My First Vote

[This was first published in 2007]

In 1975 I turned 18 years old. Being the political animal I was (and still am) I immediately went and registered to vote, looking forward to casting my first vote as a member of the responsible member of the nation’s electorate. I intended to take this responsibility seriously.

I was fresh out of high school, was enjoying my new-found freedom, my long hair, the ability to walk into any store in Mississippi that sold it and buy beer without a fake ID, or resorting to the bootleggers who would sell liquor to anyone if they had the money. I was looking forward to going to college and hanging out with all my musician friends and enjoying the bohemian lifestyle, but I was also going to enjoy the statewide elections that were being held in Mississippi that summer and fall.

Enter my Granddaddy into the story. Granddaddy had served as an elected official from Lauderdale County since before I was born. I think, in total, he served 6 terms as a county supervisor from district two, where we all made our home. I have lots of stories about Granddaddy. He was a very colorful character, and a person who had a tremendous influence on me, sometimes, not always for the best.

There was to be a political rally in Meridian in that August, right before the primary elections. Grandaddy had purchased a large bottle of helium and some colorful balloons that said, “Re-Elect R.N.McElroy, Supevisor, District 2,” to hand out to the kids and needed someone to do this work for him. I was drafted though I was not too happy about it, wanting to schmooze with the politicians and be a big shot because I COULD VOTE. Instead, I painted my face and dressed as a clown, I went to the political rally at Highland Park.

Now on this hot day in August, let me tell you that the only people who took a clown handing out helium balloons seriously was the toddlers, the elementary kids, and their mothers. I did not get a chance to speak to any politicians all day long, and they were all there: candidates for Governor, Representative, Senator, Supervisor, Sheriff, you name it. Granddaddy was the only one who spoke to me ALL DAY, and of what political significance was that for me? The only politician I spoke with was the one I already knew. I certainly spoke with lots of kids, and their mothers, as this balloon act was the only form of kiddie amusement at the rally.

Late, late in the evening, in the hottest part of the day, hot as only a late August afternoon in Mississippi can be, as all the politicians were dashing off to other venues, and as the crowd was thinning out and running to find the nearest air conditioner, as I was beginning to pack up the left-over balloons and secure the helium tank, and beginning to think about wiping off the sweat-smudged clown paint from my face, a friendly looking man walked over to me. He came with a smile and an outstretched hand.

“Hello!” he said. “My name is Jim Herring, and I’m running for Lt. Governor.”

We shook hands. I suppose I told him my name but can’t remember. We chit-chatted for a minute; him wasting time in a sincere effort to build rapport which had already been established the minute he walked over in my direction, and me trying to think of something politically clever to talk about. He saved me from that embarrassment by getting down to the business at hand.

Jim asked me, “Are you old enough to vote?”

“Yes,” I said, “I just turned eighteen last month.”

“Have you registered to vote, yet?” He asked, wanting to confirm that he had found a qualified voter, which is, of course, natural for a politician.

“I registered the day after my 18th birthday,” I gushed, so proud of this moment when as a voter I was being taken seriously.

Beaming, he handed me a brochure with his biographical information and platform for his candidacy, which I gratefully and hungrily received. I tried to talk intelligently about politics and to sound like I was properly informed about the duties and the high responsibilities of the Office of Lieutenant Governor for the Great and Sovereign State of Mississippi. Had I actually been so informed, who was going to take a clown seriously? He very kindly and politely listened to me, nodding and smiling, like every word I had to say was of great political significance to him. He allowed me to indulge myself in my first moment of political sophistication.

“I sure would appreciate it if you would vote for me,” Jim said. “Can I count on your vote and support?”

I made the first non-Granddaddy political commitment of my life.

Jim gave me several of his brochures and asked me to use as much of my political influence as I could spare to get my friends to vote for him. I promised to do al that was within my power, which I did. I then told him that I had been waiting ALL DAY for this moment. He seemed genuinely glad to have made a friend.

When election-day came and I was escorted to the voting booth, I promptly searched for and found the name I was looking for. The first lever I ever flipped on a voting machine, my virgin vote, my un-cynical-everything-to-be-hoped-for-un-jaded vote,  my my-vote-is-the-most-important-vote-in-the-world vote, my world-is-filled-with-promise vote, was proudly, earnestly and confidently cast for Jim Herring.

Sadly, to me, and no doubt more so to Jim, he did not win that election. But all my political hopes were not dashed, as Granddaddy won his re-election by a landslide. Granddaddy thought that the helium balloons had helped.

Though Jim did not win that election, he has faithfully served the State of Mississippi and its people from a number of posts and positions, particularly as a judge on the Mississippi Court of Appeals. Over the years, I listened with great interest to every report I got as news would filter in from time to time. The very mention of that name has since drawn my attention like iron filings to a magnet.

I learned, today, as I was doing some internet searches on Jim that his daughter is one of my favorite singers, Caroline Herring. She and I have many mutual friends, as at one time she was in the band THE SINCERE RAMBLERS with my friends Dave Woolworth, Wendell Haag and Bryan Ledford. Caroline also was a student of one of my very best friends and mentors, the illustrious Ed Dye. Ed is in my band, today. I wish I had known that Jim was her father when I got the chance to perform with her at the Southern Food Symposium at Ole Miss a few years back. She was a guest and Ed and I were performing. Caroline sat in with us and we sang old folk songs and hymns with the most delightful harmonies. Had I known then that she was Jim’s daughter, I would have told her this story. Not knowing, the story waited yet longer for the telling.

It didn’t have to wait forever, though. Last Saturday, February 24, 2007, a meeting of the Kemper County Republican Party was held at Timberview Lodge. It had been put together by Ike Hopper, my step-father, who is the county chairman. My mother and wife were serving the food, and I had been asked to take photographs. You see, we all live at Timberview Lodge and were there serving the guests as hosts and fellow Republicans. The featured guest at the meeting was the state chairman of the GOP, the one, the only, Jim Herring.  At my home, serving him while he was serving others, I got to tell Jim this story. I was delighted to be able to do so.  I was surprised that as I was telling him emotions suddenly welled up inside me and a lump in my throat grew bigger and bigger as I struggled with this thing I had longed to say to him for so many years.

Thank you, Jim Herring, for taking the time to speak to me that day so long ago. I have carried the inspiration of that moment with me all these years; I carry it with me now.  I regret that all of my influence and political savvy at the time could not help you win the election for Lieutenant Governor. While you did not win the office that you sought, what you won was the sincere respect and admiration of a young man on his first political adventure. That respect and admiration has not wavered all these years.

At 50, my political savvy certainly greater that it was at 18.

Jim, feel free to use this if you’d like . . .  next time you run for office, you might consider getting yourself a clown and handing out some helium balloons.

©2007 Mississippi Chris Sharp

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