Authors: John Grisham
On a raw, windy day in late February, Jesse Rudy walked to the Harrison County Courthouse to meet with Rex Dubisson, the district attorney. His office was on the second floor, down the hall from the main courtroom. The two had known each other for years and had worked many cases from opposite sides. On four occasions they had squared off in the courtroom and fought over the guilt or innocence of Jesse’s clients. As expected, Rex had won three out of four. District attorneys rarely went to trial with cases they were not confident of winning. The facts were on their side because the defendants were usually guilty.
The two lawyers respected one another, though Jesse’s admiration was tempered by the belief that Rex had little interest in fighting organized crime. He was a good prosecutor who ran a tight office and boasted, predictably, of a 90 percent conviction rate. That sounded good at the Rotary Club lunches, but the truth was that at least 90 percent of the folks he indicted were guilty of something.
After coffee was served and they got through the weather, Jesse said, “I’ll not beat around the bush. I’m here to tell you that I’m running for DA and will announce my candidacy tomorrow.”
Rex looked at him in disbelief and finally said, “Well, thanks for the warning. May I ask why?”
“Do I need a reason?”
“Sure you do. You have problems with the way I run my office?”
“Well, I guess you could say that. I’m sick of the corruption,
Rex. Fats Bowman has been in bed with the mobsters since he took office twelve years ago. He skims from every part of the vice and doles out cash to the other politicians. Most are on the take. You know all this. He regulates the business and allows the likes of Lance Malco, Shine Tanner, Ginger Redfield, and the other club owners to do their dirty business.”
Rex laughed and said, “So you’re a reformer, another politician promising to clean up the Coast?”
“Something like that.”
“They’ve all fallen flat on their faces, Jesse. So will you.”
“Well, at least I’ll try. That’s more than you’ve done.”
Rex thought for a long time and finally said, “Okay, the battle lines are drawn. Welcome to the fight. I just hope you don’t get hurt.”
“I’m not worried about that.”
“You should be.”
“Is that a threat, Rex?”
“I don’t make threats, but sometimes I give warnings.”
“Well, thanks for the warning, but I’m not going to be intimidated by you, or Fats, or anyone else. I’ll run a clean race and I expect the same from you.”
“There’s nothing clean about politics around here, Jesse. You’re being naive. It’s a dirty game.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
Jesse had envisioned an announcement party in which he would invite friends, other lawyers, maybe some elected officials, and a few committed reformers to declare his candidacy. This proved hard to organize because there was so little interest in such an open display of reform. Instead of launching his campaign with speeches and headlines, he decided to sort of ease into it quietly.
The day after the meeting with Dubisson, he met with a
group that included several ministers, one Biloxi city councilman, and two retired judges. They were thrilled with the news that he would run and pledged their support and a few bucks for the campaign.
The following day, he met with the editorial staff of the
Gulf Coast Register
and laid out his plans. It was time to shut down the clubs and put the mobsters out of business. Gambling and prostitution were still illegal and he promised to use the law to get rid of them. Alcohol was now legal in the county, and, technically, the state liquor board would not grant a license to sell booze if a club allowed gambling. He was determined to enforce the law. One obvious problem was the fact that stripping was not illegal. A club with a valid liquor license could operate freely and employ all the girls it wanted. It would be almost impossible to monitor those clubs and determine when the stripping led to more illicit activities. Jesse acknowledged the challenge and was vague as to any specific plans.
The editors were delighted to have a campaign that would certainly create a lot of news, but they were skeptical of Jesse’s optimism. They had heard it all before. They pointedly asked how he planned to enforce the laws when the sheriff had little interest in doing so. His response was that not all cops were on the take. He was confident that he could gain the trust of the honest ones, lean on the state police, and get indictments. Once he had them, he planned to push hard for prosecutions and jury trials.
Jesse was careful to stay away from naming any of his potential targets. Everyone knew who they were, but it was too early to provoke outright warfare by openly challenging the mobsters and crooks. The editors pried here and there, but Jesse refused to call names. There would be plenty of time for that later.
He was encouraged by the meeting and left it with the belief that the newspaper, a major voice on the Coast, would back him. The following day, the front page had a nice photo of him with the headline: “Jesse Rudy Enters DA’s Race.”
Lance Malco read the story and was amused by it. He had known Jesse since their childhood days on Point Cadet and had once, many years ago, considered him a friend, though never a close one. Those days were long gone. The new battle lines were clear and the war was on. Lance, though, was not concerned. Before Jesse could begin his mischief, he had to get elected, and Fats Bowman and his machine had never lost an election. Fats knew the playbook and was adept at the dirty tricks: stuffing ballot boxes, raising large sums of unreported money, buying blocks of votes, spreading lies, intimidating voters, harassing poll workers, bribing election officials, and voting dead people with absentee ballots. Fats had never been seriously challenged and enjoyed boasting about the need to have at least one opponent in every election. An enemy on the ballot allowed him to raise even more money. He, too, was up for reelection and when an opponent finally appeared he would crank up the full force of his political machine.
Lance would meet with Fats soon enough and have a drink over this latest news. They would map out their opposition and plan their dirty tricks. Lance would be clear, though, about one thing. Jesse and his family were off-limits and were not to be threatened. Not in the first months anyway. If his reform campaign gained traction, which Lance seriously doubted, then Fats and his boys could revert to their old ways of intimidation.
Through the spring of 1967, Jesse hit the civic club circuit and made dozens of speeches. The Rotarians, Civitans, Lions, Jaycees, Legionnaires, and others were always looking for lunch speakers and would invite almost anyone in the news. Jesse honed his skills on the stump and talked of a new day on the Coast, one without corruption and the freewheeling, anything-goes history of
unbridled vice. He was a proud son of Biloxi and Point Cadet, had risen from modest means, raised by hardworking immigrants who loved their new country, and he was tired of his town’s ugly reputation. As always, he avoided naming names, but quickly rattled off joints like Red Velvet, Foxy’s, O’Malley’s, Carousel, the Truck Stop, Siesta, Sunset Bar, Blue Ocean Club, and others as examples of “pits of iniquity” that had no place in a new Gulf Coast. His favorite prop was a memo sent from the headquarters at Keesler. It was an official warning to all members of the armed forces, and it listed 66 “establishments” on the Coast that were “off-limits.” Most were in Biloxi, and the list included virtually every bar, lounge, club, pool hall, motel, and café in town. “What kind of place do we live in?” Jesse asked his audiences.
He was generally well received and enjoyed the polite applause, though most of those listening doubted his chances.
As busy as his office was, he found two or three hours each afternoon to hit the streets and knock on doors. There were almost 41,000 registered voters in Harrison County, 6,600 in Hancock, and 3,200 in Stone, and his goal was to meet as many as possible. He barely had enough money for brochures and yard signs. Radio ads and billboards were out of the question. He relied on hard work, shoe leather, and a dogged determination to meet the voters. When she was free, Agnes joined him, and they worked many streets together, Jesse on one side, his wife on the other. When school ended in May and Keith came home from college, the four children eagerly grabbed stacks of brochures and canvassed shopping centers, ball games, church picnics, outdoor markets, anywhere they could find a crowd.
It was an election year, time for serious politicking, and every race from governor down to county constable and justice of the peace was on the ballot. Somewhere in the district, there was a rally every weekend, and the Rudy family never missed one. Several times, Jesse spoke either before or after Rex Dubisson, and the two managed to keep things cordial. Rex relied on his experience
and crowed about his 90 percent conviction rate. Jesse countered with the argument that Mr. Dubisson was not going after the real crooks. Fats had managed to coerce an old deputy to run against him, and his machine was in high gear. His presence at a stump speaking always guaranteed a crowd. The governor’s race pitted two well-known politicians, John Bell Williams and William Winter, against each other, and when it heated up in midsummer the voters were even more excited. Observers predicted a record turnout.
There were few Republican candidates to speak of at the local level; everyone—conservative, liberal, black or white—ran as a Democrat, and the election would be determined in the primary on August 4.
The reform movement Jesse dreamed of did not galvanize. He had plenty of supporters who wanted change and were eager to help, but many seemed reticent to be identified with a campaign that aspired to such a radical departure from the way things had been done for decades. He was frustrated by this but could not slow down. By July, he had all but abandoned his law practice and spent most of his time shaking hands. From six until nine in the morning he was a lawyer taking care of his clients, but after that he was a political candidate with miles to cover.
He slept little, and at midnight he and Agnes were usually in bed replaying the day and planning tomorrow. They were relieved that, so far, there had been no threats, no anonymous calls, no hint of intimidation from Fats and the mobsters.
The first sign of trouble came in early July when four new tires on a Chevrolet Impala were slashed and flattened. The car was owned by Dickie Sloan, a young lawyer who was volunteering as Jesse’s campaign manager. It was parked in his driveway, where he found it vandalized early one morning as he left for the office. At the time, he could think of no reason anyone would want to slash his tires, other than his political activities. Sloan was shaken by the threat, as was his wife, and he decided to step aside. Jesse was
relying heavily on Sloan’s management and disappointed when he got spooked so easily. With a month to go, it would be difficult to find another volunteer willing to commit the time necessary to run the campaign.
Keith immediately stepped into the void, and, at the age of nineteen, assumed responsibility for raising money, directing volunteers, dealing with the press, monitoring the opposition, printing yard signs and brochures, and doing everything else necessary to keep a low-budget campaign afloat. He plunged into the job and was soon putting in sixteen-hour days like his father.