It was an older, tight-lipped group of affluent Orlando residents who gathered in a vacant first-floor office last week, watching election returns on a giant video-projection screen. The results weren't good: Pete Barr Sr., the ad executive/mayoral candidate tarred by accusations of racial slurs, was trailing by 3,000 votes. His supporters blamed the media. "A hatchet job," one older man whispered.
Minutes later Barr, walking slowly and looking every bit his 68 years, searched the crowd for his wife, Nancy. United, they stood in front of the large screen, which confirmed that Barr had lost a nasty campaign to former state senator Buddy Dyer.
"We were wondering what we'd be doing tomorrow," Barr deadpanned. "Now we know -- nothing."
Barr apologized to his supporters for letting them down, and said that his first run for public office would be his last.
Nancy Barr, who seemed overwhelmed by the day's events, gave a short speech thanking supporters she pointed out in the audience. Then Pete Sr., a longtime Republican, hugged his "good friend" Derrick Wallace, a black Democratic mayoral candidate who broke convention by endorsing Barr in the runoff.
I hung around to speak with Pete Barr Jr., Pete Sr.'s youngest son and the new CEO at Fry Hammond & Barr, his father's ad agency. I wanted to ask Pete Jr. why he was so upset that Fairvilla Mega Store, an upscale porn shop, put "Vote for Pete Barr" on the store's marquee the week before the election.
According to Tom Berger, Fairvilla's chief operating officer, the posting was part of the store's three-day, get-out-the-vote ad campaign. The day before the Barr endorsement, Fairvilla's marquee read "Vote for Buddy Dyer." The third day of Fairvilla asked voters to consider either Dyer or Barr, and please just vote.
Berger says that when Dyer's name went up, his campaign called to ask management to take it down. Fairvilla refused. When Barr's name went up, Pete Jr. went to the store in person and demanded the endorsement come down. When management brushed him off, Barr offered to take it down himself. Fairvilla refused. Pete Jr. then threatened to file a lawsuit. "We really didn't anticipate the furor we would create," Berger says.
Why, I wondered, would an ad guy get so upset about a First Amendment issue? But I never got the chance to ask. When I introduced myself, Pete Jr. asked if I was the author of "Potty-mouth Pete" `Slug, Feb. 13`. In the column I pointed out Pete Sr.'s penchant for profanity, as well as his involvement in Ed Gurney's 1968 U.S. Senate race. Gurney defeated LeRoy Collins in part because Gurney supporters printed copies of a photograph of Collins with Martin Luther King Jr. to foment white angst against Collins. (Pete Sr. said he wasn't involved in the smear campaign.)
Pete Jr. didn't want to answer my questions. He said I'd made a mistake in the column. "You said Gurney was 'thrown out of office,'" Pete Jr. said. "And I'd like you to leave."
So I did. For the record, I wrote that Gurney "resigned from office amid a campaign-finance scandal." Which is true. On July 10, 1974, a federal grand jury in Jacksonville indicted him for stashing $233,000 in a secret campaign fund collected from builders seeking influence with the Federal Housing Administration. Gurney had two trials, but was eventually acquitted. He died in obscurity in 1996.
Pete Jr. was upset about the resignation, but he didn't seem troubled that Gurney was a racist. Gurney was among many white politicians who used Nixon's Southern strategy to win office in the late 1960s, a strategy that relied on coded terms to lure disaffected Southern white voters away from the Democratic Party. He also bragged about voting against the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act when he was a Congressman in the mid-1960s. "They went much too far and what has happened has borne me out," Gurney wrote in his campaign literature. "They encouraged militancy and now the hotheads have taken over."
Among the hotheads
After Pete Jr. threw me out, I headed over to the Dyer victory party at his East Colonial Drive election office. There some of the hotheads had turned a section of a parking lot into a makeshift dance floor. Unofficially, Orange County public defender Bob Wesley got the night rolling by throwing his arms over his head and wriggling his body to the beat of Rick James' "Give it to Me Baby." Wesley, who is tall, long-limbed and has a huge, bearded face, was a sight to behold on the dance floor. "I'm good for an old white guy," he said.
Dyer was introduced to "Eye of the Tiger," but gave a so-so acceptance speech, which ended with a quote from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses." The partying resumed when Wesley formed a conga line joined by school-board member Kat Gordan and city commissioner Patty Sheehan, who was the first person to come forward with allegations against Barr. County Commissioner Linda Stewart danced with talk-show host Doug Guetzloe and then bumped rumps with Orlando commissioner Daisy Lynum.
Some Democrats yelped that they hadn't had such a good time since Bill Clinton was in office. "This is like having sex for the first time," said criminal defense attorney Mark NeJame.
Careful Mark. Ask the folks at Fairvilla Mega Store where talk like that will get you.