PLANT CITY - Here in the busy heart of his hometown, John Dicks couldn't find a stranger if he tried. Stranger? Heck. Dicks would be hard pressed to find anyone who begrudged him anything besides his dauntless attachment to the Florida Gators.
In a backroom booth of Fred's Market Restaurant, the sort of small-town eatery with a groaning steam-table buffet favored by politicians and mainstream media types for campaign-season samplings of Real America, Dicks is as popular an attraction as a fresh platter of fried chicken.
For the better part of 90 minutes spanning the height of a recent noontime crush, Dicks mixed bites of a farmhand lunch and snippets of conversation, the blended blessing of being a celebrity in the place where he grew up. They know him, trust him, admire him.
If only he'd thought to deploy a couple of busloads of them to west Pasco the weekend before the primary election, the weekend Bill Mitchell dropped his election-changing bomb on the voters of Florida's 9th Congressional District, a seat held by Republican Gus Bilirakis. These residents of Hillsborough's rural eastern front could have expertly identified the bomb's contents as that which adheres to boots during a stroll through the chicken yard.
He didn't, of course; moreover, Dicks' campaign, which had money in the bank, was flat-footed and tongue-tied in its response. Wielding a near-20-year-old claim against an investment counseling firm in which Dicks was, for a time, a national speaker, Mitchell clubbed his chief rival into submission.
"Despicable," Dicks says.
The ad reprised charges (rebuked as false or misleading by a contemporaneous Tribune investigation) made in the closing days of Dicks' 1996 state senatorial race against Brandon's Tom Lee. Mitchell's wrinkle was to dredge up a soured investor from New Jersey, Giri Giridhar, who sounded as if Dicks had raided his checking account and gone to Bermuda.
In fact, the investor's losses resulted from the bankruptcy of Merrico Resources, an Oklahoma-based oil trust overseen by an heir to a widely respected family with deep roots in the oil and gas recovery business. Dicks' company did tout the investment's probable success, as did lavish profiles during the same time period in The New York Times and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Giridhar recovered at least some portion of his money in arbitration in exchange for a vow of confidentiality. Nonetheless, Mitchell's campaign arranged a telephone conference between the investor and the local media, facilitating the breaking of a legally binding confidence, leaving neither - Giridhar or Mitchell - covered in glory.
No Cheap Shots
Despite these claims against Dicks (full disclosure: my fraternity big brother), Plant City voters elected him to three terms in city council; he served his last six years as mayor, ending in June 2007.
He ran long, hard and, until the final moment when frightened west Pasco Democrats raced for the exits, persuasively. He came to know the bear crossing sign in Aripeka, the delicacies at Cafe Grand and the rivalries within Pasco's Democratic ranks. He resisted his advisers' recommendations about pointing out Mitchell's recent party change, or Mitchell's retreat from the claim that he led troops in combat in Vietnam.
No cheap shots, Dicks said. You treat people the way you want to be treated.
Otherwise, how could he face the folks back at Fred's?