Like clockwork, Ron Fisk kissed Doreen goodbye at the front door at six o'clock on a Wednesday morning, then handed his overnight bag and briefcase to Monte. Guy was waiting in the SUV Both assistants waved to Doreen, then they sped away. It was the last Wednesday in September, week twenty-one of his campaign, and the twenty-first consecutive Wednesday that he had kissed his wife goodbye at 6:00 a.m. Tony Zachary could not have found a more disciplined candidate.
In the rear seat, Monte handed Ron his daily briefing. One of Tony's deputies in Jackson prepared it during the night and e-mailed it to Monte at exactly five each morning. Page 1 was the schedule. Page 2 was a summary of the three groups he would address that day, along with the names of the important people who would attend.
Page 3 had updates from his opponents' campaigns. It was all mainly gossip but still his favorite part of the briefing. Clete Coley was last seen addressing a small group of sheriffs' deputies in Hancock County, then retiring to the blackjack tables at Pirate's Cove. Today, McCarthy is expected to be at work and has no campaign events.
Page 4 was the financial summary. Contributions so far totaled $1.7 million, with 75 percent coming from within the state. Expenditures of $1.8 million. The deficit was of no concern. Tony Zachary knew the heavy money would arrive in October. McCarthy had received $1.4 million, virtually all from trial lawyers. She had spent half of it. The prevailing thought in the Fisk camp was that the trial lawyers were tapped out. They were at the airport. The King Air lifted off at 6:30, and at that moment Fisk was on the phone to Tony in Jackson. It was their first chat of the day. Everything was running smoothly. Fisk had already reached the point of believing that all campaigns were so effortless. He was always prompt, fresh, prepared, rested, well financed, and ready to move on to the next event. He had little contact with the two dozen people under Tony's thumb who sweated the details.
Justice McCarthy's version of the daily briefing was a glass of fruit juice with Nat Lester at her Jackson headquarters. She aimed for 8:30 each morning, and was fairly prompt. By then, Nat had put in two hours and was yelling at people.
They had no interest in the whereabouts of her two opponents. They spent little time with poll numbers. Their data showed her running even with Fisk, and that was troubling enough. They quickly reviewed the latest fund-raising schemes and talked about potential donors.
"I may have a new problem," she said that morning.
"Do you remember the Frankie Hightower case?"
"Not at this moment, no."
"State trooper was gunned down in Grenada County five years ago. He stopped a car for speeding. Inside the car were three black men and a black teenager, Frankie Hightower.
Someone opened fire with an assault weapon, and the trooper got hit eight times.
Left him in the middle of Highway 51."
"Let me guess. The court has reached a decision."
"The court is getting close. Six of my colleagues are ready to affirm the conviction."
"Let me guess. You would like to dissent."
"I'm going to dissent. The kid had inadequate counsel. His defense lawyer was some jackass with no experience and apparently very little intelligence. The trial was a joke. The other three thugs pled for life and pointed the finger at Hightower, who was sixteen years old and sitting in the backseat, without a gun. Yes, I'm going to dissent."
Nat's sandals hit the floor and he began to pace. Arguing the merits of the case was a waste of time. Arguing the politics of it would take some skill. "Coley will go ballistic."
"I don't care about Coley. He's a clown."
"Clowns get votes."
"He's not a factor."
"Fisk will receive it as a wonderful gift from God. More proof that his campaign is divinely inspired. Manna from heaven. I can see the ads now."
"I'm dissenting, Nat. It's that simple."
"It's never that simple. Some of the voters might understand what you're doing and admire your courage. Perhaps three or four of them. The rest will see the Fisk ad with the smiling face of that handsome young state trooper next to the mug shot of Frankie whatever his name is."
"Thank you. The ad will refer to liberal judges at least ten times, and it will probably show your face. Powerful stuff. You might as well quit now."
His words trailed off but were bitter nonetheless. For a long time they said nothing.
Sheila broke the silence by saying, "That's not a bad idea. Quitting. I've caught myself reading the briefs and asking, "What will the voters think if I rule this way or that?" I'm not a judge anymore, Nat, I'm a politician."
"You're a great judge, Sheila. One of the three we have left."
"It's all about politics now."
"You're not quitting. Have you written your dissent?"
"I'm working on it."
"Look, Sheila, the election is five weeks away. How slow can you write? Hell, the court is famous for taking its sweet time. Surely to God you can sit on this thing until after the election. What's five weeks? It's nothing. The murder was five years ago." He was stomping around, arms flailing.
"We do have a schedule."
"Bullshit. You can manipulate it."
"Damned right, Sheila. Give me a break here. We're busting our asses for you and you act like you're too good for the dirty work. This is a filthy business, okay?"
"Lower your voice."
He lowered it several octaves but kept pacing. Three steps to one wall, then threesteps to the other. "Your dissent is not going to change a damned thing. The court will run over you again 6 to 3, maybe even 7 to 2, perhaps even 8 to 1. The numbers don't really matter. The conviction is affirmed, and Frankie Whoever will stay exactly where he is right now and where he'll be ten years from now. Don't be stupid, Sheila."
She finished her fruit juice and did not respond.
"I don't like that smirk," Nat said. He pointed a long bony finger at her. "Listen to me. If you file a dissent before the election, I'm walking out the door."
"Don't threaten me."
"I'm not threatening. I'm promising. You know ten different ways to sit on that case for another five weeks. Hell, you could bury it for six months."
She stood and said, "I'm going to work."
"I'm not kidding!" he yelled. "I'll quit!"
She yanked open the door and said, "Go find us some money."
Three days later, the skillfully coordinated avalanche began. Only a handful of people knew what was coming.
Ron Fisk himself did not comprehend the scope of his own saturation. He had performed for the cameras, changed into various outfits, worked his way through the scripts, dragged in his family and some friends, and he was aware of the budget and the media buys and the market shares of the various television stations in south Mississippi. And, in a normal campaign, he would have worried about financing such expensive marketing.
But the machine that bore his name had many parts he knew nothing about.
The first ads were the soft ones-warm little vignettes to open the doors and let this fine young man into the homes. Ron as a Boy Scout, with the richly accented old voice of an actor playing the role of his scoutmaster in the background. "One of the finest Boy Scouts we ever had. He made it to Eagle in less than three years."
Ron in a robe at high school graduation, a star student. Ron with Doreen and the kids and his own voice saying, "Families are our greatest asset." After thirty seconds, the ad signed off with the slogan, in a deep, heavenly voice, "Ron Fisk, a judge with our values."
A second ad, a series of black-and-white still photos, began with Ron on the steps of his church, in a fine dark suit, chatting with his pastor, who narrated, "Ron Fisk was ordained as a deacon in this church twelve years ago." Ron with his jacket off, teaching Sunday school. Ron holding his Bible as he makes a point to a group of teenagers under a shade tree. "Thank God for men like Ron Fisk." Ron and Doreen greeting people at the church's door. And the same farewell: "Ron Fisk, a judge with our values."
There was not the slightest hint of conflict, nothing about the campaign, not a trace of mud, no indication of the savagery that would follow. Just a charming hello from an incredibly wholesome young deacon.
The ads blanketed south Mississippi, and central as well because Tony Zachary was paying the steep prices charged by the Jackson outlets.
September 30 was a crucial date on Barry Rinehart's calendar. All contributions made in the month of October would not be reported until November 10, six days after the election. The flood of out-of-state money he was about to unleash would go undetected until it was too late. The losers would scream, but that was all they could do.
On September 30, Rinehart and company kicked into high gear. They began with their A-list: tort-reform groups, right-wing religious organizations, business lobbyists, business PACs, and hundreds of conservative organizations ranging from the well-known American Rifle Association to the obscure Zero Future Tax, a small gang dedicated to abolishing the Internal Revenue Service. Eleven hundred and forty groups in all fifty states. Rinehart sent each a detailed memo and request for an immediate donation to the Fisk campaign in the amount of $2,500, the maximum for an organized entity.
From this collection, his goal was $500,000.
For the individuals-$5,000 maximum gift Rinehart had a list of a thousand corporate executives and senior managers of companies in industries that attracted litigation from trial lawyers. Chief among these were insurance companies, and he would collect a million dollars from his contacts there. Carl Trudeau had given him the names of two hundred executives of companies controlled by the Trudeau Group, though no one from Krane Chemical would write a check. If the Fisk campaign took money from Krane, then a front-page story was likely. Fisk might feel compelled to recuse himself, a disaster Rinehart couldn't begin to contemplate.
He expected $1 million from Carl's boys, though it would not go directly into the Fisk campaign. To keep their names away from nosy reporters, and to make sure no one ever knew of Mr. Trudeau's involvement, Rinehart routed their money into the bank accounts for Lawsuit Victims for Truth and Gunowners United Now (GUN).
His B-list contained a thousand names of donors with proven records of supporting pro-business candidates, though not at the $5,000 level. He expected another $500,000.
Three million dollars was his goal, and he was not at all concerned about reaching it.