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COLUMN — ‘Ever seen her with a man?’ Well, yes

Here’s a question, delivered during an Alabama political season, that arrived like a shot in the dark:

“Have you ever seen her with a man?”

It came from someone I liked and it was aimed at a candidate who was attempting to become the first black woman to be elected as a family court judge in our Alabama county. The implication was that the candidate was gay, that she ought not be elected to the family court because of it.

Now, I barely knew either candidate. I didn’t cover courts and didn’t know many local lawyers. But as our newspaper’s editorial writer, I’d interviewed her and found her to be pleasant, apparently sound of mind, well read and logical. Had I ever seen her with a man?

“Me,” I told my friend. “I interviewed her for a half-hour. Do I count?” So there: I’d seen her with a man.

That’s the sort of innuendo that got passed around in the 1990s, when I was writing about that political race. (FYI: The lady lost the election.) Nowadays, most people would rightly discount someone’s sexuality as a disqualifier for public office. But two decades back, that’s the sort of thing that candidates would say about their opponents to poison the minds of voters and to gain political advantage, large or small. Make the opponent prove the slur was not true.

It was the tack that Thurman Bill Bartie seemed to take last week at the City of Port Arthur Mayoral Candidates Forum at Strong Tower Ministries, an effort to poison voters’ minds about his opponent, incumbent Mayor Derrick Freeman.

During the debate, Freeman, in response to an audience question, described his personal trek across Port Arthur — sometimes on boat, sometimes on foot — from his home off 39th Street to the Carl Parker Center, at Lamar State College Port Arthur.

“At no time did I leave the city of Port Arthur,” Freeman told the audience.

When Freeman was done, Bartie went to a place he should not have gone, suggesting that the mayor had left Port Arthur during the storm. That’s a politically lethal accusation, one that tests the veracity of both men.

“Did anyone in here … did you see him at the Carl Parker Center?” Bartie asked the audience, a question that seemed to stun some people, if only temporarily.

Did Freeman leave Port Arthur during a time of crisis? Or did the challenger lie or otherwise mislead his audience?

Bartie suggested that Freeman left the city. Later, in a post-forum interview, I asked Bartie directly if he believed that accusation himself.

The challenger, who I find a pleasant and enjoyable man, didn’t back off. He doubled down on his accusation.

“I think he left,” Bartie responded. Bartie said he’d heard of a CNN report that said Freeman had left Port Arthur during the storm. He said as a candidate he “heard things,” that as a candidate he had become “more privy to information” that suggested the same.

That’s why for a weekend news story and after a post-forum interview with the mayor, I called people whom Freeman said he’d encountered on that journey from his home to the Parker Center: a man who was headed north on Highway 69 as Freeman headed south; a man who operated a boat, making rescues, near the railroad bridge on Memorial Boulevard; a woman, a former classmate, who exchanged pleasantries with the mayor in the parking lot of the Parker Center that day. All remembered encountering the mayor that day.

More evidence has surfaced, including video of Freeman sifting through his flooded home and a recorded interview that Freeman did with his boyhood friend, Damon West, the day after the storm. All confirm the mayor’s truthfulness.

As proof he was right, though, Bartie offered this: That no one in the forum audience that night had confirmed seeing the mayor at the Parker Center. But he’d asked his question, “Did anyone in here … did you see him at the Carl Parker Center?” without asking a more important, foundational question: “Were any of you at the Parker Center that day?” Because if they were not there, or if they were not there when the mayor arrived and before he left, they could not have seen him.

Bartie’s question reminded me of the question I’d heard more than two decades back, when a whisper campaign was meant to undermine a woman running for judge. The objective was not to prove Freeman left the city. The objective was to make Freeman prove he was here.

“Ever seen her with a man?” my friend asked me more than 20 years ago.

Well, not to my knowledge. But I’d never seen her at all.

Ken Stickney is editor of The Port Arthur News.

 

See also: Freeman in town for Harvey? Witnesses say yes