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Is This Off the Record, Daddy-O?

posted on Saturday, January 28, 2012, 9:19:22 AM | fractalbob

The Huntsville Item was already in the kitchen garbage can when I went downstairs to breakfast last Sunday. My father had moved on to the Chronicle’s Sports section and my mother was getting ready for church. I plucked it from the can like I always do — I keep telling the ’rents that newsprint goes in the fucking recycling can.

“Who’s mad at the paper today?” I said.

“Don’t set that on the counter. It’s been in the trash,” Dad said.

I scanned the headlines — old man goes into nursing home, shoots wife of 50 years, turns gun on self.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“Might as well move to Houston,” my father said.

“Nice story for a Sunday morning,” my mother said as she entered. She left smudges of ruby-red lipstick on my cheek with a quick kiss and snatched the paper from me. “Wash your hands,” she said, tossing it back in the trash.

“Fuck it. I’ll read it online,” I said.

“Put some pants on,” she said.

“Hey, at least it’s boxers instead of briefs,” I said.

She left for church and I checked out the coffee-stained paper on top of the trash. Another headline caught my eye: “Item requests city ballots, records for spot check.”

I read the headline aloud to my father, still engrossed in the sports pages. “What’s that about?”

“Somebody screwed up.”

“Who?”

He lowered the paper to glower at me. “You’ll get nothing about Haldeman from me.”

Just kidding. What he really said was, “This isn’t Wee-Wee & Tushy. Go put some pants on like your mother said.”

[Footnote: “Wee-Wee & Tushy” are neighboring towns in a play my parents saw in the Seventies. The term has been in the family lexicon for three decades.]

I read the ballots article online before my mother got home from church. I was ready to pounce with more questions as soon as she opened the door. But she brought home a friend for lunch.

“Where’s your father?”

“Raven’s Nest,” I said, standing there in a T-shirt and cargo shorts, not the ideal costume for receiving guests of this lady’s caliber.

“Raven Nest,” my mother’s friend corrected me. “No possessive.”

“Well that’s just wrong,” I said.

Then my mother urged me to take my happy ass upstairs with the promise I would get a plate of tuna salad-filled croissants if I went quietly to my room. I complied. I was busy anyway, working on a tough freelance project with a Tuesday deadline. When I was called downstairs later to fetch my lunch, I overheard the two of them.

“Lanny Ray!” My mother’s friend said with a comic flourish as though this was the punch line to a joke.

My mother murmured something in response, and I stuck my head into the dining room.

“What about Lanny Ray?” I said.

My mother’s eyes went to the plate in my hand. “Is that enough food for you? I gave you two (croissants).” She turned to her friend. “He doesn’t have an inch of fat to pinch anywhere on his body.” — Jesus, Mother — “Riding that bike of his all over town.”

“He’s adorable,” said my mother’s friend.

That sounded like an invitation, so I sat down at the table between them. “What did Lanny Ray do now?”

“The Item hired him to try to get the ballots out of Diana McRae’s office,” said my mother’s friend. “So they could count them.”

I was meant to understand that the ridiculous local newspaper had hired that ridiculous local lawyer and former City Councilman to do something very tiresome and ridiculous.

“What’s up with that?” I said.

My mother’s friend waved my question away with ennui, the way the mistress of a plantation might when discussing the vagaries of slave behavior and social rituals.

But these slaves had changed hands unexpectedly. They now belonged to the likes of Dr. Tommy Cole, who had hired Lanny Ray as overseer to manage them. My mother explained this much to me, and then she was ready for me to toddle back upstairs.

In other homes around town, men and women of a certain political clarity were also talking about this story and what it meant. I wanted to be with them. Surely there was somebody in that alternative universe who could enlighten me — maybe Mr. Ray himself. Could I take the Item’s story at face value or did they know something off the record that didn’t appear in print? Was the paper simply exercising the public’s right to check the integrity of a vulnerable electronic system? Or does somebody actually have the goods on The Powers That Be?

The prospect of conspiracy is a vulgar temptation that rational people pass up. If the votes didn’t add up the way we’d hoped, the simple, most reasonable explanation is that the losers lost on their own lack of merit. But “merit” is subjective. How else does one explain the victory of a stone cold simpleton over a more experienced leader with a law degree? Maybe in these back woods, we trust the good ole boy with the mustache and pickup truck over the eggheaded asshole with the constitution in his back pocket. Or maybe TPTB installed a straw man to grab and hold Ray’s Council seat.

Electronic voting rigging is a liberal fantasy, an easy one to dismiss if you’re a disciple of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Voter fraud, in which an unregistered citizen — of color, possibly? — casts an illegal ballot, is the conservative flip side. Conservatives legitimize their paranoia in sweeping legislation. And, while there is no shortage of expert testimony about the ease in which electronic voting machines can be compromised, you’re a nut job if you want to do a simple ballot check.

Ironically, the last documented case of voter irregularity in HTX was perpetrated against Cole by a current candidate for county office, Jim Willett. In a very tight race, a couple of Willett supporters registered to vote under their business address in the city limits rather than their residential address in the county. The judge voided the results of the election and ordered a new one, which Cole won.

Note to TPTB: Dudes, we’re so onto your candidate/voter address gambit. Switch horses, why dontcha?

An electronic vote spot check is something the law allows candidates, whether eligible for recount or not. According to the article in the Item, Tom Cole, who lost his Ward 1 seat in the last city election, could have called for a spot check after the vote canvass. I don’t know why he didn’t — maybe he didn’t know he could or maybe he didn’t want any more bullshit. But this makes up the real core of the argument against the Item’s request. “You’re too late, Huntsville Item. The Secretary of State’s Office gives us air cover with its 22-month preservation period, and if you fuckers had the goods on anyone, Tommy Cole would have exercised his option at canvass. So go fuck yourselves.”

Note, too, that The Item asked the county to ensure that ballots would be preserved until they could be counted, and that the county didn’t respond.

“Maybe Diana McRae didn’t feel the need to dignify such bullshit,” my mother said later that afternoon when I came back downstairs for a frosty beverage. “How dare the Item let Lanny Ray accuse her of something without a shred of proof.”

“You can’t have it both ways, Mom. If the voting process is above reproach because Diana McRae says so, then why can’t she assure voters the ballots are safe now?”

I was sent outside rather forcefully with a bag of charcoal for my father, who was tinkering with the grill as Johnny Stomp supervised with superior mechanical expertise.

“Don’t even think of letting your little masked avenger blog about this ballot bullshit,” Johnny said.

“He’s too busy for that right now,” my father said. “He has real work that pays real money.”

But Johnny looked me in the eye, letting the dreaded Stompanato eye-scan lie detector do its work. Then he grinned. “Consider yourself warned.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“I knew we were going to have trouble as soon as Lisa Trow came back as editor,” Johnny said. “She’s been a fucking liberal since long before Clinton was getting his dick skinned in the Oval Office.”

“By your standards, I’m a fucking liberal,” my father said.

“And now you got one Item broad yucking it up at Council meetings with the kid who lost to Tish and the publisher broad running all over town with that smiley little Democrat.”

“You think a group of people found guilty of illegally spending almost half a million dollars aren’t also capable of rigging a little local election to their advantage?” I said.

But I had just crossed the line and in front of Johnny Stomp. My father’s head snapped up, and he glared at me with an ugly frown. “Why don’t you pack your duds and move in with Rich Heiland?”

He didn’t say it, of course, but he didn’t have to. I thought it on my way back inside: “You are no son of mine.”

At the back door, I stopped to call Fractal Dog, who had trotted outside with me. He wouldn’t come.

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