Editor's note: With this column, Slug officially takes a wider view of area goings- on. We'll still write about media when it's warranted, but we'll also be pounding on news, politics and boneheadedness in general. It helps lower our blood pressure, so indulge us.
Back when Pete Barr seemed unlikely to survive the mayoral primary, I was chatting with him at a candidate forum at a College Park church when we were interrupted by Doug Guetzloe, the populist AM-radio talk show host. Guetzloe handed Barr a sealed envelope and mumbled something about the candidate being welcome to discuss ideas on his radio program. For some reason that agitated Barr. As Guetzloe walked away, Barr flashed his gray-blue eyes at me and said, "Can you spell asshole with a capital 'A'?"
We were standing at the altar of the College Park Baptist Church at the time, but as anyone familiar with the 68-year-old Barr will tell you, he isn't one to hold his tongue, even in a sanctuary. "Oh, he's got a mouth on him," one longtime acquaintance says.
Barr's vocabulary was such a concern for his supporters that they held a strategic meeting three months ago during which they told him he would have to watch the cursing and stop referring to blacks as "those people." The running joke is that as the advisory meeting adjourned, Barr turned to a colleague and said, "Does this mean I can't say "fuck" any more?"
"Certainly my life has changed," says Barr, a broad-faced, silver-haired, retired advertising executive. "They didn't tell me to stop doing what I've been doing. I'll continue to be the same guy. They just told me to be careful what I say. There was no scolding. It was good advice. I've been very careful with what I say. I've been a businessman a long time so I have been careful with what I've been saying."
Then came the ugly accusation last week that Barr uttered the word "nigger" at a party. City commissioner Patty Sheehan says she heard him say it March 1 of last year at a mixer hosted by city attorney Scott Gabrielson, who lives across the street from Barr. Sheehan's version of the story is that as soon as she arrived at Gabrielson's home, Barr corralled her and launched into a bigoted diatribe. "He said 'I don't believe women belong in office,'" Sheehan recalls. She replied that she was glad her constituents didn't agree, and tried to walk away. He followed, espousing his views on the homeless and prostitution, and even made a reference to "fags." Then, according to Sheehan, he dropped the bomb: "The problem with Parramore is all the niggers lining up at the trough. All the money hasn't done any good."
"I was incredibly disturbed by his line of thinking," Sheehan says. "I've never heard anyone use those kinds of words in a professional setting."
Naturally, Barr's version of the story is almost exactly the opposite. He says he barely said eight words to Sheehan the entire evening, and that for most of the party, guests were within earshot of one another. "We were all there, shoulder-to-shoulder," he says, "in a dining room, eating our hors d'oeuvres with [his wife] Nancy right there at my elbow. I introduced myself and said, 'Welcome to the neighborhood.' That was it."
Barr says Sheehan's allegation was timed to rally the Democratic base, particularly black voters, with the blessing of his opponent, Buddy Dyer. "This started the night of the election," Barr said during a televised candidate forum. "That's when the attack started. That's when it was all planned."
Actually, Sheehan's allegation has been floating around since at least Christmas. But Sheehan was reluctant to go on the record back then, saying she didn't want to ruin Barr's reputation since she didn't think he would even make it to a runoff.
The Orange County Democratic Party had no such qualms. Five days before the election, a Democratic mailer identified Barr as a "Trent Lott Republican," a reference to the Mississippi senator outed as a racist after he waxed nostalgic for the segregated, Jim Crow South.
The Dems' mailer is a reference to 1968, the year Barr worked as a media strategist for the ultraconservative attorney Edward Gurney in his race against LeRoy Collins for the U.S. Senate. Working side-by-side with Barr was a Texas Air National Guard lieutenant by the name of George W. Bush, known today as the President.
The former governor of Florida, Collins was among the first Southern white leaders to embrace the civil-rights movement. He was photographed with Martin Luther King Jr., negotiating a settlement with civil-rights protesters so they could march peacefully through the streets of Selma.
Three years later, Gurney supporters ran copies of the picture of Collins and King on campaign material that dubbed Collins "Liberal LeRoy," and bashed him as a radical, agitator and race-mixer. Gurney won with 59 percent of the vote, though his tenure in the Senate was a failure. He became a Nixon apologist during Watergate hearings and resigned from office amid a campaign-finance scandal. Collins, meanwhile, was named Floridian of the century by the state legislature on the day he died in 1991.
Today Barr distances himself from the whole affair. "Gurney did not use that photograph," he insists. "Some of his supporters in the Panhandle did. That was disgusting. It did not come from us."
Perhaps. But if there is such a thing as guilt-by-association, isn't a picture worth a thousand words?