My Sister, The Candidate: The Politics Of Small-Town Campaigning

Despite the media attempts to create a sense of drama, the 2012 presidential election is so excruciatingly boring. (Didn’t you hear? Obama’s won already!) Luckily, there are elections happening all over this grand democracy. And it’s the local races where all the real excitement happens. The reason is simple: when you get down to city politics, particularly small-town politics, everything is personal. Got any skeletons in the closet? Chances are half the town knows about them. As for conflict of interest, well, in a small town everyone’s related to someone, and many government officials serve multiple roles—a lack of “segregation of duties,” as it were.

My family is intimately familiar with the intrigues of local politics. Two-and-a-half years ago, my father began publishing the weekly Washington County Observer in West Fork, Arkansas (population 2,500). The first-time editor and publisher conscripted family members into various positions—along with a few other innocents—with me as managing editor, my mom as proofreader, and my younger sister Lillian as public notices editor. From the start, the 1,000-circulation paper struggled financially, and it met its demise earlier this year, a fate roundly applauded by many city officials.

Now one of our family is stepping back into the spotlight: My sister Lillian is running for West Fork city clerk. It would have been journalistically irresponsible to not interview her about small-town campaigning, that mirror image of American politics, despite the obvious conflict of interest.

Jeff Winkler: So you’re running for West Fork city clerk?

Lillian Winkler: Yes. You have to get 30 signatures from West Fork registered voters that live in the city limits.

You know, I’m your brother and I’ve known you all your life, so I ask this as objectively as I can: As a 22-year-old, what exactly are your qualifications?

Well, I did work for two years at the local newspaper.

Yes, you did.

And I was able to learn about West Fork and how it works.

I also was the secretary in Future Farmers of America in high school. I completed real-estate school and worked in the juvenile drug court in Hot Springs. Now I work in the law school at the university [of Arkansas].

So what exactly does a city clerk do?

The City Clerk’s main job is to attend council meetings, take and transcribe the minutes, take notes and pretty much write a summary of the meetings. Also, some official documents require the signature of the mayor and the clerk.

From what I understand, the City Clerk position is currently vacant. The City Treasurer/Water Commission secretary had been serving in that position. But she quit after our dad filed some complaints of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) violations and she was one of those charged by the county prosecutor.

Yeah, there was an issue with her not being able to keep up with the FOIA information, so she resigned her spot. But they hired an outside person and she’s doing it now.

Were the charges against the City Treasurer the only sort of controversy surrounding the city clerk position?

Well, the thing is, as far as anyone knew, a week up to the time that I decided to run, there was no one else running. But a few days later, once the word got out that I was running, turns out there was another person who got a bunch of signatures from people on the City Council and their family members.

I was actually able to receive a copy of her petition. I guess she had one of the people in the police department, Alana, going around getting signatures for her. All her signatures, she got in the last two days [before they had to be filed with the county clerk].

Doesn’t this other candidate have some other connection with the local police department?

Her son was fired for indiscretion from the police department.

Sexual indiscretion, right?

Right, among other things.

Okay. I think I found some of the details in our archives. He was asked to resign in 2010 after performing hanky-panky in a driveway while on-duty, among other things. His defense during the controversy was that he was on his lunch break at the time of said panky.

Yeah.

Why was the woman you mentioned both the city clerk and the city treasurer (and Water Commission secretary)?

There was someone else who ran [in 2006] and she was good. But the council did not treat her well.

Right. I think Dad said that the council once publicly complained that the woman’s meeting notes were too detailed. There was also the rumor that they didn’t like her mixed-race marriage, although, of course that never found its way into print.

No comment.

Well done.

Anyway, [the incumbent city clerk] decided to run again, and they put this other girl up to run against her.

Who’s “they”?

You know, the council. But anyway, the girl who ran against [the incumbent city clerk] is a family friend or something of the city treasurer (and Water Commission secretary).

Oh, okay.

And they had her run against [the incumbent] city clerk. Well, the new girl won. And then a couple months into it, that girl quit. So the council then assigned the city treasurer to it.

It sounds like there’s a lot of turmoil surrounding the city clerk position.

Yeah, it’s been controversial.

That’s putting it delicately! Other controversies we covered at the Observer include: One alderman, the husband of the city treasurer/Water Commission secretary/former city clerk, dragging his stepson by his hair through the city street (domestic assault in the second degree); local paramedic members “practicing” needle injections in a truck beside a public park; local firemen practicing smoke inhalation (of marijuana) at the local E-Z Mart; and the former mayor putting on a blonde wig to conduct a sting operation concerning the Mart possibly selling the synthetic drug K-2.

And when the city clerk’s son, the officer, was being pressured to quit, someone put flyers up in the E-Z Mart supporting him and dissing the council, after which the Mayor instructed the Police Chief to demand the store’s security footage in order to find out the responsible party. So why the hell do you want to do it? Are you worried about getting involved in such a mess?

As far as I knew, I was running unopposed.

The thing is, I don’t have any other family here apart from our parents. There isn’t any sort of big connection that I’d feel like I’d need to make someone happy, you see what I’m saying?

Yeah.

It’s completely impartial on my part. I don’t care about the neighbors I might offend. It’s also hard to see the City Council meetings go on in such an unprepared way. At the last meeting, there was no person to take care of the FOIA information. So at this meeting, they decided to have the clerk in charge of that, which is exciting for me because that’s a lot of the stuff and I want to help make the government transparent.

Sure. But aren’t a lot of the FOIA requests coming from our own father?

Right. But there are other people who were asking questions about it.

Are you worried about whether this is going to turn into an ugly race?

A little bit, but the whole reason for me running is the whole reason I wouldn’t get upset about anything happening during the campaign.

Oh, did you hear what happened where this guy had a felony arrest for the hot checks and they got dropped to a misdemeanor charge?

Yeah, I heard about that. Years ago, the alderman we mentioned had a hot check felony that was reduced to a misdemeanor. Still, under Arkansas law, he committed a “crime of infamy,” making him ineligible for public office. If people are aware of it in West Fork, they certainly haven’t talked about it.

Yeah, they’re working on that. Just thought I’d update you. I mean, you heard about the alderman threatening Dad right?

You mean, recently? You’re going need to be more specific because Dad’s yelling matches with that alderman and the rest of the council have happened before. Dad said during the most recent one, that alderman threatened him after Dad called the council a bunch of “chowderheads.” The charges Dad filed against that alderman after that were dropped because the county prosecutor’s office didn’t want to upset the people in the West Fork city office who have to file court paperwork. And that was a different incident than the charges the city treasurer/water commission secretary/that alderman’s wife filed against Dad a few weeks later for getting into a verbal disagreement with the Water Commissioner. In that case, the judge found Dad guilty of disturbing the peace or something. Did I get all that straight?

Yeah.

Okay. Well, whew, anything else you think I’m missing?

I just honestly think they need someone in there that is ready to give the town a digital upgrade.

Nice! But what happens if you win?

[Nervous laughter] I know, right?! … If I win, I’ll work. I get $200 a month and the thing is I don’t answer—the mayor isn’t my boss and the City Council isn’t my boss. I am my own entity. I answer to The People.

That was another thing that happened with the last woman. They thought they could get her fired and they can’t. They pretty much tried to embarrass her in front of this big meeting, asking her to resign. She said no. So there’s nothing they can do about that, except make her life miserable and try to get her to quit.

It’s about a 10-to-15-hour-a-month job. For four years.

It kind of looks like the old man is helping to run your campaign. Is Dad your campaign manager?

No. He is not. I made that very, very clear to him. He’s my campaign advisor.

Oh, campaign advisor. Why don’t you want him as your campaign manager?

Honestly, because his name is a bit controversial in the town. I actually thought about making my slogan “I’m Not My Dad.”

How have you been campaigning?

Well, I made a Facebook group where people can go and ask me questions they might have. And I just launched my website, which has my bio, experience, related skills, examples of what I’ll be doing as city clerk, and what my job will be. I’m also going to be putting some yard signs up and I already have offers for campaign donations.

So is the election on Nov. 6?

Yeah, and I am number two on the ballot, but I’ll be the number-one choice! Ha. Ha. Ha.

You’re making me proud. Living up to the Winkler name with that cheese. So are you going to take people up on those offers of political donations?

Yeah, and I’ll probably do some sort of fundraiser, a bake sale, or something like that. My campaign advisor is helping me with that.

Your who?

My campaign advisor.

Oh. Dad.

Yeah.

Well, what’s Mom doing in all this?

Oh, you know, she’s busy.

Interview condensed, edited and lightly reordered.


Jeff Winkler is writing an entirely fictional novel about a small-town newspaper. Contact him here to purchase the movie and/or TV rights.