Editor's note: Candidate (and columnist) Billy Manes entered the political fray for the first time recently in the special election to replace Mayor Buddy Dyer. In so doing he became the first openly gay mayoral candidate in Orlando history. He wrote this (incredibly long) journal of the experience to chronicle the effort, and help defray campaign costs.
In the spirit of St. Patrick's Day, I've already thrown a couple back by early afternoon, and the whole day is feeling suspiciously calm.
And then the phone rings.
"Billy?" beams my editor, Bob Whitby, through the cordless, in the tone of voice he uses with me and errant children. "What are you doing?"
"Oh, a lot," I lie.
"Are you a registered voter in the city of Orlando?" he gets all serious. "And have you been a registered voter in the city of Orlando for at least a year?"
"Duh, yeah?" I scratch my ass.
"Why don't you run for mayor of Orlando?"
With a nervous giggle, I hop into bed next to Alan, my boyfriend, for our standard afternoon nap. He's been working since 4 a.m. And me? Not so much. Still, I'm a little bit charged by my new political situation.
"Fuck the mayor," I order him, squeezing out the first draft of my campaign slogan. "You know you want to fuck the mayor."
Later I throw on some clothes and head down to the Weekly. I want to know more. A giddy conversation with Whitby and staff writer Jeff Billman follows, and the sobering details start to kill my buzz. It comes down to a discussion of whether or not I will do this as a joke, a possibility I valiantly refuse. I don't want to piss on the bluehairs' parade. I'm going to do it legit. After all, how hard can running for mayor be?
"I'll do it if I can get Dave Plotkin on board," I detail my demands. "And only if."
A quick call and Plotkin's very, very excited. But Plotkin is always excited. He ran Pat Greene's farcical campaign last time around ("I don't want to talk about it") and doesn't want to repeat the joke. Me neither. If anyone can make this wild idea legitimate, it's Dave, with his extensive Rolodex and never-ending synaptic roller coaster. I smell a campaign manager.
I enlist Alan as my campaign treasurer, and begin the first night of the rest of my month.
The rigamarole of paperwork begins. I spend the first of many hours over the next week on the second floor of City Hall, trying to notarize affidavits that prove my legitimacy, even though I've not been on a lease for the past 10 years. Without a notary, I soon figure out, I might as well not exist.
Plotkin arranges a photo shoot with local photog John Deeb. That's fine, but he arranges it for 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I layer my shirts to look thick and practically drink Visine to imply confidence and a clarity of conscience. Well, actually, I drink a shot of vodka to make the vanity of this exercise feel more like that of Hilton sister than a miscreant preparing for his mug shot. Politics is all an illusion.
Soon after my vamping in front of City Hall and a nearby, off-limits fountain, Dave has to run. He's buying a new car today. Happy days are here again.
Dave, Alan and I attend the City Council meeting during which a decision is to be made on a special election. It's the perfect place to make my announcement and I'm as nervous as a small, effeminate boy in a back-street peep show. I hastily summon some of my closer friends to be there, just in case we pull a front-steps press conference. That won't happen. Instead, we sit through the meeting and almost cry when Patty Sheehan says she almost wants to cry at the absence of a public forum on the matter. I throw mental spitballs at Vicki Vargo's bald spot and await the media meat.
At the end of it all, WESH-Channel 2 thrusts a camera into my face on the way out the door and asks the question I'll get very used to hearing:
"Why are you here?"
"Um, because I have to be?" I shake, maybe a little too much, then go on to explain that as long as there's going to be an election, I'm going to make the best of it and try to represent "the people."
Dave encourages me to mingle with the other talking heads from local media outlets. They don't want to talk to me, I protest. They don't even know who I am.
"You have to tell them who you are," guides Dave.
So I do just that with a pretty lady from WFTV-Channel 9, and she asks me to hang around a bit presumably until all of the important people are drained of sound bites and she'll meet me outside. A few of the people congratulate me on my candidacy, and I'm starting to feel a rush of political power.
Outside, I talk to Channel 9 and Central Florida News 13, reworking the same message and peppering it with serious eyebrow movements. Both stations take B-roll footage of me talking smack with my entourage ("I'm all for pollution, Dave," I ham it up. "And fuck the birds.") and I assume that I'm an overnight sensation.
I head over to the Weekly for an interview with Mike Synan from WDBO-AM (580). He's cracking up about my candidacy and speeds through an issues-oriented interview with me in the conference room sort of making fun of me, but not really.
"I'm a little bit George Washington and a little bit Elle Woods," I blond a sound bite. The ball is definitely rolling.
At night I'll attend my very first DEC meeting, which is boring seconded motions and events committees swirled together in a mixed drink that tastes suspiciously like water but functions like three Valium. A few people will recognize me from the news, and I'll cautiously pretend not to exist. Wouldn't want to piss off the Dems, now would I? Buddy is a demiglazed demigod here.
Still, I have to keep my day job at Barnes & Noble, which is fine. It's nice to step outside of overstatement for a minute. Tonight, though, my attempts at separating church and state are being muddied by the presence of one Jim Callahan from the Democratic Executive Committee. He's leering around my Customer Service post, and trying to figure out what to say. Alan's in the store, so I sick him on Callahan, but to no avail. Jim wants me to sit down with him, and I explain that I can't because I'm working, duh.
He waits around for my dinner break and calls a friend to come in. I sense an intervention.
In the café, while I gnaw on a sandwich, Callahan proceeds to deliver a 30-minute monologue on the swelling coalition of Democrats and how much our swelling Buddy has helped to mobilize them. The punch line comes at the end when Callahan asks me to run as a write-in candidate, presumably so that people can write in Buddy's name in protest.
"That would be the only selfless way to do this," he scolds me.
I'm not selfless. Sorry.
I sprain my ankle trying to run out of my house on my way back to work. I've just seen myself on television and apparently think that I can fly. I can't.
This is important. In order to waive the $2,800 filing fee (reduced for hardship … hardship!), we'll need to obtain 843 signed petitions to get on the ballot. We started the process last weekend "Fag on the ballot!" being our call to attract attention at The Parliament House but we're going into overdrive. A bevy of generous volunteers have signed on to pop into bars and to wander downtown streets with us, all in the name of democracy, and I'm pleased as punch. All are sporting navy blue shirts that read "Billy Manes for Mayor of Orlando," and perhaps the cutest marketing gimmick of our campaign, the Billy Button (effectively a floating head photo of me smirking that resembles something between a Little Rascals head shot and an Eisenhower campaign relic). Response is hugely positive; only a few take issue with our crusade, typically drunk frat boys wearing braided belts.
"Why don't you sign a petition for me to be on the ballot?" they thumbed their noses.
"Because you don't have a petition, just a burgeoning beer gut and a future of spousal abuse," I stammered silently.
The whole experience solidifies my sense of purpose and legitimizes my campaign. A revolution is brewing.
We only have 700 petitions. While an admirable showing, it won't be enough. We take a leap of faith and decide to go ahead and pay. By now it's worth it. Fuck, we're really doing something.
I get a strange phone message detailing my criminal history. Seeing as it's late Easter night, I don't take it too seriously, but I am a little stirred up. Someone's unearthed my 1996 reckless-driving misdemeanor from Tallahassee. It's something I would prefer to forget, but somebody wants the media to know. So I put it in my own column and beat 'em to the punch.
Our first fund-raiser the "Billy on the Ballot Bash" is tonight. The Peacock Room is hosting, and we've set up a merchandising table with schwag that either implies a rock concert or a vanity complex. Maybe both. This morning we fronted the cash out of my (and Alan's) bank account to permanently seal ourselves into Orlando's colorful political history. Channel 9 caught us at the signing, as we were the first to do so. I bumped into an effusive, possibly tipsy, Ken Mulvaney on the way out the door.
"Billy Manes!" he brogued. "They let you on the balloooot?!"
"They're probably going to kick me off!"
We end up raising a pretty penny at the Peacock, with all sorts of folk coming out of the woodwork to adorn themselves and their yards with my name. The "i" is dotted with a star. I think that's cute.
I need to do something about my political naiveté, my ineptitude at public speaking and my desire to curl up into a ball and pretend that the Earth will go on without me. Plotkin is well aware of my helium-filled head and is determined to weigh it down with some facts.
"Meet me at the Bush Auditorium at 2," he mandates.
At the Bush Auditorium at 2 p.m., Plotkin takes to Henry Higgins mode, walking the empty theater and throwing questions up to my slouched Eliza Doolittle shoulders. And while I've grown fairly firm in my conviction that local government ought to represent the needs of its electorate, my mind goes completely blank on stage.
We come up with three reasons why I am running, because three is the magic number in political doublespeak: No. 1, because more people like me should be running; No. 2, because Orlando has grown up a lot in the 13 years since Bill Frederick was mayor; No. 3, because the interim mayor position offers a unique opportunity to make changes without being beholden to a political establishment.
Further musings on extending drinking hours, questioning the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation and secret backroom dealings follow, fleshing out my demographic appeal. I'm (sort of) a politician. Yay, me.
Today I am to be interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel editorial board and attempt to win their endorsement. We all know that's completely out of the question, but I still have to endure the inquisition.
Alan comes with me for moral support, although he'll be left to wait in the lobby. I'm ushered upstairs to an alternate waiting room outside the giant boardroom coffin, awaiting my final nail.
Speaking of near-death experiences, Grandpa Frederick precedes me in this process, and if I listen real close, I can hear through the giant wood door some of his musings on "young people." My nerves are shot.
A few minutes later, Frederick emerges like some giant Frankenstein of politics. "Hello, I'm Bill Frederick," he extends his mechanical hand.
"Heh-heh-heh," I shudder. "I'm Billy Manes."
"Nice to meet you."
Ugh. Once inside, I ease myself into my personal electric chair, cocking a smile and mustering up some lighthearted commentary like, "Well, that's a hard act to follow."
The Sentinel loves Frederick. The Sentinel hates me. That becomes abundantly clear as a litany of queries are fired at me from the other side of a giant mahogany table. I try to close my eyes and access a Flashdance memory; maybe if I pull my shirt off my shoulders and table-dance in front of them I could win them over.
Jane Healy she of the blanched hair and the pursed lips that curiously recall Jack Nicholson's Joker is my main nemesis. She seems to stare right through me, through the wall and into some boiler room of journalistic cruelty.
"So, I assume you've taken leave from the Weekly," she drills.
"I don't actually work for the Weekly," I deflate. "I'm freelance. We've contacted our lawyers."
The rest of my responses get yawns and polite nods from the 10 or so people assembled, and I can feel myself melting into a political puddle. I've failed. But it doesn't matter. They're just going through the motions.
"But you sat in the same seat as John Kerry!" Plotkin effuses on the phone later.
"Look what kind of good that did him," I drip.
I need a drink.
I'll get one (or four) later that night when we embark on our second fund-raiser. This one is to be headlined by my old friends the Legendary JC's, at my old stomping ground, Will's Pub. It's a far cry from the morning's decomposition, and I welcome the chance to be back in my element.
This morning me and my hangover are set to meet with Sentinel columnist and name-taker Scott Maxwell. I'm not sure what to expect, but I do actually enjoy his column and consider him a possible point of entry into the Sentinel's snobbery. I'm not disappointed.
"You must like to party," he raises an eyebrow at me.
"Not as much as you might think," I lie.
Maxwell proves an affable interview, and sees that my aim is true, if a bit odd. Somewhere in the middle of our exchange he pulls out a marked-up copy of one of my Blister columns, in which he has highlighted a passage regarding my (not serious) sexual proposition to my editor. "How do you think the bluehairs will take it if they read this?" he asks, wisely.
"I guess I hope that they don't," I clip back.
An affable, tiny 70-something stops by my house and greets me with a big smile and an almost-hug. His name is Heli and he is the "director" of the Spanish-language newspaper El Hispano. "Joo are very jung! We make you mayor!" he offers, saying that he can give me a full-page ad, and then allow me to write a whole other page about myself, for the small cost of $800. "We guarantee you 1,000 votes!"
What would Ezzie do?
"Billy fucking Manes for fucking mayor!" screams a shirtless passerby as I approach The Globe.
Uh-oh. I'm here to meet with Rich McKay, a staff writer for the Sentinel, and he's already scribbling the hollered expletives into his notebook when I greet him.
"Are you sure you didn't pay that guy?" he laughs.
"Umm, for what?"
McKay is an extremely likable guy unlike his Sentinel headmasters on the editorial board and is quick to jump into a wholly respectful profile interview devoid of condescension. I'm instantly put at ease by him; we're both underpaid journalists, after all. And when I make some reference to wonder-twin powers activating, he takes the form of a sci-fi/comic geek, detailing his acumen on superheros and their sidekicks. And he knows way too much about Doctor Who.
"So this isn't a stunt?" he asks.
"No," I really believe it when I say it this time.
"No, it is not."
Jim Faherty walks by (like he always does) and intrudes (like he always does), hitting me up for signs and bumper stickers.
"I see you as kind of this gregarious guy who everybody downtown likes," McKay says.
"No arguments there."
Last night Plotkin's new car was stolen outside of his office, and the happy days have been hot-wired and driven off along with it. A sizable chunk of our campaign materials were in the car. I'd like to say we aren't entertaining conspiracy theories, but we're far too vain for that. Clearly, Mulvaney is sabotaging us via the Irish mafia.
Tonight, a black Ford Explorer sits outside my house quite suspiciously, and when Plotkin comes over to borrow Alan's truck, he approaches the Explorer's driver's side to find out what sort of espionage is going on. The car peels out. I call the police, and an officer arrives with a face of polite amusement.
"But I'm a candidate!" I drivel. "You must be used to this sort of thing."
The police find Plotkin's car and our campaign materials. Oddly, there are Sam Ings pamphlets in the glove box. Hmmm.
Today I am set to bring the message of my candidacy to the gay press. Kirk Hartlage of Watermark contacted me last week, hoping to set up a joint interview with myself and Ed Lopes. I've been warned to avoid this situation, so I decline, saying that I will do the interview on my own, and only on my own. Baby, I'm a star.
So I'm at the Watermark offices on Ferncreek, spewing my heart and soul, journalist to journalist (there's a knowing glance involved). All goes well, as I've gotten pretty good at the platform spiel. We need to get a picture, so Hartlage poses me up against a wall with a giant star on it, and I do my face thing.
"I've never seen you without a drink in your hand," chuffs a nearby advertising executive.
And then my face goes ugly. Bitches.
Today is to be a busy day. Three items on the agenda, and I'm raring to go. First is my Channel 13 profile, to be executed in their offices on Concord. I arrive to find that the cameras aren't working right, so I'll have to wait a minute. I take that minute to make calls to Plotkin and Alan to find out just what I would do about traffic concerns. My life has gotten completely ridiculous.
A pretty reporter person, Karen Castillo, finally greets me and takes me into a conference room. She fiddles with a large plant, trying to create the perfect Barbara Walters backdrop. Her cell phone rings after she leaves the room, so I tell her when she returns.
"Oooh, I have to call back," she says. "It's my husband and we have a newborn at home. When he calls I have to assume it's important."
"Me, too," I try to make friends. "My husband is my treasurer."
I am so gay.
Once everything is worked out I set to answering the stock questions: Centroplex, development incentives, Parramore, arts center, traffic (thank God I called on that one) and why I'm running. I'm now so good at this I'm scaring even myself. Maybe I have found my true calling.
Later tonight is my third fund-raiser, an acoustic affair downtown at the new bar known as The Matador, with Hindu Cowboys headlining. Turnout again is sort of disappointing, but the people who are there are quite vocal in their support: "Billy Manes!", "Yeah!", etc.
Also present is my Sentinel profiler, McKay, and a photographer named Autumn. For the rest of the night Autumn trails me with an umbrella/flashlight thing that forces me to be conscious of how sunken my chin looks when I open my mouth. McKay brings up the budget crisis, and I knock it out of the park with some discussion of international trade and an increased focus on warehousing and distribution in enterprise zones (of course, I've been coached by Alan on this, so I know not what I speak of).
See, I'm good.
I miss the Tiger Bay Club debate, a fairly important and stodgy event that I don't understand completely. I am very tired.
Time to reconvene with my team, now bolstered by a friend of Plotkin's, Chris Markl, who's hot for politics. Plotkin, Alan, Markl and I meet up at the Bush Auditorium again, this time to discuss budgets and fiscal responsibility. Again, I'm at the podium. Again, I'm nervous. But this time, I actually know and believe what I'm talking about. The feeling in the room is that I could actually win this. And I'm actually happy about it.
Tico Perez has invited me on his Sunday radio show, Talkin' With Tico, and I'm only nominally nervous. I spoke with Perez on the phone Friday and he was very supportive, which means a lot coming from a Republican and from someone who's run before. Perez is a big deal, in addition to just being big.
On the phone, we spoke of death threats, like the one recently alleged by big loser Lopes.
"I got tons of threats when I was running," Perez told me. "Most involving the word 'spic.'"
At the Cox Studios where WDBO-AM broadcasts, Perez meets Plotkin and I outside (wearing shorts!) and tells us that Sonny's Bar-B-Q is supposed to be delivering complimentary food any time now. He seems more than merely excited about it. In fact, it's clearly all he cares about.
But he's nice enough to prompt me for the interview ("softball," he calls it). Ings is present also. I have to go to work (again), and Ings is nice enough to take the second half-hour and let me have the first.
On air I'm a stuttering mess of fiscal facts and social activism, which makes me about as effective as most liberals, I suppose.
During a quick break, Perez tells me to slow it down. So I try. But all that does is make me forget the word "confidentiality" and produce a moment of dead air followed by the always engaging, "I forgot what I was going to say." Minor setback, but not career-breaking.
Ings tells me that I did great on the way out, and I realize that if I wasn't running, I would be voting for him. Even if he stole Plotkin's car.
The Democratic Executive Committee has invited me to their monthly meeting. I follow Ings, and deliver a quick, shaky almost-outline of a speech that pales in tonal comparison to his signature evangelism. But I'm savvy enough to make the point that I only want to be in office so that a Democrat hands Buddy back his office. The crowd roars. This isn't so hard.
APRIL 20: D-DAY
Today could possibly be the best day of my life. I wake up at 5 a.m., grab the Sentinel and find a glowing profile of myself with a couple of fantastic pictures attached. I'm coined the "anti-candidate" for the second time in the Sentinel, and it's finally struck me that a gear has just shifted; for the next two weeks I will be moving only upward in the lineup of potential candidates. I sound so much cooler on paper than I really am. And even though Democrat watchdog Doug Head is quoted dissing my lack of experience, McKay's story beams me up to a new, impervious status. I am just a person. And I am running for mayor. Beat that.
The stakes only get higher as I arrive at my first debate at the downtown Embassy Suites. It's being billed as "Coffee With the Candidates," presented by the Downtown Orlando Partnership … at 7:30 a.m. Inside the mood is stuffy: flat-ironed, power-suited 30-something ladies and their requisite yellow-necktied men mingle dryly while chewing on crumbs from muffins. I bump into Tom Levine, who's running as a write-in, and he immediately soothes my nerves.
"Why, you're the only Manes-stream candidate," he hangs a potential catchphrase around my neck. "When I found out you were running, I knew it was over for me."
Moments later, we're joined by Mulvaney. Some forced conversation follows, illuminated by prying TV-camera lights, and we look like a group of friends with exaggerated expressions on their faces. Well, at least Mulvaney and I do. Levine is busy sticking rabbit ears up over the back of my head.
A girl named Buffy (seriously) seats me at the table at the front of the ballroom, and soon Mulvaney follows, sitting right next to me, because of the alphabet more than anything else. I like Mulvaney. He's always been nice to me in that passing-conversation kind of way, and when one of his supporters comes up and starts talking about my article in the Sentinel, he smiles graciously.
"Your signs are really big," I make small talk appropriate only to people in this situation.
"Well, to be honest, Billy," he speaks in an accent I barely understand two words later. "This being such a short election cycle, I'm not spending much money. Those are my old signs."
Frederick walks up and shakes my hand, saying that he's only halfway through the Sentinel article (he missed the part where I slagged him) and instantly, I'm a politician. Ings shows up, too, and again is very kind. Lopes is nowhere to be found. Fancy that.
The debate itself is nothing short of hilarious because Levine is in full-on reactionary form, busting Frederick's chops, and the process itself, at every possible turn. Frederick responds with a paternal scolding, cheerily informing us that our lives and families are at stake. There can be no fun in politics when you're Bill Frederick.
By the time it's my turn to answer, I'm unable to get anything of merit out, so I sum it all up: "I'm not a politician," I say softly. "I'm your friend."
I swear I hear an "aww" drift over the audience.
I'm so winning.
Well, I would be. In my car on the way home, my cell phone rings. It's McKay from the Sentinel, and he says he has some bad news: The charges against Dyer are being dropped, and he's sure to be reinstated. "What's your reaction?" he quizzes, like he's paid to do.
"I need some time to think on that." And a drink.
As the day passes, more information comes to light and my phone will ring continuously to the beat of a dream dying. A friend of mine from the Democratic party calls out of kindness and invites me out to the "Welcome Back Buddy" party tonight at, you guessed it, The Embassy Suites. Nothing like revisiting a battlefield on the day that you died.
So that's just what I do. Alan, Markl, Plotkin and I walk into the flurry of happy Democrats and try to shove the crow into our mouths and out of sight. A few reporters approach me and ask, predictably, "Why are you here?"
I tell them that I'm a Democrat, and that's why. Hmmph.
I approach Sentinel columnist Maxwell, who's wearing the brightest pink tie my gay eyes have ever seen, and inform him that all of my friends think he might be a little light in the loafers.
"I hear that all the time," he quips back. "I have to take my wife with me when I go to The Parliament House."
You read it here first.
Uber-Dem Doug Head is here too, because Doug Head is everywhere. I approach him with a giggle and thank him for texturizing my Sentinel profile with commentary on my lack of political qualifications.
"Stick around," he laughs. "I did the same thing to Sam Ings."
Patti Sharp, Buddy's campaign manager who is now also charge-free, is kind enough to come up and tell me that she was planning to vote Billy Manes in the election an extremely sweet, even moving gesture and I can feel the circle close.
Well, almost. The man of the hour, Buddy Dyer, stands two feet in front of me. I wait a moment and then make my move to shake his hand.
"Congratulations, Buddy," I say, wanly.
"Thank you," he says, looking surprised.
But then he looks over at Dave, to my right, who is still sporting a "Billy Manes Mayor of Orlando" button on his lapel, next to two floating Billy heads. Dyer fixes his eyes back on me.
"I love your buttons," he says.
Yeah, so did I.