Springer’s hopes for political show not just a show

Christopher Kenny

Transsexual love triangles, 25-year-old grandmamas and fistfights between Klansmen and the Jewish Defense League — not exactly the stuff of Alastair Cooke and “Masterpiece Theatre,” but perhaps the resume of a wannabe U.S. Senator named Jerry Springer.

Mr. Springer goes to Washington? It seems absurd. Conservatives would drool at the thought of using Springer’s show against him in attack ad after attack ad. The Democratic elite would never embrace a man whose past makes Bill Clinton look like Ned Flanders.

But don’t tell that to the ’68 Law School graduate. In his speech Monday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Springer oozed with confidence as he went after the right wing and its assault on the middle class, perfecting a potential stump speech.

Springer flirted with a Senate run this year from his home state of Ohio, ultimately deciding now was not the time. But don’t mistake a strategic decision with resignation.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s waltz to the governorship in California proves anyone can get elected to anything — sort of. While celebrity may be enough to win in wacky circumstances (and it’s hard to get wackier than California), it doesn’t equal good governing. “I don’t care how much people love his movies. If Arnold doesn’t fix the problems they’ve got, he won’t get re-elected,” Springer told me Friday.

That’s what would make Springer such a refreshing candidate. Conservatives rail against his gutter-level show, but it’s been a cultural phenomenon for more than a decade, especially among low- and middle-income men who typically vote Republican — “NASCAR dads,” as pollsters call them. Yet for all the choreography that comes standard with even run-of-the-mill campaigns, Springer knows voters still demand substance.

“Celebrity will bring people into the tent. But once they’re there, you’ve got to have something to say,” Springer said. “In the first 10 seconds of the discussion, people will laugh about the show. After that, they want to hear what you’re going to do for them. We’ve got a mess in Iraq. We’ve got people who can’t afford health insurance, who can’t afford to send their kids to college. And we’ve got a lot of people who are losing their jobs. People care about their lives, not some silly show.”

Plus Springer isn’t a neophyte like other celebrities-turned-politicians. He served as a Cincinnati city councilman (a seat he resigned after getting busted for writing a check to a prostitute — details, details), but rebounded to become mayor in 1977. He now spends three days a week in Ohio campaigning with and raising money for fellow Democrats. Springer is re-introducing himself as the mayor who took city hall into the neighborhoods (he and his staff would pile into a trailer and go door-to-door hearing residents’ problems), not the self-described “ringmaster” who oversees marriages between men and horses.

He’s got the intellect, the experience and, refreshingly, the candor to make people think twice before accepting the Republican machine’s stale talking points. In his speech here Monday, Springer asked “If everyone in the world thinks what we’re doing is wrong, is everybody else just stupid and George Bush smart?”

My guess is Springer never intended to run in 2004. He knew he’d be facing a heavily-favored, moderate incumbent. But by floating his name early, he laid the groundwork for a run in 2006 for governor, where Springer said he feels he can do the most good.

The line between politics and entertainment has always been blurry, and Springer’s re-emergence may do more to that effect. Still, his charisma and smarts will attract scores of new voters and make politics fun again. Democrats ought to welcome him back, and Republicans had better wipe off that drool.