Can St. Jerome's Parish Picnic survive without political speaking?
Barry Peel, a former television reporter, penned an editorial in today's Lexington Herald Leader, aka www.kentucky.com expressing the view that the Fancy Farm political speaking "has outlived its usefulness because it has outlived its root values." (to read his editorial, click on "More")
Whether Peel is right or not depends on the political leadership of this state.
Frankly, we are not optimistic.
The political portion of St. Jerome's Picnic has always been an add on. The stump rolled out in the early years was not to so much to attract politicians, but to give the ones already roaming the grounds one spot to address constituents. Like flies, politicians are attracted to crowds and food. The St. Jerome Parish Picnic has significant numbers of both.
Since that early start, the political picnic portion of the weekend long event has swallowed the rest of the Picnic. Or it has in the minds of up-staters who come in buses, yell, squall, jeer, eat a barbecue sandwich (maybe) get back on the bus and leave.
Peel correctly described these bused-in party faithful as "leather lunged" (that's lung as in breathing, not lunge as in Olympics style).
Our publisher believes that one high ranking candidate taking a pass next year will be the final nail in the coffin.
It came close to happening this year when leaders of the Democratic Party skipped even sitting on the dais with their Senate candidate, Jim Gray, congressional candidate Sam Gaskin and Kentucky House candidate Jesse Wright, and out of state former US Senator Kay Hagan, speaking to defend Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy (and what was with that?), to carry the flag against an onslaught of 10 Republicans.
Although House Leader Greg Stumbo, Majority Whip Sannie Overly, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Attorney General Andy Beshear were in the area for other events, they all found pressing engagements elsewhere on Saturday.
Sen. Mitch McConnell was probably smiling that half smile of his on that Saturday as he remembered the Fancy Farm Picnics he attended when the Purchase was known as the Democratic Gibraltar of the West. McConnell braved many a hostile crowd before he engineered the take over of the west by the Republican Party.
Turnabout is fair and painful play.
Peel didn't even come to Fancy Farm this year, but his description of last year could still fit this year's antics. Fancy Farm's political event is one that is sparsely attended by residents. Candidates and elected officials spend little if any time out pressing the flesh of potential voters. McConnell and his entourage have for years left the stage and Graves County within minutes of his speech. This year was no different. Step out the back Jack, as the song says, is the order of the day. No wonder Graves Countians avoid the jeering crowd. They ain't their people.
The tiny portion of the program that is devoted to the Pioneer Awards, that given to Graves Countians who have served their community over the past years leaves the crowd impatient. Thumbs ready to turn up and down are itchin' to get started.
To their credit, organizers like Mark and Lori Wilson, have labored mightily to reduce the level of partisan rudeness. Noise makers were banned, so cheerleaders use rolled up programs. Demonstrations and displays were banned during the speeches, so they take place outside of the pavilion. One young woman did defy the ban, parading across the concrete no-man's land carrying a pro-marijuana flag. She was quickly tracked down by police.
The police presence has increased exponentially. Joining the Graves County Sheriff are Kentucky State Police in uniform and out and Capitol Police guarding the mucky mucks from DC.
If, as our publisher suggests, Kentucky candidates running for statewide or national office skip the Picnic, what will happen to the political events that surround the Picnic? For days prior to the Saturday speaking, both parties hold golf scrambles, rifle shoots, breakfasts, lunches and dinners with their West Kentucky supporters. If there is no reason to come for Saturday, will they continue to visit during the first week of August? It would be naive to think they will.
The Jackson Purchase is a region that feels neglected by Frankfort and Washington fifty three weeks a year. Take out the first week of August and the area may go back to the days before the Purchase Parkway and the attraction of the Lakes. Far western Kentucky will be a region feeling neglected 54 weeks a year.
Getting back to that Catholic parish in little Fancy Farm Kentucky - one has to wonder if St. Jerome's Picnic can survive if the political speaking is cancelled.
We believe that it will.
Losing thousands of barbecue sandwich sales will hurt the fundraising effort. The Picnic is a year long effort by hundreds of local volunteers - unsung and unrecognized by outsiders, but well known in their community. With the car/truck drawing, 5K run, a dance, nonstop bingo and the Knights of Columbus meal going on for days, St. Jerome Parish Picnic will continue as it started- as a family homecoming and picnic on the grounds. The very smart people who run the Picnic will find ways to fill the pavilion with events not involving screaming partisans.
Maybe somebody will put up a stump and start the process all over again.
Maybe Barry Peel will come back.