The Rites of Springer on the Stump

Posted June 13, 2003 at 6:42pm

SALEM, Ohio — As Jerry Springer takes his place at the head table in the red, white and blue festooned ballroom of the Timberlanes Inn & Restaurant, the rhythmic chant of “Jer-ry, Jer-ry, Jer-ry!” rises loudly above the other cheers and applause. But tonight’s setting — the 53rd annual Columbiana County Jefferson-Jackson Dinner — couldn’t be more different than the Chicago television studio that made Springer, his controversial talk show and that globally recognized chant an unmistakable part of today’s pop culture.

Here the guests are tastefully attired elected officials, union members and Democratic Party activists. Chair-throwing is limited to joking references, and all of the finger-pointing, fist-waving and trash talk is aimed at Republicans.

Tonight the 300 or so gathered faithful have paid $30 each ($100 if they attended a pre-dinner reception) to hear more than just the talk-show host’s final thoughts. Instead, they listen intently to Jerry Springer — a partisan, populist, potential Senate candidate who knows how to push the right buttons on serious subjects like health care, education and the economy.

“I’m all for rebuilding Iraq, but if you’re willing to spend 70 to 200 billion dollars to rebuild Iraq, how about rebuilding Ohio? How about rebuilding the cities of America?” he shouts, continuing over the growing applause. “Where are the priorities?”

The June 7 event in Salem, about 25 miles from Youngstown in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, is just one of the latest stops for Springer, who has endured four months’ worth of rubber chicken dinners in an effort to figure out if he can separate himself from his “ringmaster” persona enough to be taken seriously by Buckeye State voters.

According to Springer, the early indications are good, and he will decide whether to enter the race against Sen. George Voinovich (R) by the end of July.

Clearly Springer wants to run, but he says he won’t waste people’s time unless he sees empirical evidence of his political viability. To that end, he has hired two well-known Democratic pollsters — Dianne Feldman of The Feldman Group and Paul Maslin of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates — who are conducting focus groups, dial groups and polling to determine whether he can shed what some see as catastrophic political baggage, or what he commonly calls the “clutter” of the show.

“The clutter is when you say ‘Jerry Springer’ immediately people have images of the show. Of me being a ringmaster. Of me being in the entertainment industry for the past two decades,” he explained in a recent interview. “The movie ‘Ringmaster.’ You know, being in ‘Austin Powers,’ flopping around. … Just all of the images of me and three-headed aliens.”

Springer said that after four months of traveling the state he is convinced that, in person, he can move people with his message. The standing ovations he regularly receives from sellout Democratic crowds provide some proof he’s right. But he also knows that introducing himself to voters using any vehicle other than his TV show will be difficult.

The ‘Silly’ Show

Springer doesn’t need focus groups or pollsters to tell him that his show is political baggage. The episode that aired on the same day last week that he announced the launch of his exploratory committee and RunJerryRun.com featured nudity, profanity and violence, all staples of the syndicated show that is currently in its 13th season.

Using self-deprecating humor, Springer frequently ridicules his “silly” show in front of Democratic audiences and in media interviews. But even as he talks about separating himself from the show, listening to him on the stump it becomes just as apparent that he plans to use the show as he campaigns as a Washington outsider.

“I’m not saying that I haven’t done the show. Or forget the show,” he said. “I never say that, that would be so disingenuous.

“What I’m saying is that the show has no particular relevance to the issues that we have to discuss in this campaign. Whether you like the show, or don’t like the show. What I always say is that my show didn’t shut down one plant, didn’t close one school, didn’t turn the economy upside down. That’s what I’m saying. It’s irrelevant. That’s me doing a talk show. Now, I’m talking about what we have to do in Washington. What we have to do to turn our country around.”

Springer also argues that he can connect with and relate to the “regular folks” who appear on his show.

“They may not know who their Senator is, but they know who I am,” he tells a reporter while taping a television interview.

And he’s banking on the fact that even while he is shuttled around in a private plane and limousines, people will still identify with the working-class immigrant New York Jew who’s really just one of them.

“They know it. They feel it. They really do,” he said. “You walk with me into a bar, they all say, ‘Hey, Jer-ry!’ It’s not ‘Mr. Springer.’”

He opens his speeches with the story of his first memory of America, as a 5-year-old standing on the deck of the Queen Mary looking up at the Statue of Liberty. In one generation, he tells audiences, his family has gone from extermination (his parents fled Nazi Germany to London and much of his family did not survive the Holocaust) to “this ridiculously wealthy life” he has because of the show.

He argues that his show also squares with the populist message of his campaign.

“If I were born with a silver spoon in my mouth, there’s no way I could do the show I now do,” he said. “I’m perfectly comfortable being around the people I’m around. That doesn’t mean I approve of everything they do, but you know what a lot of these folks on the show for example, they’re a lot more authentic than the suits that run America. They don’t put on airs. They are what they are. You know they don’t speak the King’s English. You know they don’t have their money. They don’t have their education. They don’t have their privilege. But, damn, they’re just … they’re like everybody else. They’re just people. It’s so refreshing just to see, instead of the all the bull-— we get in Washington.”

The Celebrity Candidate

If he runs, Springer may be able to separate talk show host “Jer-ry” from candidate Jerry, but it would be impossible for him to shed his celebrity status.

As soon as Springer arrives at the fairgrounds in Chillicothe, located about an hour’s drive south of Columbus, where as many as 80,000 Harley Davidson enthusiasts gather each Labor Day weekend for the grand nationals of the Easyriders Motorcycle Rodeo, he does a mix of local television, radio and newspaper interviews.

He is introduced by television’s “Inside the Valley” host Tom Castor as “the most famous person we’ll ever have on this show.” And after completing an interview for a group of local radio stations, he’s asked to record several promotional spots.

“Hi, I’m Jerry Springer. You know I like quality family programming, so I listen to Dan and Mike in the morning on 1490 WBBX,” he says as the tape rolls and everyone in the room chuckles.

After delivering the keynote address at the Ross County Democratic Party spring dinner, Springer heads over to the local ball field to watch the minor league baseball Chillicothe Paints take on the visiting Kalamazoo (Mich.) Kings. A mob scene develops as Springer begins to make his way into the stands. In order to control the crowd of screaming youngsters seeking autographs, Springer is seated behind a table where he proceeds to sign programs, arms, T-shirts, dollar bills and other items handed to him.

All told, Springer spends more time in Chillicothe signing autographs and posing for pictures than he does actually pushing his message to likely primary voters.

Before dinner, star-struck high schooler Justin Allen hands Springer a cellphone and asks him to talk to his girlfriend.

“Hi, Danielle, this is Jerry Springer,” he says.

He also spends time just listening. At the pre-dinner reception a woman approaches Springer and shares her troubled life story, one that includes foster care and sexual abuse.

But while Springer can clearly draw crowds, his ability to pull those same people to the polls is much less apparent.

“I don’t think he’d have a chance,” said a retired farmer who attended the Ross County dinner in Chillicothe and declined to give his name. “He’s a celebrity. Reagan had it too.”

The man said that he would have come to the dinner regardless of Springer’s presence and he confessed that when channel surfing he only stops to watch his talk show “if there’s some action.”

Standing nearby is Bonnie Thomas, a black senior citizen who friend Jean Meehan describes as Springer’s biggest fan.

“I need a good laugh,” said Thomas, who rarely misses an episode.

As the two women are introduced to Springer, Meehan, a registered Republican who voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2000 presidential primary, informs him that she’ll vote for him, and so will her granddaughter in Cincinnati.

“I just hope it doesn’t hold you back,” Meehan says, referring to the show.

Still, other Democrats were less convinced.

“I like to think that he could win,” said Dustin Proehl, a 30-year-old high school technology teacher who attended the Ross County dinner with his wife.

Proehl, who brought a boxed Jerry Springer doll for the talk show host to autograph and later paid $155 for the tie Springer donated off his neck to an auction benefiting the local party, is obviously a fan. (The tie was the only item to bring more than $100.)

Still, he said it would be “tough to sell Jerry as a credible candidate with the TV show.”

“The show’s the show,” countered Bill Lynch, a member of the Ross County Democratic Executive Committee, adding that Springer could win the general election. “I think he’s a heck of a politician.”

‘Jesse Ventura on Crack’

Although in speeches he invokes the names of two Democratic icons — Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy — on the stump Springer sounds more like an amalgamation of two modern Midwestern politicians: former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

Like Ventura, a former pro-wrestler known as “The Body” before being elected in 1998, Springer argues that he can use his celebrity to draw first-time and occasional voters to the polls.

“We already know that there are not enough Democratic votes in the state for any Democrat to win,” Springer tells audiences.

He also believes that his message transcends party lines.

“It goes beyond Democrat and Republican,” Springer said. “Because I do believe I’m going to draw those old Reagan Democrats that became Republicans but economically, clearly they’re the people being left out. They’re not part of the silver spoon set.”

But his populist appeal to the “regular folks” in Middle America and his emotional oratory is more reminiscent of Wellstone, whom he agrees he is closer to politically.

After graduating from Northwestern Law School in 1968, Springer went to work for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and above all other politicians, Springer says that RFK “is my gut.”

Ohio voters, however, have a wide variety of views about who Springer most closely resembles.

“He’s like Jesse Ventura on crack,” observed Jeff Wyckoff, a culinary professional whom describes himself as a “Nixon Republican.”

Wyckoff, who was just finishing lunch at Betty’s Food and Spirits in the Short North area of Columbus two weekends ago, initially said Springer would have “no chance in hell” if he runs.

“If he gets on the ballot, it will be the worst runaway election in history,” Wyckoff said.

After some discussion, however, Wyckoff appeared to at least entertain the notion that Senator Springer could one day be reality.

“Even those of us who aren’t Democrats are embarrassed if he makes it into the general election,” he said. “And God help us if he wins.”

But, Wyckoff conceded, “Who knows, he may have views.”

Springer does in fact have ideas. Lots of them.

In his standard stump speech he proposes eliminating the payroll tax on the first $10,000 to $20,000 a year earned and eliminating the $84,000 cap on the Social Security tax. He wants to provide free college tuition for any student majoring in math and science who will commit to returning to the school district and teaching those subjects for a period of four to six years. The program would be similar to the country’s military academies, where service is required upon education.

“While we’re busy looking for Osama bin Laden, we’ve got to find the next Thomas Edison,” he says.

Party Building?

But while Springer argues his candidacy in part would be an exercise in party building — and there are few people who disagree with his assertion that the state party is in “horrible shape” — there are many Democrats who believe having his name on the ballot would do much more harm than good.

“The vast majority of Democrats in Ohio are appalled by a Springer candidacy,” said state Sen. Eric Fingerhut (D), who is already seeking the Democratic Senate nomination. “They are embarrassed and they are looking for an alternative.”

Fingerhut, a former one-term Congressman, described the race as a “make-or-break moment” for the Democratic Party, which he said could no longer be taken seriously in Ohio if Springer were to win the primary.

“The people who are cheering for him are cheering for a pornographer,” Fingerhut said in an interview last week during a Washington fundraising swing.

While Fingerhut admits he faces an uphill fight against Voinovich, he said the nomination of Springer would have national implications as well because it would force the party’s presidential nominee to write off a key swing state.

Springer doesn’t mention Fingerhut on the stump. Instead he tells audiences that he would be happy to step aside if the party had any other viable candidates and that if he doesn’t run Voinovich will essentially get a free ride.

“We need somebody,” he said. “Because we’ve got no one.”

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) said he feels conflicted about the prospect of a Springer candidacy.

“I think Jerry Springer is very bright and right on all of the major issues,” Strickland said. “I think he would be a very good U.S. Senator.”

However, Strickland, a one-time prison psychologist, said that he sees Springer’s show exploiting fragile, vulnerable and needy people.

“I just find that difficult to get over,” he said.

In response, Springer said that he has never claimed his show is anything more than entertainment. He also described the process by which all guests are given a list of 21 possible surprises they could face and that no one goes on unless they want to.

“I used to be in the business of exploitation,” he quips. “But then I gave up the news.”

Springer said that he has told Strickland he should be running for the seat.

When asked whether she could support Springer’s candidacy, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said flatly, “It is not the image that I want to project.” Ultimately, though, she said it was up to the people of the state to decide.

Other Democrats in Washington have signaled their unease with Springer as well.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has said he believes the state can find someone better to nominate, and those same sentiments have been echoed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Springer couldn’t be happier with the notion that D.C. insiders don’t want him to run. On the stump he rails against what he describes as the elitist, clubby nature of Washington. He targets the national media and decries the incestuous relationships he said he saw first-hand when he attended the White House Correspondents Dinner earlier this year.

“I won’t be part of the club,” he tells Ross County Democrats. “They would never let me in. They’ve got too much taste for that.”

More Political Baggage

The show is not the only political baggage Springer carries. In 1974, Springer resigned his seat on the Cincinnati City Council when it came to light that he’d visited a northern Kentucky health club and paid for a “full body massage” with a check.

“I did it. I’m sorry. Now what?” Springer asks rhetorically when asked how he plans to address the issue in this campaign. “I’m not the perfect human being. I wish I were. I think I’m a good person. People in my life love me. I think God’s going to be real good to me because I think overall I’ve been a very good person.”

Four years after the incident, Springer was elected mayor of Cincinnati and received the largest plurality of council-member votes in the history of the city. He has also unsuccessful bids for governor and Congress.

Now, Springer describes running for the Senate as possibly the purest thing he’s ever done.

“Even if people didn’t like me no one could attribute a bad motive to what I’m doing because there are no conceivable motives,” he explains. “This isn’t going to make me rich. It isn’t going to make me famous. It isn’t going to put me on television. If anything it’s all the opposite. It ends the show. It wipes out tons of money, in terms of revenue I would get, not to mention what I would expend.”

Smoking a pipe outside of the J.J. Dinner in Salem, pipefitter and UAW member Tom Prentice said he’d work to elect Springer. He also noted that Springer’s candidacy wouldn’t be so far-fetched considering some of the other political figures in the Mahoning Valley.

“Of course we elected [Jim] Traficant,” he said with a chuckle, referring to the expelled Democratic Congressman.

Meanwhile, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of having Springer on the 2004 ballot.

“Jerry Springer talking about issues of faith, family and values,” said Neil Volz, former chief of staff to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and now a Washington lobbyist, “it’s like Mike Tyson talking about sexual harassment.”

Meanwhile, Voinovich is keeping mum on the potential challenge from Springer.

“The only thing I can say is Mr. Springer is the Democrats’ problem, not mine,” Voinovich said last week.

Springer, meanwhile, goes to great lengths to say that Voinovich is a nice man. But he doesn’t think he’s the best man to represent Ohio in the Senate.

And although Voinovich is not viewed as particularly vulnerable in Washington, Springer argues that support for the former two-term governor back home is very shallow and that he’s never been tested by a top opponent.

“He is a nice man and you’d probably want to invite him to your house for dinner before you’d ever invite me,” Springer says before delivering a standard punch line in his speech. “Invite him to dinner, and send me to Washington.”

A Man of Means

Many party activists note that perhaps the most important thing Springer brings to the table is resources.

“Everybody realizes you have to have the means,” said Steve Madru, chairman of the Ross County Democratic Party. “Jerry has the means to make an effective run for Senate.”

When asked, Springer declined to give an estimate of his personal net worth but he said that some reports, putting it in the range of $100 million, are grossly exaggerated.

“It’s not as large as people think,” he said. “I’m well off, but you know I’m not Bill Gates.”

He also declined to talk about how much of his fortune he is willing to spend on a race that he estimates will cost between $15 million and $20 million.

“I don’t want to have to finance this whole thing,” he said. “I’m not so sure these elections should be purchased. That kind of goes against my philosophical grain to begin with. You know, here I am running as a populist, so I want it to be with populist support.”

While he insists a run for Senate couldn’t be a publicity stunt, Springer acknowledges that the media attention his candidacy has already started to draw will only intensify if he ultimately pulls the trigger.

“If I’m a political columnist, oh my God, you pray for this race,” he said. “I mean, damn. This is a dream for a journalist.”

So what can the public expect from Senator Springer if he’s elected?

“I’ll have an afro, and I’ll wear blue tights,” Springer jokes.

More seriously, he says that he wants to come to Washington to be a refreshing voice for the common, middle- and lower-income people — someone who isn’t running for president (he can’t because he was born in England), someone who thinks outside the box and outside the Beltway.

“If I were putting together a Senate of 100 people, I’d want one Springer in there,” he said.