Chapter 21

The qualifying deadline passed with no other fireworks. Justice Calligan from the central district and Justice Bateman from the northern escaped opposition and were safe for another eight years. Both had a history of showing little sympathy for accident victims, consumers, and criminal defendants, and thus were greatly admired by the business community. At the local level, only two of the state's circuit court judges drew opposition.

One, though, was Judge Thomas Alsobrook Harrison IV An hour before the deadline passed, a Hattiesburg real estate lawyer named Joy Hoover filed the necessary papers and fired a few shots in a press release. She was a local political activist, well regarded and well-known in the county. Her husband was a popular pediatrician who operated a free clinic for poor mothers as a hobby.

Hoover was recruited by Tony Zachary and Judicial Vision. She was a gift from Barry Rinehart to Carl Trudeau, who, on several occasions in quiet conversations with Rinehart, had voiced his strong feelings against the judge who presided over the Baker trial. That judge now had his hands full and would be unable to meddle, as he was prone to do, in other races. For a mere $100,000, the legitimate, above-the-table commitment to Hoover, Judge Harrison now had much more serious matters on his hands.

Rinehart was scheming on several fronts. He picked a quiet day in late June to fire his next salvo.

Two gay men, Al Meyerchec and Billy Spano, had quietly arrived in Jackson three months earlier. They rented a small apartment near Millsaps College, registered to vote, and obtained Mississippi driver's licenses. Their old ones were from Illinois. They claimed to be self-employed illustrators who worked at home. They kept to themselves and met no one.

On June 24, they walked into the offices of the Hinds County Circuit Clerk and requested the necessary forms to apply for a license to be married. The clerk balked and attempted to explain that the laws under which she operated did not allow same-sex marriages.

Things grew tense, heated words were offered by Meyerchec and Spano, and they finally left. They called a reporter from the Clarion-Ledger and gave their side of the story.

The following day, with the reporter and a photographer, they returned to the clerk's office and again requested the paperwork. When it was denied, they began shouting and threatening to sue. The next day the story was front-page news, complete with a photograph of the two men as they berated the hapless clerk. They retained a radical lawyer, paid him $10,000, and made good on their pledge to litigate the matter. The new lawsuit also made the front page.

It was shocking news. Stories of attempts by gay people to legally marry were common in places like New York, Massachusetts, and California but were unheard-of in Mississippi.

What was the world coming to?

A follow-up story revealed that the two men were new to the area, were unknown in the gay community, and had no apparent ties to any business, any family, or anything else in the state. Graphic condemnations were offered by those who could be expected to say such things. A local state senator explained that these matters were governed by state laws and said laws were not about to be changed, not while he was running the legislature. Meyerchec and Spano were unavailable for comment. Their lawyer said they traveled extensively on business.

In truth, they were back in Chicago, where one worked as an interior designer and the other owned a bar. They would retain their legal residence in Mississippi and return only when their lawsuit required it.

Jackson was then rocked by another brutal crime. Three gang members, all armed with assault weapons, invaded a rented duplex occupied by twenty or so illegal immigrants from Mexico. The Mexicans were known to work eighteen hours a day, save every dime, then send it all home once a month. Such home invasions were not uncommon in Jackson and other southern cities. In the chaos of the crime, with the Mexicans scrambling about pulling cash from floors and walls and shrieking hysterically in Spanish as the gunmen screamed in very plain English, one of the Mexicans produced a pistol and fired some shots, hitting no one. The gunfire was returned, and a frantic scene turned even more horrific. When the shooting stopped, four of the Mexicans were dead,three were injured, and the gang members had retreated into the night. Their haul was estimated at about $800, though the police would never be certain.

Barry Rinehart could not claim the event as one of his creations, but he was nonetheless pleased to hear about it.

A week later, at a forum sponsored by a law-enforcement association, Clete Coley seized the crime with zeal and hammered away at his usual themes of violence running unchecked and aided by a liberal court that was stifling executions in Mississippi.

He pointed at Sheila McCarthy, onstage next to Ron Fisk, and harshly blamed her for the court's unwillingness to use the death chamber up at Parchman. The crowd loved him.

Ron Fisk was not to be outdone. He railed against gangs and drugs and lawlessness, and he criticized the supreme court, though in softer language. He then unveiled a five-step plan to streamline capital murder appeals, and his staff handed out the specific proposals as he spoke. It was an impressive showing, and Tony, seated in the rear, was delighted at the performance.

By the time Justice McCarthy rose to speak, the crowd was ready to throw stones.

She calmly explained the complexities of death penalty appeals and said that a great deal of the court's time was devoted solely to these difficult cases. She stressed the need to be careful and thorough and make sure each defendant's rights were properly guarded. The law knows no greater burden than protecting the legal rights of those society has decided to execute. She reminded the crowd that at least 120 men and women condemned to death row had later been completely exonerated, including two in Mississippi. Some of these people had spent twenty years waiting to die. In the nine years she had served on the court, she had participated in forty-eight death penalty cases. Of those, she had voted with the majority twenty-seven times to affirm the convictions, but only after being certain that fair trials had been conducted.

In the other cases, she had voted to reverse the convictions and send the cases back for retrials. She did not regret a single vote. She did not consider herself a liberal, a conservative, or a moderate. She was a supreme court justice, sworn to fairly review her cases and uphold the law. Yes, she was personally opposed to the death penalty, but she had never substituted her convictions for the laws of the state.

When she finished, there was a scattering of light applause, but only of the polite variety. It was difficult not to admire her bluntness and courage. Few, if any, would vote for her, but the lady knew what she was talking about.

It was the first time all three candidates had appeared together, and the first time Tony had watched her under pressure. "She will not be a pushover," he reported to Barry Rinehart. "She knows her stuff and sticks to her guns."

"Yes, but she's broke," Barry said with a laugh. "This is a campaign, and it's all about money."

McCarthy wasn't exactly broke, but her campaign was off to a miserable start. She had no campaign manager, no one to coordinate the fifty things that needed to bedone immediately while coordinating a thousand details for later. She had offered the job to three people.

The first two declined after considering it for twenty-four hours. The third said yes, then a week later said no.

A campaign is a small, frantic business thrown together under great pressure and with the knowledge that it will have a very short life. The full-time staff works brutal hours for low pay. The volunteers are invaluable but not always dependable.

A forceful and decisive campaign manager is crucial.

Six weeks after Fisk's announcement, Justice McCarthy had managed to open a campaign office in Jackson, near her condo, and one in Biloxi, near her home. Both were run by longtime friends, volunteers, who stayed busy recruiting more staff and calling potential donors.

There were piles of bumper stickers and yard signs, but the campaign had been unable to secure a decent firm to put together the ads, direct mail, and, hopefully, television spots. There was a very basic Web site, but no other Internet activity. Sheila had received $320,000 in contributions, all but $30,000 of it coming from trial lawyers. Bobby Neal and the board had promised her, in writing, that the MTA members would donate at least $ 1 million, and she did not doubt that they would.

But making promises was much easier than writing checks.

Getting organized was made more difficult by the fact that she had a demanding job that could not simply be ignored. The court's docket was backed up for a mile with cases that should have been decided months earlier. There was the constant strain of never catching up.

The appeals would never stop. And lives were in the balance: men and women on death row; children pulled back and forth in messy divorces; horribly injured workers waiting on a final ruling that, hopefully, would bring relief. Some of her colleagues were professional enough to detach themselves from the real people behind the cases they considered, but Sheila had never been able to.

But it was summertime, and the schedule was less taxing. She was taking off Fridays and spending long weekends on the road, visiting her district.

She worked hard Monday through Thursday, then became the candidate. She planned to spend the month getting her campaign organized and on track.

Her first opponent, Mr. Coley, generally loafed Monday through Friday, resting himself for the rigors of the blackjack table. He gambled only at night, and thus had plenty of time to campaign, if he wanted to. Generally he did not. He showed up at a few county fairs and delivered colorful speeches to enthusiastic crowds. If his volunteers from Jackson were in the mood, they would drive down and erect the Faces of the Dead display, and Clete raised the volume. Every town has a dozen civic clubs, most of which are always looking for speakers. Word spread that candidate Coley could liven up the lunch, and he received an invitation or two each week. Depending on the drive, and the severity of his hangover, he would entertain the idea. By late July, his campaign had received $27,000 in donations, more than enough to cover the costs of his leased SUV and his part-time bodyguards. He'd also spent $6,000 on brochures.

Every politician must have something to hand out.

Sheila's second opponent, though, was leading a campaign that ran like a well-tuned engine. Ron Fisk worked hard at his desk on Mondays and Tuesdays, then hit the road with a detailed schedule that left only the tiniest of towns untouched. Using both the Lear 55 and a King Air, he and his traveling staff quickly circled the district.

By mid-July, there was an organized committee in each of the twenty-seven counties, and Ron had given at least one speech in all of them. He spoke to civic clubs, volunteer fire departments, library teas, county bar associations, motorcycle clubs, bluegrass festivals, county fairs, and churches, churches, and churches. At least half of his speeches were in pulpits.

On July 18, Josh played his final baseball game of the season, and his father was free to campaign even more. Coach Fisk did not miss a game, though the team fell apart after he announced his candidacy. Most parents agreed that the two were not related.

In the rural areas, Ron's message never varied. Because of liberal judges, our values are under attack from those who support gay marriage, gun control, abortion, and unrestricted access to Internet pornography. Those judges must be replaced. His first loyalty was to the Bible. Laws made by men came next, but as a supreme court justice he would manage to reconcile both when necessary.

He began each speech with a short prayer.

In the less rural areas, depending on the audience, he would often move a little from the far right and dwell on the death penalty. Ron found that audiences were captivated by graphic stories of brutal crimes committed by men who were sentenced to die twenty years ago.

He worked a couple of these into his routine.

But regardless of where he was, the evil-liberal-judge theme dominated every speech.

After a hundred or so, Ron himself believed that Sheila McCarthy was a raging leftist who'd caused many of the state's social problems.

On the money front, with Barry Rinehart quietly pulling the strings, contributions were arriving at a steady rate and managed to keep pace with expenses. By June 30, the first deadline to file financial reports, the Fisk campaign had received $510,000 from twenty-two hundred people. Of his contributors, only thirty-five gave the maximum of $5,000, and every one of these was a Mississippi resident. Ninety percent of donors were from within the state.

Barry knew the trial lawyers would scrutinize the contributors in the hope that out-of-state money was pouring in from big business interests. It had been a troublesome campaign issue before, and he would avoid it in the Fisk race. He was confident he would raise huge sums of money from out of state, but these donations would pour in at the chosen moment, late in the campaign when the state's benign reporting laws protected it from being an issue. In contrast, McCarthy's reports revealed that she was being financed by the trial lawyers, and Barry knew precisely how to wield this as an issue in his favor.

Barry also had the results of his latest poll, one that he would not share with the candidate. As of June 25, half the registered voters were now aware that there was a race. Of that number, 24 percent favored Ron Fisk, 16 percent Sheila McCarthy, and 10 percent Clete Coley.

Those numbers were exciting. In less than two months, Barry had packaged an unknown lawyer who'd never worn a black robe and thrust him ahead of an opponent with nine years of experience. And they had yet to run a single ad on television.

On July 1, the Second State Bank was purchased by New Vista Bank, a regional chain based in Dallas. Huffy called Wes Payton with the news and was generally upbeat.

The Hattiesburg office had been assured that nothing would change but the name. His loan portfolio had been reviewed by the new owners. They had quizzed him about the Paytons, and seemed content with Huffy's promises that the loan would eventually be satisfied.

For the fourth straight month, the Paytons sent Huffy a check for $2,000.

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