The Election of 1972: A Running Start for Wendell Bailey
Thu, 08/04/2022 - 12:20pm admin
Say it ain’t so—this year, the August primary election in Howell County marks the fiftieth anniversary of Wendell Bailey’s initial campaign for the Missouri House of Representatives from District 163. To put the time in perspective, Don McClean’s “American Pie” was the No. 1 song on the Billboard chart when Wendell announced his candidacy in January 1972.
They’re called primary elections because they are the first in order of time or sequence. The definition is spot-on with respect to Wendell, because 1972 was the beginning of his storied political career beyond the city limits of Willow Springs.
The credentials Wendell brought to that first race provided a springboard. A 1962 graduate of Southwest Missouri State, with a degree in business administration, he returned home to run the family Pontiac dealership. After being elected to the board of aldermen in 1969 and 1970, the Willow Springs Chamber of Commerce named him “Man of the Year” in 1970 for his significant civic contributions. He served as mayor in 1971.
Underscoring it all, he was a product of WSHS, Class of 1958, where he was active in athletics (4 years in basketball and 3 in track) and speech classes. I don’t know how fast he ran in track, but I have played pickup basketball with him, and he was pretty good. Athletic participation is said to teach teamwork and develop leadership skills, but I suspect three years of speech classes boosted his political skill set. He credits venerable teacher Jessie Munford with teaching him the fundamentals of public speaking.
At the beginning of 1972, District 163 included Howell County and part of Ozark County. Wendell would be running against two candidates from West Plains, well-known basketball coach Jim Peters and Fred Zaiser, for the position held for five terms by Granvil B. Vaughn of West Plains, who was running for the state senate.
As a result of redistricting after the 1970 census, contemporary newspaper accounts reflect that District 163 became District 152, and by August voting time, would have no territory in Ozark County. The Springfield Leader and Press, on July 19, 1972, reported District 152 would include “Howell County, the three eastern-most townships in Douglas County and the three southwestern townships of Oregon County.” Of course, those wouldn’t be the last changes. In the 1980s, the Missouri Official Manual showed Howell County in District 147. With the legislative redistricting approved earlier this year, Howell County is now in District 154, and includes Mountain View for the August election.
I started reflecting about the 1972 election last Thursday, about dusk, when the dogs barked in response to a knock at our front door. It takes some effort to reach our house at the back of a rural, wooded subdivision. By the time I got to the door, I saw a man walking back up the lane and a political flyer hanging on the door handle.
He saw me and trotted back across the yard to introduce himself.
He was a young, businessman, maybe early thirties, running for state representative for the first time. [Wendell was 31-years-old when he ran the first time.] He seemed grateful that I allowed him to give his spiel. Frankly, I was having a flashback, and shared my experience working on Bailey campaigns.
Although too young to remember, the candidate seemed interested (or had honed his political skills), when I told him about the 1980 Republican primary for the U.S. Congress in Missouri’s 8th District. At the time, Missouri’s 8th District covered a large portion of central Missouri, from the Arkansas border, around the Lake of the Ozarks to Columbia, eastward along the Interstate 70 corridor to West St. Louis County, and southward through Dent, Shannon, and Oregon Counties.
In that primary, Wendell bested 12 opponents running for the seat Richard Ichord (D-Houston) had held for 19 years. In the general election, he beat Steve Gardiner (D-Ballwin), and distinguished himself as a freshman U.S. Congressman by actually passing legislation.
As we chatted, he asked if there was always this much heat. At first, I thought he was referring to door-to-door campaigning in 100-degree weather. Another flashback. But then I realized he meant the current state of acrimony that exists between opposing political camps. I thought for a moment and told him I didn’t think so—at least, not in local elections.
Of course, mean-spirited and salacious campaigns at the national level are nothing new. In Lowell McMurtrey’s history class at WSHS in the 1960s, he told us about the U.S. presidential election of 1884 and described it as one of the dirtiest in history. Because Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, the Republican battle cry became “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa? He’s in the White House, ha, ha, ha.” Not to be out done, the Democrats disparaged the Republican candidate, because of his questionable business practices, with: “James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine.”
In my experience with Bailey campaigns, the public rhetoric did not rise to the viciousness of 1884. But in the 1982 congressional race, an Ike Skelton group paid for a tacky advertisement in the Miller County Autogram-Sentinel: “Wendell Bailey has slung enough mud to make Mt. St. Helen’s pale in comparison. Bailey has more mud to sling—be sure and duck.”
I don’t remember any mudslinging from the Bailey camp, but I do recall Bailey volunteers complaining about shenanigans from the other side, namely, pilfering our yard signs. Wendell had a motto for such instances: “Grudges and hard feelings are for losers.” In other words, just keep doing your job.
In 1972, I came home from Columbia before going on active duty in the army that fall. It seemed the whole town was involved in the Bailey election efforts—Willow was plastered with election signs for Wendell—so I jumped aboard the Bailey train.
Wendell told the volunteers, “If it isn’t fun, don’t do it.” His enthusiasm and optimism carried over to the volunteers. On election day, I remember Scott Corn and I driving the streets of Mountain View in a loudspeaker truck urging citizens to vote for Bailey. We were fortunate not to have been cited for disturbing the peace.
By that evening, with the polls closed, Wendell played on his softball team and was still in his uniform that night at the victory party in campaign headquarters when Kit Bond, the republican nominee for governor, called to congratulate him.
A hallmark of all Bailey campaigns was Wendell’s tireless energy as a campaigner. Another hallmark was his wife, Jane Bailey. Whether she was keeping the household together in Willow, on the campaign trail, or a calm presence behind the scene, her contribution was invaluable. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the strategic input of Duane Benton as a campaign manager before he became a judge.
Some politicians are one-hit wonders, so to hold elected office at the local, state, and national level for twenty years, including four terms as a state representative, a term in the U.S. Congress, two terms (8 years) as the Missouri treasurer, and winning the Republican nomination for Missouri Lieutenant Governor, is remarkable. And like Don McClean’s “American Pie,” after fifty years, we still are still taking about Wendell.