Posted on October 5, 2004

Race, Fear Collide In Campaign

Vanessa Gezari, St. Petersburg Times, Oct. 4

BUCHANAN, Tenn. — Standing in his driveway, James Hart unfurls a tattered map of Tennessee with the 8th Congressional District outlined in red.

A loaded pistol lies on the back seat of his mother’s car. A bulletproof vest waits in the trunk. Campaign fliers spill onto the floor.

It is here in the gentle hills and soybean fields of rural northwestern Tennessee that Hart, a proponent of the pseudoscience known as eugenics, shocked everyone by winning the Republican congressional primary in August.

On this hot, late summer afternoon, he will campaign in the quiet cul-de-sacs of Dresden, population 2,855. He will make a stand in defense of white Western civilization, or what he calls the “favored races.”

“I’m James Hart, and I’m running for Congress,” he will tell homemakers, retirees and people home early from work. “I believe white children deserve the same rights as everyone else. If you agree with me, you can vote for me in November.”

Most people will smile politely. Some will nod. Some will shut the door in his face.

For Hart this is personal, an atonement for sins most voters know nothing about.

For the people of western Tennessee, it is about race and old wounds. Hart’s campaign has stirred anger and shame in towns where blacks and whites live apart. It has raised ghosts.

Hart says his only supporter is his 93-year-old mother, Mary. But he did win the primary with 79 percent of the vote. Then there’s the guy who offered to design his Web site. And the 824 who have voted in favor of government-enforced eugenics in his Internet poll.

Hart’s site attracts debate the way a lightning rod draws electricity. But he doesn’t have Internet access at home. He can’t hear the conversation.

What he knows is that Americans are afraid. Afraid of jobs going overseas. Afraid of people coming to take good jobs here.

These old fears still resonate. In Dresden, where the radio station plays Elvis Presley, the shirt and dress factories that once employed hundreds are gone. The book factory that ran three shifts now has about 30 employees.

From all over America, visitors to Hart’s Web site are having their say.

This man is courageous and upholding the ascendant laws of nature written by God himself.

Eugenics should be enforced only to the point of preventing James Hart and people like him.

I am hoping that White people will wake up and vote you into office.

I sincerely encourage you (Mr. Hart) to eat a bullet. For eugenics sake.

* * *

Hart won the Republican nomination for the same reason most candidates lose: No one knew who he was.

For the past 16 years, Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District has been represented by a conservative Democrat. Rep. John Tanner is so popular that the Republicans didn’t bother to field a challenger. Hart needed only 25 signatures to get on the ballot.

The district is a rough triangle of land stretching from the edge of Memphis to the western suburbs of Nashville, bending with the banks of the Mississippi and tracing the Kentucky border for 100 miles. In 2002, nearly 168,000 people voted in the congressional race. Hart, who ran as an independent, got about 2.5 percent of the vote.

He admits he’s not really a Republican and the Tennessee GOP wants nothing to do with him.

This spring, Dennis Bertrand, a 53-year-old insurance agent, returned from a stint in Iraq with the National Guard and looked up Hart’s Web site. Too late to make the ballot, he launched a write-in campaign and received less than a quarter of the vote.

In the small towns of the 8th District, race is spoken of in hushed tones. Segregation is over, but blacks and whites inhabit separate worlds. They pray and socialize apart. Even progressives tread gingerly around issues like interracial marriage.

“I would say the change has been pretty slow here,” Bertrand said.

* * *

James Hart is 60, a wiry, intense man with spiked silver hair and a sprinter’s metabolism. He campaigns at a brisk walk, cutting across lawns, leaping up steps.

After two decades at Century 21, he can case a neighborhood with a glance. He chooses well-kept single-family subdivisions whose residents are white and comfortably middle class.

Hart doesn’t chat with voters. He doesn’t ring doorbells. He knocks and, if no one answers, leaves a flier wedged against the doorframe. He’s relieved when no one comes to the door.

It’s unpleasant, he says, telling people things they don’t want to hear. That Asians are smarter than Africans. That Detroit is depressed because it’s predominantly black. That immigration and welfare are destroying America’s cities.

“If we had integrated with less “favored races’ centuries ago, there would never have been an automobile,” Hart’s flier says. “There would never have been an electric light. There would never have been an airplane.”

Hart’s racism is only the most accessible part of his platform. Eugenics comes from the Greek word “well-born.” A hundred years ago in America, it was a movement.

Scientists thought they could rid society of poverty and crime by breeding better human beings. More than 60,000 people were forcibly, legally sterilized. The American experiment was a model for Nazi Germany.

Hart wants to give “productive and creative” people economic incentives to reproduce while discouraging the poor from having children.

“I will not win the election, but if I were to win, it would not be because people agree with my ideas,” he said. “They don’t even know what my ideas are. It would be white backlash.”

On Maple Lane, Terry Odle shook Hart’s hand and pledged his vote.

“I like what he stands for,” said Odle, 37, a Dresden alderman. “White folks are getting the shaft here lately. We’re a minority. It’s time to get back on track.”

A few doors down, 63-year-old Bob Simmons, a retired teacher and basketball coach, glanced at Hart’s flier and gave it back.

“I found it offensive,” Simmons said. “I believe in equal rights for everyone. You could write it in granite: He has zero chance of winning that election.”

* * *

Some dismiss Hart as a madman. He is doing penance.

In a ground floor window of his house there’s a walnut-sized bullet hole where his 29-year-old son, Wayne, shot himself one winter afternoon in 2001.

Hart blamed himself and his generation for creating a world in which young men grow despondent, listen to suggestive music, take drugs and put bullets through their head. This never would have happened, Hart thought, in the safe, suburban, all-white world of his own childhood, before kids got high and brought guns to school, before promiscuity and broken homes.

Hart grew up in the Detroit suburb of Northville, the son of a technical school administrator and a kindergarten teacher. He was a loner who never had a date in high school.

At Michigan State University, he read Shakespeare and Chaucer. He loved poetry the way other kids loved football.

Long before he handed out fliers for the Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan, he smoked marijuana in Haight-Ashbury. Before he wrote in David Duke’s name for president, he lived in his car in Los Angeles and moonlighted as a standup comedian. He was an extra in a remake of King Kong.

He has been married and divorced, an absentee parent and, perhaps too rarely, a devoted father.

At his son’s funeral, he disowned the past.

Standing before the guests, he promised to run for the House, Senate and the presidency. He promised to win or die fighting.

“I did it so that what happened to my son never happens to anyone else’s,” he said.

Hart allows that a genetically engineered society wouldn’t have saved his son’s life. Yet he feels responsible for building the disorganized culture that drove his son to suicide. The connection between Wayne’s death and Hart’s campaign is more emotional than rational. Even Hart can’t entirely explain it.

He knows Wayne took his own life, but he doesn’t believe the killer was within.

“Whatever was out there, they just got my son,” Hart said. “To me, it was a war.”

His fear of this inscrutable enemy infects everyday life.

He owns some 20 guns, including a semiautomatic assault rifle that he keeps under his living room couch. For years, he has done target practice before dawn and at twilight, running himself out of breath in the woods behind his house, shooting at balloons.

Afraid someone has poisoned his water, he drinks only what has been boiled.

He fears for the survival and dominance of what he calls “my people.”

He compares himself to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who felt threatened enough by the government’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, to blow up the Murrah Federal Building. Hart says he feels just threatened enough by welfare and race quotas to run for Congress.

He believes there are others like him.

“They think they are under threat, whether it’s from immigration or affirmative action,” Hart says. “That’ll be their instinctive response, and they’ll say, “Well, I’ll just vote for this guy.”’

* * *

Dresden’s small black community lives in a place called the Bottom.

The houses are brick and broken or boarded up, with signs on the porch that say “No Trespassing” and “No Smoking.” The streets are empty and semi-industrial, edged with oil tankers, weeds and broken glass.

The Bottom used to be all black, but a few whites have moved in. That explains the pickup with a bumper sticker of a white man in uniform holding a Confederate flag above the words “Forget, hell!”

Charles Alley looks at Hart’s pamphlet, then quickly rolls it up so his 8-year-old grandson won’t see the picture on the front: brown-skinned apes marching away from a pink-skinned man.

Alley, 72, worked in an ammunition factory and was a member of the Tennessee Voters Council, a black activist group founded in the 1960s. He has lived in Dresden all his life and says it’s not racist compared with other places nearby. He sat on his porch watching his teenage grandson climb into a pickup and take off with a white female friend.

“I seen the days when my grandson, he wouldn’t even get back,” Alley says. “He’d be in jail just because he was with her.”

He glances at the flier again. He remembers that the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tenn., 170 miles from Dresden.

“I’d rather see one with a sheet on than one without a sheet,” Alley says. “At least you would know them. The ones who sympathize with the klan and you don’t know it, those are the dangerous ones.”

Alley has never seen a klan member in Dresden. Then his young grandson asks about the three Ks that appeared on S Fuller Street last week at the entrance to the Bottom.

* * *

Hart will run for Congress again in 2006. By that time he figures he’ll be almost broke. He has spent $65,000 so far on campaigns. Most of it was his retirement savings.

He quit his job at Century 21 last month after customers complained.

Before Hart set out door to door recently, he wished aloud that he could stay home and garden. He lives with his mother in a house down a gravel road shaded by hickory, oak and cedar.

They take care of each other. Mary Hart fills thermoses with water so he won’t get thirsty while he’s campaigning. He takes her paddling on Kentucky Lake.

The property reminds him of his childhood. Here he is still a boy vacationing with his parents. It is the 1950s and the economy is booming. Guns are for hunting squirrels. Sons outlive their fathers.

Life was good then. James Hart’s world was a better place.