in their opinions. To them, no calling was higher than that of representing the poor, the injured, the unwanted, the troubled.

Typically, each gathering was long and loud and usually began with everyone present demanding the floor. And that was a normal meeting. Place the same group in an urgent setting with their backs pinned to the wall by the sudden and imminent threat of losing one of their most trusted allies on the supreme court, and all eighteen began arguing at once. Each had all the answers. Barbara Mellinger and Skip Sanchez sat in one corner, silent. No alcohol was being served. No caffeine. Only water.

After a raucous half hour, Bobby Neal managed to bring the meeting into some semblance of order. He got their attention when he informed them that he had spent an hour with Justice McCarthy earlier in the day. "She is in great spirits," he said with a smile, one of the few around the table that afternoon. "She is hard at work doing her job and really doesn't want to get sidetracked. However, she understands politics and said more than once that she will run a hard campaign and has every intention of winning. I promised our unwavering support."

He paused, shifted gears. "However, I found the meeting a bit discouraging. Clete Coley announced four weeks ago, and Sheila still doesn't even have a campaign manager.

She has raised a few bucks, but she wouldn't say how much. I got the impression that she settled down after the Coley thing and convinced herself he was simply a nut with no credibility. She thought she could slide. Her thoughts have now changed dramatically.

She's been asleep, and now she's running to catch up. As we know from experience, there is very little money on our side of the street, except ours."

"It'll take a million bucks to beat this guy," someone said, and the comment was rapidly drowned out in a wave of ridicule. A million wasn't close. The tort reformers spent two million against Judge McElwayne, and they lost by three thousand votes.

They'll spend more than that this time around because they're better organized and really ticked off. And the guy who ran against McElwayne was a reprobate who'd never tried a lawsuit and had spent the last ten years teaching political science at a junior college. This guy Fisk is a real lawyer.

So they talked about Fisk for a while, at least four different conversations boiling at any given moment.

Tapping his water glass, Bobby Neal slowly dragged them back to his agenda. "There are twenty of us on this board. If we commit ten thousand each, right now, Sheila's campaign can at least get organized."

Instant silence. Deep breaths were taken. Water was gulped. Eyes darted here and there, searching for other eyes that might agree or disagree with this bold proposition.

Someone at the far end of the table barked, "That's ridiculous." The lights flickered.

The AC vents went silent. Everyone gawked at Willy Benton, a fiery little Irish brawler from Biloxi. Benton rose slowly and spread his hands. They had heard his passionate summations before, and they settled in for another. Juries found him irresistible.

"Gentlemen, and lady, this is the beginning of the end. We can't fool ourselves.

The forces of evil who want to slam the courthouse doors and deny our clients their rights, the same pro-business lobby that has slowly, methodically marched across this country and purchased one supreme court seat after another, that same bunch of assholes is here, banging on our door. You saw their names in those ads Fisk ran.

It's a confederation of dunces, but they have the money. We have what I believe is a consistent one-vote majority on the supreme court, and here we sit, the only group who can fight these thugs, and we argue about how much we should give. I'll tell you what we should give. Everything! Because if we don't, then the practice of law as we know it will quickly fade away. We won't take cases anymore, because we won't be able to win them. The next generation of trial lawyers will not exist.

"I gave a hundred thousand dollars to Judge McElwayne, and it was a stretch. I'll do the same for judge McCarthy. I don't have an airplane. I don't handle the mass torts and rake in outrageous fees. Y'all know me. I'm from the old school, one case at a time, one trial after another. But I'll sacrifice again. So should you. We all have our toys. If you can't pledge fifty thousand each, then get off this board and go home. You know you can afford it. Sell a condo, a car, a boat, skip a couple of vacations.

Hock your wife's diamonds. You pay your secretaries fifty grand a year. Sheila McCarthy is far more important than any secretary or any associate."

"The limit is five thousand per person, Willy," someone said.

"Well aren't you a smart son of a bitch," he fired back. "I have a wife and four children. That's thirty grand right there. I also have two secretaries and some satisfied clients. I'll raise a hundred thousand bucks by the end of the week, and everyone here can do the same."

He sat down, his face red. After a long pause, Bobby Neal looked at Barbara Mellinger and asked, "How much did we give Judge Mc-Elwayne?"

"One point two, from about three hundred trial lawyers."

"How much did he raise?"

"One point four."

"How much would you guess McCarthy will need to win?"

It was a subject Barbara and Skip Sanchez had discussed for three days. "Two million," she said without hesitation.

Bobby Neal frowned and recalled the fund-raising efforts two years earlier on behalf of Jimmy McElwayne. Pulling teeth without anesthesia would have been easier.

"Then we have to raise two million bucks," he said with confidence. They nodded gravely and seemed to agree on that figure. They returned to the challenge on the table, and a fierce debate erupted about how much each should commit. The ones who earned a lot also spent a lot. Those who were struggling were afraid to commit. One admitted he'd lost his last three jury trials and was effectively broke at the moment. Another, a mass tort star with his own jet, promised $150,000.

They adjourned without agreeing on a fixed amount, which surprised no one.

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