Dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang. The grandfather clock in Bill Mitchell’s city council office strikes 11:00 p.m. Time has run out on his campaign for mayor. The last of Mitchell’s cadre of fifteen supporters straggle in and take seats on either of two comfortable couches or several wooden chairs. The former candidate sits at his glass-topped desk in an enveloping executive’s chair next to a large window, beyond which dark skyscrapers loom black against the night. The mood of utter, embarrassing dejection bounces around the room, but no one will claim it. “There’s a little bit of good that comes out of everything,” insists Mitchell, his face pinched into a mask of mirth. “I’ve still got three years left on the council. If I was mayor. I’d only have eighteen months.” Some in attendance force titters at this reference to the next mayor’s serving just the remainder of Pete Wilson’s unexpired term. But most just sit in silence, their ears still ringing from the din of election headquarters downstairs in Golden Hall, and try not to stare at their fallen leader.
In the next room three of Mitchell’s council aides are watching the eleven o’clock news. One yells out the latest voting breakdown. O’Connor: 61,000. Hedgecock: 50,000. Cleator: 42,000. And 8000 for the man forcing smiles at his desk. Joe Davis, Mitchell’s chief assistant, pokes his head inside the door and says, “Bill, it cost ’em five dollars a vote, against one dollar a vote for you. And I think that says something.’’
The conversation is broken, halting, disjointed. White wine is squeezed out of a plastic package. “In the event we don’t pull it off tonight,” Mitchell is saying, “I’d like to sit down and kick around who to support in the run-off. Shirley Mitchell, Bill’s second ex-wife, who essentially ran the campaign, says, “If you ever want to run for another office, you can’t support O’Connor. Your political future depends on who you support ...” A young medical student named Dan Brown, who worked hard for Mitchell, ambles in and plops down hard onto a chair. Mitchell looks at him without seeing. “Maureen’s been nicer to me,” he muses. “But there’s no question I can work with Roger on growth management, and Maureen was against North City West, but I’ll never forget that she took a powder during the vote and left me alone to make it six-to-one ...”
For Mitchell, these few minutes of privacy allow consideration of a decision he must make soon: whether or not to concede defeat. Between the lines of moribund conversation, he keeps thinking aloud, ‘‘The numbers speak for themselves. It’s against my nature to say I quit.”
‘‘You’re a better and a bigger man now than when you started,” says his sister, Betty.
‘‘Roger’s a tough guy to work with in the sense that he’s a put-down artist,” reflects Mitchell, ‘‘but at the same time he’s strong on growth management."
One supporter remarks abruptly that great friends have been made on this campaign, and that everyone should get together every three months so as not to lose the momentum. ‘‘Absolutely,” says Mitchell, who now seems to be talking from inside a dream. ‘‘Like an ad hoc committee type thing . . .
‘‘There hasn’t been one person to falter in this campaign. I’m reflecting you, you’re reflecting me, and to concede now — I just can’t do it.”
After about ten minutes in his council office, Mitchell and his entourage descend in the elevator and walk back out onto the breezy community concourse plaza. The night is clear but the city lights obscure the heavens. One by one he hugs his supporters, and they disappear. By the time he nears the open door to Golden Hall and election headquarters, only five friends and relatives are left. Dixieland music and cheering pour from the door, and Mitchell is repelled by it like a lone leaf before a stiff wind. He strides for the parking garage ahead of everyone else, and hesitates for a few seconds beside the elevators. Then he darts for the stairs, and runs up four flights to the plaza level at a full sprint, bounding two steps at a time. As he ambles toward his sister’s car he smiles proudly and says, “Not even breathing hard.”
“High Above the World,” by Bill Mitchell
- When you look down and see life going on
- and on It’s a pattern of human bond.
- These people didn’t just happen out of thin air.
- There’s a meaning to all that.
- It’s all planned out with meaning and care.
- What’s in this temporary plan?
- I’ll try to tell you, if I can.
- It’s a testing ground.
- Some shall suffer and some shall abound.
- The evolution of the eternal soul is what the plan is about.
- It’s a great design to make
- you eternally complete and whole.
- Petty things really do not matter.
- Life’s not a meaningless patter.
- Pay attention to the final goal.
- Forget the unimportant clatter.
- Work on the eternal soul.
- The intention of this life will be to make you whole.
- Don’t try to make life work just move with life’s flow.
In the machinery of San Diego politics, Bill Mitchell is a monkey wrench. A fifty-year-old Republican with a passion for the ethereal, Mitchell has been called everything but conventional. Often laughed at and ridiculed behind his back at city hall, he is what one former aide calls “the common man’s thinking politician. He really does have a grasp of the issues, but now he arrives at a decision is a mystery to me.” It’s also a mystery to some of his fellow council members, with whom he generally has very poor working relationships. But out in the field, on the streets and in people’s homes, Mitchell has an uncanny charm and undeniable appeal. He’s won city-wide election twice against more organized and better-financed opponents, while at the same time shouldering a reputation as not the brightest of political operators. His philosophy emanates not from his head but from his gut, and his only consistent position is human compassion. Other politicians may find him an embarrassment and worse — Roger Hedgecock, during the primary campaign, called him “mentally ill” — but his supporters see in him the same things his detractors do, and love him for it: “He’s not a politician” is a phrase used to praise and bludgeon him. And the same tough hide and gumption that lets him deflect the frequent epithets also more or less blinded him to his real chances of doing well in last week’s mayoral primary. Bill Mitchell may not have marched into the winner’s circle, but he proved capable of walking the thin line between faith and wishful thinking, between courage and folly.
“I’ve stood out like a sore thumb — well, maybe not a sore thumb — I’ve stood out from the other candidates. Nobody thinks like I think.” If Mitchell is anything he’s a unique thinker, but this hasn’t always worked to his advantage in politics. “They thought Edison was crazy. They thought all great inventors were crazy, and it was because the great inventors were right-brain thinkers.” Mitchell himself was originally what he calls a “right-brain” thinker. He says that’s where all creative ideas are generated. But he taught himself to use the left side of his brain, the analytical side, by taking a lot of mathematics courses in college. (He graduated in 1958 from UCLA with a degree in business administration.) Still, as councilman representing the northern area of the city, including La Jolla and Rancho Bernardo, Mitchell’s right-brainstorms have cost him dearly.
“Bill’s not afraid to take the risk of formulating his ideas in public,” says Larry Stirling, former councilman and now assemblyman. “And that is a risk.” The effect of proffering schemes such as sending downtown derelicts to a rural farm for rehabilitation, or building a regional airport in the desert to solve the Lindbergh Field problem — both interesting if impractical suggestions — has been to distract from Mitchell’s real achievements. He can take credit for initiating the idea of a horse patrol in Balboa Park, and for establishing and nurturing the first Community Alert programs in the city. And nobody can dispute that his responsiveness to constituents’ complaints exceeds that of any of his peers on the city council. And yet a fellow councilman can still say of Mitchell, “He’s not taken seriously by his colleagues. He’s alienated all of us.”
Stirling, who was elected to the council along with Mitchell in 1977, and served with him until moving on to Sacramento in 1980, says, “Politicians are like buildings; they’re not judged by their heights, they’re judged by their shadows. Mitchell’s missteps are blown way out of proportion. But as his credibility with the council waned, he turned to the people for acceptance. And they gave it to him.” This turning to the people — Mitchell insists it just so happens that he thinks as the people think — is part of what has estranged him from the other council members. And it’s strengthened his reputation as a knucklehead. “He definitely votes the applause meter,” says Stirling, referring to the oft-repeated complaint that Mitchell is overly swayed by whatever audience attends council meetings. “But that’s not dumb,” Stirling continues, “that’s smart. But as a councilman, when you’re trying to do the right thing for the city and there are thirty people in the gallery that are dead set against you, you have to pay the political price and vote against them. Bill would rarely do that.”
Stirling may finally be able to lay to rest one of the more durable “Mitchellisms” passed, with relish, among politicos and reporters bent on illustrating Mitchell’s lack of smarts. The story goes that during council discussions with PacTel representatives concerning the cost of instituting the 911 emergency number, Mitchell broke in with one of his big ideas. “Wait a minute, we can’t do this,” he’s purported to have said. “There’s no eleven on the telephone dial.” The punch line is that he was serious. Mitchell has claimed that it was one of his endless wisecracks, but there are people in city hall who swear he wasn’t joking; and the press, ever eager for material with which to pigeonhole its subjects, has jumped at every opportunity for repeating the story. “He was joking,” says Stirling, “and 1 ought to know because I was the one he said it to. It was a joke.”
Perhaps Mitchell’s interest in “metaphysics” allows him to take in stride this and other swipes at his brainpower. (When a reporter asked him what he thought of a council aide’s comment that he was “felony dumb,” Mitchell replied that he looked it up and it’s only a misdemeanor.) On the other hand, given San Diego’s fuddy-duddy political superstructure, what could be more unwise than a politician admitting an interest in, much less openly practicing, metaphysics, est, and self-actualization? Maybe Mitchell could have at least thought twice before hanging a large framed and signed “Maharishi Award,” complete with color picture of the robed and beatific Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (transcendental meditation), on the wall opposite his desk in his council office. The Age of Aquarius, as both Mitchell and Jerry Brown have discovered, doesn’t yet mantle the political realm.
Mitchell and his campaign coordinator, ex-wife Shirley Mitchell, arrive late at television station KUSI, Channel 51, in Claircmont. Campaign volunteer Hector Gastelum, who lives in Tijuana and is in the body-shop business here, and aide Joe Davis, have been waiting with a reporter and glancing now and then at the movie Helldivers with Clark Gable, which is flickering on a TV set in the foyer, tuned to Channel 51. Mitchell is in a coat and tie and hiking boots, stained dark from the rain outside, and he’s carrying an American flag. They pass large black-and-white blowups of Rowdie Yates, Kojak, and Baretta as they dash for the production office to ready the script for Mitchell’s last-minute television commercial. The candidate has rewritten the advertisement on the way to the studio, and he passes it around. “Should it read, ‘We need a mayor for all San Diego,’ or, ‘For once, we need a mayor for all San Diego’?” Mitchell asks.
“No, the first way,” says Shirley.
“Yeah,” echoes the young production secretary.
“Okay!” exclaims Mitchell, gesturing toward the secretary. “She likes it. It excites her. We’re using synergy again. Synergy works!”
Mitchell dictates the script to the secretary, who sits at a small desk surrounded by blue plastic videotape cases. She helps him with a lot of the wording. “. . . Vote for me, Bill Mitchell, the people’s candidate.” The secretary pulls the teleprompter script out of the typewriter and reads it back.
Mitchell decides to add, “I owe no political IOUs, except to the voters on March fifteenth.” She reads it back again. Mitchell says, “How about saying, ‘. . . except to you on March fifteenth'? It’s more personal.” This idea is overruled by the secretary and by Shirley.
The producer blows in and prods the group to hurry. Mitchell steps across the hall and into a small room to change his jacket and put on a clean shirt. He emerges shortly and is led to the studio, a miasma of flashing lights, busy video screens, sound consoles, cables, and technicians. Mitchell is placed behind a desk, and Old Glory is taped to a planter beside him. Joe Davis has brought a ream of canceled checks, which are positioned on the desk top in front of the candidate. The cameraman tells him to pull his coattails down and sit on them. He reads through the copy several times, looking straight through the teleprompter into the camera, but muffs every try. Finally the production secretary says she thinks the last two paragraphs should be transposed, and it is agreed. She grabs the copy and runs out to retype it. In the interim, Mitchell folds his hands and closes his eyes for a few long moments. His breathing is deep and slow. His tanned face is relaxed, serene. He is meditating.
When the script is returned, Mitchell gets it right in one take: “I am Councilman Bill Mitchell, number-one crime fighter and former deputy mayor.
“We need a mayor for all San Diegans. My opponents are using hundreds of thousands of dollars [he ruffles the checks] collected from special-interest groups.
“To offset such obscene spending, I am walking 500 miles to stay in your homes and to listen to thousands of you in your neighborhoods.
“I owe no political IOUs — except to the voters on March fifteenth.
“Vote for me, Bill Mitchell. The people’s candidate.”
“Chaos Into Harmony,” by Bill Mitchell
- When life seems to be out of sync, unhappy and against me,
- Remember the laws of God, order and harmony.
- The First Idea is Love and is meant to be perfect peace and orderly.
- “Lo, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
- It’s instant reverie for you and for me.
- Yes, my love,
- it includes prosperity.
- The abundance of heaven is there for you.
- It’s free; it’s free.
- Keep your eye on the guiding light.
- Do not waiver. Stick to your course with all your might.
- “Knock and it shall be opened unto thee.”
- And the limit is according to your capacity.
- It’s all yours now
- and realize it instantly.
- When you accept with conviction, belief, and a true picture of God’s creative imagery.
- Keep it simple as you see.
- Bless you, dear.
- Accept this abundant word reverently.
- Chaos is turned into harmony.
The evening of the day he made his TV spot, Mitchell is staying in the University City home of Carl Anderson, one of his campaign volunteers. A handful of folks from the neighborhood chat quietly in the living room; Mitchell sits in a chair below a seascape painting and waits for more arrivals before starting his impromptu talk. In coat and tie, with the brown leather hiking boots on his size elevens, he cuts a dashing, vigorous figure among the mostly older people in attendance. He gets fidgety, and his attention is drawn to a display of two ornamental samurai swords beside him. Mitchell grabs one of the swords, withdraws it from the scabbard, inspects it, and replaces it. Then he picks up the black, wide-brimmed ceremonial hat from in front of the swords and places it on his silver-haired head. “Banzai! Banzai!” he exclaims, jerking karate chops through the air. The guests pretend not to notice. Mitchell chuckles, takes off the hat, and puts it back down on its pillow. A few moments later he begins his speech to the group.
“. . . In 1977 I upset the establishment by beating the entrenched incumbent, Gil Johnson. I walked 500 miles and shook 100,000 hands. They said my chances of winning were zero. I had almost no money, and my opponent was endorsed by every paper in town . . .
“. . .I want to be a free agent, beholden to the people, period. They said I couldn’t win re-election without joining the downtown political clique. They put developer Ed Malone against me in 1981, and I walked 500 miles and shook 100,000 hands . . .
”... I think we ought to have the fortitude to stand up to the developers and say No. They come before the city council and ask us to make them rich by voting a variance in the community plans. . . . When the exceptions become the rule, then it becomes a problem. . . . The only thing I can do is keep exposing them, to the point where they’re so naked it’s embarrassing. ...”
All over the city, in living rooms and dining rooms, people heard this speech against the menacing developers, and while his hosts may not have remembered it or been moved by it, Mitchell definitely remembered and was moved by his stay in their homes. “Dear — he dictates into a recorder held by a volunteer in front of the Vons market in Rancho Bernardo, where he’s campaigning a few days before the election. (The thank-you notes went to each of the twenty-eight homes he stayed in.) “Thanks for that incredible steak dinner at 9:30 at night!”
“I enjoyed your lovely home with so much architectural flare, and your Marine Corps shower with three heads in it!”
“Your new mobile home is absolutely delightful, and is truly a home.” “It was so kind of you to give me your master bedroom suite with the ocean view. We must get together soon as bachelors ...”
“Yes, I did take note of the aircraft noise from Lindbergh Field while I stayed with you ...”
“Ed and Esther, you have a lovely home with beautiful vibrations, and love in the air ...”
“Thoroughly enjoyed the lovely steak dinner and the Cold Duck, even if it did explode all over me. And I hope Dennis finds the right job soon. I know after I’m mayor I’ll come see you and your new landscaping ...”
"Thank you for ironing the wrinkles out of my shirt at the last minute, my dirty shirt that was in my laundry bag . . .”
“I can’t get over the fire-engine-red sunken bathtub ...”
“Plenty of good vibrations in your home, and I received ’em . . .”
The personal, emotional tone of these letters is the point Bill Mitchell has been trying to make ever since his election in 1977. What he calls his “Political Ministry” has been positing that city government is too far removed from involvement with the governed. He recently saw the movie Gandhi and he’s not shy about admitting that he identified with the great liberator of India. “He felt so much for the people,” says Mitchell, “just like I do. It’s from deep in my soul. It’s just in there.” Of course, just how much the people want to be felt for by politicians is a different matter.
Sometimes the councilman feels so much for the people that it works against him. Campaigning one afternoon in the Bird Rock area of La Jolla, where he lived before moving to Rancho Bernardo, Mitchell happily encounters a woman on her front porch. He hands her some campaign literature and she pointedly asks, “Aren’t you the one who voted against the golf deal?”
She was referring to his recent opposition (he was the lone vote against it) to lowering the fees on the Balboa Park golf course for seniors who aren’t residents of San Diego. It’s not that Mitchell has something against price breaks for older people; to the contrary, he thought the idea didn’t go far enough. A fellow councilman sees Mitchell’s odd action on this council item as illustrative of his big-hearted pigheadedness. “Bill said, ‘If you’re going to reduce golf fees for seniors, you have to reduce their fees for all city recreation programs,”’ explains the councilman. “Our point was that that issue was not before us. We were dealing strictly with the golf fees, and he could bring up the other stuff separately. He said, ‘That’s my position, and if you don’t agree. I’ll vote No on the golf fees.’ And he did. So now he’s on record as being against reduced golf fees for seniors.” Mitchell, however, says he stood up for a larger principle, and that’s what he tried to tell the La Jolla woman at her doorstep. She remained vague about whom she was voting for.
A few paces down the street Mitchell talks about his interest in meditation. He says that his third ex-wife, Sharron Stroud, a minister with the Church of Religious Science, helped him refine and focus his metaphysical urges, and that author Joel Goldsmith, nine of whose self-help books Mitchell owns, has been a tremendous influence. Just after this walk in La Jolla, Mitchell plans to meditate deeply for at least an hour in preparation for that evening’s live telecast of a mayoral forum by Channel 39. “I go into a centering with who created all this,” he says, waving his hand out to include the suburban world. “Where did it all come from? And when you get in touch with that, there’s nothing you can’t do. It’s not so much you doing things; it’s letting the universe do it for you.” Along with meditation, Mitchell has been using “creative visualization” to help him win the mayor’s office. Every day he consciously pictures himself sitting behind the mayor’s desk on the eleventh floor of city hall, cradled in the dark woodwork and cushy naugahyde. He sees his aides working for him, and he knows what it feels like to be mayor. “In my own mind,” he says confidently, “I’ve already won.”
Although that winning attitude failed to do the trick in the mayor’s race, it served him well for twenty years in the real estate business here in La Jolla, as well as in Newport Beach and Santa Barbara. The youngest of four children (two boys and two girls),
Mitchell was raised in the Solana Beach area. His father was a San Diego police officer from 1923 to 1933, and his mother was a nurse. Mitchell’s sister, Betty Riis, a successful portrait painter, remembers family picnics being interrupted when their father felt duty-bound to go apprehend some scofflaw he witnessed committing a minor transgression. The elder Mitchell had fought in World War I and, although he never talked about it, had engaged in some recognized heroics. The children were never allowed to forget their father’s “war nerves,” so any loudness around the house was strictly forbidden. There was no talking during meals, and the girls were not permitted to wear make-up until they were eighteen. Neither were the children allowed to interfere in any way with father’s opera time on Saturdays, when he’d sit alone and listen to records. Their father was not a compromiser.
Bill Mitchell has naturally inherited some of his father’s traits. He likes to tell the story about how he chased down and captured a would-be rapist in Pacific Beach in 1979. A former aide, in one of his kinder descriptions of Mitchell, calls him a “frustrated policeman.” Mitchell confides that “one of the lowest forms of life are people who prey on the weak. I just cannot stand anybody who encroaches on other people’s comfort zones.” He also can’t stand by while somebody is in need of help. On the way back from one of the last mayoral forums, held at the Tijuana Country Club, Mitchell witnessed an elderly ice cream vendor tumble from a broken sidewalk and roll down an eroded embankment with his ice cream cart. The dilapidated cart came to rest atop the tattered man, and Mitchell immediately ordered the campaign volunteer at the wheel to stop the car. This she did, in the middle of a busy intersection. Mitchell leaped from the back seat and ran over to the man, who was obviously falling-down drunk. He helped the ice cream man to his feet and then lifted the heavy cart back onto the sidewalk. Before the Mexican even knew he was upright again, Mitchell was gone.
There is also a flip side to Mitchell’s compassionate nature, a tendency to be unyielding. Just last week Mitchell demonstrated this during a council committee meeting dealing with plans to beautify the community concourse plaza, behind city hall. Credit must go to Mitchell for initiating the notion, but as it evolved toward simply improving the area by installing benches and umbrellas instead of turning it into some kind of Ghirardelli Square south, Mitchell heatedly protested. And rather than work to modify the plan more to his liking, he picked up his papers and stormed out of the meeting.
The impetuous side of Mitchell is rarely seen by the public, and never mentioned by Mitchell himself. Council aides can recount furious shouting matches between Mitchell and other council members — usually initiated by Mitchell — but when pressed, he’ll only admit to getting “metaphysically miffed” now and then, and only because his beliefs are so heartfelt. But another reason for his occasional outbursts may be his accurate glimpses of himself as the snubbed and outcast member of the council. “It’s not that he doesn’t want to join the ‘downtown political clique,’” explains one former aide. “They won’t let him in. He’s simply been rejected.” If that’s true, Mitchell’s reputation for brute tenaciousness is all the more remarkable. Says a friend — who’s supporting Roger Hedgecock for mayor — “When he thinks he’s right, God help you.”
This tenacity is what powered Mitchell to his most lasting achievement: establishment of the Community Alert program. Just a couple of blocks from the woman in La Jolla who asked him about the golf fees is the house where little Aleta Sue Grosenbach lived, before her abduction and murder in August of 1976. Mitchell lived in the neighborhood then, and as he walks toward the house on La Jolla Hermosa Avenue he points to bushes where the little girl played. He remembers combing the area — searching alleys, garages, storm drains — the night she disappeared, and admits he became obsessed with her case. His daughter, Robin, was blonde like the Grosenbach child and was also about the same age (Aleta Sue was nine). A year after her disappearance, Mitchell led the effort to bring out the notorious J.J. Armes, private eye, from Texas, and it was Mitchell who raised most of the several thousand dollars to pay Armes for what turned out to be nothing. “You feel like you’re in this world and you cry out, ‘What can we do about this?’ ” he says in near anguish as he approaches the house where the little girl was staying with her grandmother. “Everybody said, ‘Nothing, there’s nothing to be done.’ That’s the status quo. And that’s why I’m not status quo.” Nobody’s home. He leaves his literature and walks on.
His fervor over the Grossenbach case led to his formation of the Community Alert group in the Bird Rock area. The blue-and-silver decals he designed are still stuck to some of the windows in the neighborhood. He got the idea from a Reader’s Digest article he’d read a few years earlier. Police Chief Bill Kolender gives Mitchell credit for starting the original group, but explains that the police department was itself working on a similar idea at about the same time. Mitchell and the police got together and lectured to dozens of community groups, and the program went on to be one of the most successful in the nation.
Oh, Mrs. O’Grady, / you are missed, / by those you touched and those you kissed. / You will always be / in our memory / as a fine and sound lady, / a living example / for us all to see. / Bless your soul / and all the peace / for you there be. / You great lady from / the gallant days of the turn of the century.” Mitchell is so choked up by the time he finishes reading aloud his ode to a girlfriend’s dead grandmother (whom he saw only three times), that he has to wipe away his tears and turn his face. It is the vibrant morning of election day, and Mitchell is sitting in his white Mazda RX-7 sports car in a Rancho Bernardo coffee shop reading his poetry to a reporter. He’s deeply moved by his recollection of the lady, and needs a few moments to recover his composure. “I just have this feel for people . . . ,” he explains.
Mitchell had awakened this, the big morning, earlier than usual — at 5:30 — and had meditated for an hour. His condo in The Villas is right at the comer of Rancho Bernardo Road and Bernardo Center Drive, where he was to hold a big canvas banner before the rush-hour traffic. His home, carpeted with green shag, brimming with English antiques, and tastefully adorned with oil paintings — his sister’s portraits as well as some of his own of flowers — echoed the silence of the golf course it overlooks. A thick copy of Turning Around, A Healing Handbook, rested on a table. As he dressed, Mitchell enjoyed the expectation of winning a spot in the mayoral run-off this day. Later he said, “I’m not efforting, I’m just letting go. I don’t feel butterflies or anything. I’m filled with expectation now. Later I’ll be filled with realization.”
He and his volunteers campaigned at intersections and plant shift changes most of the day, and at six that evening, as he entered his campaign headquarters,
Mitchell’s happy fatigue was shared by the twenty or so early arrivals to his election night victory party. The pre-election polls had been dead-wrong in his two earlier victories, so Mitchell put no stock in the current ones that counted him completely out of the race. But he did talk of miracles. “A miracle is really a natural phenomenon, and people just claim them once in a while,” he mused.
In the campaign office, on the second floor of the Fifth and Fir Financial Building, a modest spread of hors d’oeuvres, potato chips, lunch meat, soda pop, and Gallo wine fueled an eventual throng of about fifty supporters and friends. On a long table was Mitchell’s white Toshiba portable television set tuned to a snowy image of Dan Rather. In the course of the evening nearly every man in the room stepped up to fiddle with the rabbit ears, all to no avail. Eventually even Channel 8 disappeared into the growling nether on the screen.
Shirley Mitchell comes into the side office where Mitchell is resting quietly and conversing with a reporter. “Bill,” she insists, “come out and talk to your guests.” A few minutes flat on his back have restored him, and as he gets up he says, “I’m prepared for whatever the right action is tonight. If I’m supposed to be mayor, I will be. If I’m not, I’m ready to accept that. But I do have the sense that I’ll win.”
As the polls close, Mitchell celebrates with his people. His mood is expansive, and he repeats with enthusiasm the story of his encounter with a man in an elevator earlier that day. Mitchell says he asked the man, a black janitor, who he voted for. “He thought for a minute and then said, ‘That Mitchell guy.’ So I pull out a campaign button and say, ‘That’s me.’ The guy gives me the strangest look for the longest time, and says, ‘That’s you?’ I say, ‘That’s me. Why’d you vote for me?’ And the guy says, 'Because you have an honest face!”’ His supporters agree all around: yes, he does have an honest faee, doesn't he?
The hour approaches nine o’clock and Mitchell is a little less relaxed. No results have come in yet, and with the TV on the blink the effect is eerie. For all anyone knows, Mitchell might already be mayor. He’s safe on an island of love and support, but what’s the outside world up to? Finally it’s Mitchell’s turn to fool with the TV set. He’s on his knees, staring into the electronic void, pushing buttons, twisting dials, shifting the rabbit ears. Nothing works. His sister, Betty, comes over to him and reads off the first results of the write-in ballot count, which were just received over the phone. “Thirty-eight hundred for O’Connor” — Mitchell doesn’t look up — ‘‘thirty-five hundred for Hedgecock, three thousand for Cleator, six hundred and fifty for Mitchell.” He keeps staring into the gray drizzle on the TV screen, making adjustments, and doesn’t say a word. Betty backs away slowly. “Well, it’s just the beginning,” she mumbles.
A few minutes later Mitchell is sitting in a chair getting his back rubbed. Suddenly it seems that everyone in the room is seated. A radio in a side office is tuned to KSDO, and Roger Hedge-cock is being interviewed. “I think I’m going to clearly beat Bill Cleator in this race,” he’s saying. Mitchell is silent, and can’t hear the radio. “This is the most exciting city in the world,” Hedgecock bubbles. The interviewer asks the candidate about the unprecedented amount of money — about three-quarters of a million dollars — spent in the primary by him, Cleator, and O’Connor. “You can’t go out and shake hands with everybody in the city, as Bill Mitchell proved you can’t do,” he replies. “Big money is a fact of political life. . .”
Mitchell is on his feet near the door, saying, “Usually when they come in that early — I don’t want to give up already, but when [the returns] come in like that, they usually stay that way.” His face is deflated, but expressionless. People are starting to trickle out the door. As a couple says goodbye to Mitchell, he asks them if they’re going downtown to election central. “No, we’re going home,” the woman answers. “I wish I could go home,” Mitchell says, a pained smile flashing across his face. He’s joking. In a kind of daze he lets it be decided that it’s time to go downtown, and he wanders out without saying anything to the roomful of supporters. He and Shirley and their daughter, along with sister Betty and her husband and a reporter, load into Betty’s new Cadillac Seville for the short ride to Golden Hall. Inside the car it’s mostly silent, but the difficult task ahead hangs gloomy in the thrum of the engine. About halfway there Mitchell says, “Maybe I should have told everybody we’d see them down at election central. .
When he walks into the cavernous auditorium, it’s immediately evident he’s been defeated. The big board with posted returns shows O’Connor leading with 19,733 votes, then Hedgecock with 17,603, Cleator with 13,611, and Mitchell with only 2998. He walks warily toward the press area and a woman stops him and says, a little despairingly, “You always listened, Bill, you were the only one. You were the only councilman who ever listened to us.” He thanks her. Then the media hit him like a furnace blast. The camera flashes blind him as he’s jostled over to the KSDO table. He’s been laid to rest and all the questions are postmortems. From there he’s pulled over to the Tribune table, where he says, ”1 really believe that if the people heard my message I’d be elected, so I guess it didn’t get across.” The KFMB election team picks over him next. . .I would not sell my soul to be one of the front-runners. . .” A woman grabs him when he stands up and, while reporters are screaming questions all around him, she yanks him over to the KOGO table. “The evening isn’t over yet. ... I have no emotions right now. . . . When I get inspired to the direction I want to go, I’11 go that direction. ... If I had to sell my soul, I wouldn’t be interested in the job.” Next he’s spirited down to KCNN, where he’s asked, “The people obviously didn’t respond to your message. How do you view that, Mr. Mitchell?” “It could have been the lack of direct mail,” he says. “These people with the big bucks hired the postal department to do their campaigning for them. . .but if it’s meant to be, I’ll win anyway.”
As quickly as it hit him, the onslaught of reporters has abated. He stands suddenly alone amid the hurtling activity and looks at the tallies: O’Connor, 39,301; Hedgecock, 35,611; Cleator, 29,135; Mitchell, 5698. Paul Bloom slides over from KSDO and asks, “When you gonna throw in the towel? Will you do it with me when you do?”
Mitchell stammers that it’s “just not my nature” to concede, then launches into a story about how he was running a relay race in high school once, and he thought he was in last place, but instead of quitting he gave it all he had. And lo, he finished third and won a bronze medal.
“Come on. Bill,” Bloom is saying throughout the story, “come on. I want it for KSDO. Will you do that for me?” Mitchell says maybe when seventy-five percent of the vote is counted. Bloom thanks him and bounds back over to his seat and his radio microphone. ‘‘Good ol’ KSDO,” Mitchell says with a crooked smile.
He drifts back over to his corps of supporters held away from the media by a rope, and tells them the same story he just told Paul Bloom. He’s laughing and joking, and furiously hugging supporters, and his sister is setting up group photos while the forces of Cleator and Hedgecock try to outshout each other. The Mitchell entourage is swallowed in a sea of blue (Hedgecock) and white (Cleator) placards. Mitchell’s group holds up three of his red signs. “Every experience is a growing experience, a winning experience,” he's saying. “It’s against my nature to give up. The biggest silver strike in history, in Carson City, Nevada, was made after the first miners gave up. It’s dangerous to start giving up.”
Mitchell never did concede for Paul Bloom and KSDO. Instead he returned to his election headquarters, all the while professing not to feel anything emotionally, and insisted on cleaning up the after-party mess. Shirley and Betty wanted to leave it until the morning, but Mitchell was obsessed with the possibility of ants overrunning the place. “Part of my metaphysical training has made me not take anything personally,” he explained as he carried an armload of garbage out into the cool night. “I thought it would turn out differently, but that’s okay. The right action has taken place.” He smiles and walks quickly toward the trash cans out back.