Laws Are Like Sausages – It Is Best Not to Watch Either One Being Made
I’ve been going over my father’s journals lately and thought that this particular incident was a an interesting snapshot of what politics in a small town in Davis County looked like in the late 1970’s and 80’s. If I wasn’t there myself, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.
My father was a rising political star. No, he wasn’t involved in national politics or state politics. He never campaigned for President or Governor. Those endeavors are child’s play compared to what he went through. The political mire through which my father tried to wade was so wretched that it would make Will Schryver blush. My father, bless his heart, became bogged down in the intrigue, the cronyism, the deceit, and the backstabbing that is small town Utah politics.
It all started in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when my father served for eight pivotal years as a member of a city council in Davis County, Utah. He was a popular member of the council during the innocent early days because he was approachable and affable. Full of common sense and willing to consider alternative solutions to a given problem, it was thought that my father might one day even become the esteemed mayor.
However, during his second term on the council, something happened that made Tammany Hall look like a kindergarten: my father led an exceedingly unpopular – but ultimately successful – crusade against cable television in the city.
The year was about 1981. My father was approached by our Stake President and strongly admonished to introduce a bill in his capacity as a city councilman that would outlaw cable television within the city limits. The reason why cable television was improper, the Stake President explained, was because one could subscribe to HBO, which was the only premium channel available in those days, and which occasionally showed R-rated movies. (I don’t know if he is still alive. But, if he is, how he must pine for the olden days when we only had HBO to worry about!)
Our Stake President was well-acquainted with my father and he felt comfortable asking him for such political action. Whether or not my father felt ecclesiastical pressure from the Stake President on a personal level isn’t clear. But, my father has said in retrospect that he didn’t feel that introducing the bill was optional.
My father reluctantly prepared and submitted a bill to the city council. The bill was put on the public docket for comments and debate. The community turned out en masse to protest the bill at several community meetings. The city’s cable subscribers wanted to be able to watch the fledgling ESPN network. They wanted to watch WGN and the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bears. People wanted to be able to watch the brand new Cable News Network, better known as CNN. People that had cable didn't want to be stuck with the option of just watching the three broadcast networks, PBS, and the-then independent UHF channel KSTU 20. Most people that had cable didn’t even subscribe to HBO. Outlawing cable made no sense to any of them and they were mad beyond mad.
As the bill's sponsor, it was up to my father to defend his bill. Never a great debater, his heiney was routinely kicked by every person that offered critical comments. His defense of the bill, with the Stake President’s admonition in the back of his mind, sounded paternalistic and censorious.
As the actual city council vote drew near and the uproar intensified, it appeared that the bill had the support of just one council member: my father. All other council members were poised to quickly strike it down.
But, then something remarkable happened. On the night of the actual vote at city hall, our Stake President showed up and requested a private meeting with each of the city council members individually, each of whom was LDS and each of whom was a member of his Stake.
Upon emerging from their one-on-one meetings with the Stake President, the city council members had undergone a remarkable change of heart regarding the anti-cable television bill. Rather than opposing the bill, they all now strongly supported it. The vote was held, and the bill passed unanimously. Allegations of cronyism and undue ecclesiastical influence immediately sprang up from the cable-subscribing community.
In the days following the passage of the bill, Insight Cablevision, Co. drove around from house-to-house, accompanied by Davis County Sheriff's deputies, to disconnect the cable television hookups and confiscate the primitive remote controls. My father’s name became a snarl word in the community, and he suffered politically for it.
When his term as city councilman was up the following year in 1982, my father, who had grown very weary of local politics, was looking forward to stepping down. However, in the summer of 1982, he was again approached by our Stake President and strongly urged to run for mayor. The Stake President had fashioned together a group of like-minded citizens to gather the required signatures on a petition to put my father on the ballot, and to fund his campaign, which probably cost less than $1,000. My father’s opponent in the mayoral race was an irate former cable customer.
My father never had a chance in the race. His campaign signs were defaced or stolen. During the debates he could hardly speak his answers above the hisses and boos from the crowd. The election came and he got shellacked. Our Stake President was disappointed, but my father was quietly relieved.
Time passed. Wounds began to heal. Our Stake was re-organized and its president was a more laidback personality than the prior Stake President. Former cable customers had figured out a way to circumvent the anti-cable television law by erecting satellite dishes. And, my father’s name was fading from the list of public profanities.
In 1988, six years removed from his political fiascoes, my father decided on his own to run again for city council. His primary objective, if elected, was to undo the cable T.V. damage.He received enough signatures he needed on his own to have his name included on the ballot. He financed his own campaign and personally went door-to-door to at every home in the city to speak with voters about his past goof-up on cable television and his commitment to lead the charge to bring it back. I accompanied him on several evenings during the month of October 1988. I usually stood next to him and tried to smile as he begged for forgiveness from the ex-cable customers. Most of them were very forgiving and pledged to support him. A few were still angry over what had happened in 1981.
I remember one particular house where an elderly woman with an ersatz, flat, upper Midwestern American accent verbally blasted him for five whole minutes because, without cable television, she wasn't able to watch her beloved Chicago Cubs. He profusely apologized to the point of almost shedding tears. When the old woman was satisfied that he really would lead the charge to bring back cable T.V., she pledged to support him.
Going into the election, it looked like he had the support he needed to win a seat back on the city council. When the votes were tallied on election night, however, he fell short by about 40 votes. He was disappointed, because he really did intend to bring back cable television and he loved the town and wanted to be a public servant. However, he did feel somewhat vindicated because the loss was narrow and he had visited with every home in the city to apologize for the past. He could've asked for a recount, but didn't. Instead, he went home, hugged his beloved wife, and then took her and me to Don Pedro's Mexican Restaurant in Layton.
A postscript to this story is that before the end of 1988, the city council voted unanimously to bring back cable T.V. Is it just a coincidence that the Stake President was no longer their stake president? I don’t know. But cable television came immediately back to the city.
Anyways, just a long, meandering trip down memory lane and a personal insight into politics in small town Utah during the 1980’s. I would like to think that things have changed, but I just don’t know.
"I will go after the board, and I will go after each and every one of those who have publicly slandered me in this matter to the extent that the law allows. Enough is enough." Daniel C. Peterson