Christensen: P.R. Latta’s stake in politics

08/23/2014 5:21 PM

08/23/2014 5:22 PM

In the world of the billionaire donors like the Koch brothers, master strategists such as Karl Rove and think tank entrepreneurs such as Art Pope, does someone like P.R. Latta matter in politics anymore?

P.R., who died last week in Raleigh at age 95, was as old school politics as it got. And when I say old school, I don’t just mean going to precinct meetings and local Democratic dinners, and arguing over party rules, all of which he did for decades.

I mean making political yard signs in his workshop. Not dozens, not hundreds, not thousands, but according to one estimate, P.R. had made 2 million stakes for yard signs. Pounding a stake into a yard is the very definition of grass roots.

Grass-roots activists come in all sizes and shapes, genders, political parties and ideologies.

P.R. liked to describe himself as a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” an old-fashioned Southern term to describe someone who was so loyal to the Democratic Party he would vote for a yellow dog before voting for a Republican.

Actually, P.R. was a New Deal, Harry Truman trade unionist who spent his career working as an installer and repairman for Southern Bell (where he met his wife) and part of his retirement lobbying in Raleigh for the Communications Workers of America. He was also part of the Greatest Generation and took part in the assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

P.R. raised his family, was heavily involved in his community and was an avid gardener who shared his vegetables with many.

But it was politics that got his blood racing, and it was politics as practiced at the most basic level. He thoroughly knew the Democratic Party rules and was a stickler for insisting they be followed.

He didn’t mind an argument, and he certainly let me know when he thought I was wrong. As former Democratic Congressman Brad Miller noted last week, when you asked P.R. how he was doing, he would typically respond by saying “contrary,” rather than fine.

Yard sign etiquette

Latta even debated the proper method for pounding in a yard sign. Miller was for pounding in the stake and then stapling the yard sign. But P.R. insisted that the signs be stapled to the stakes in advance, and that one should pound a pointed pipe into the ground and then put in the stake, and tamp down the loose dirt around the stake.

I’m agnostic on the subject.

So do activists like P.R. matter any more, when powerful men like the Kochs, the Roves and the Harry Reids, with a nod of their heads, can send millions of campaign dollars pouring into North Carolina to influence voters?

Yes, say political scientists, especially in low-turnout, midterm elections such as will be held in November, where getting supporters to the polls will be as important as TV advertising blitzes.

“I think this year is going to be much more the ground war and the mobilization and the identification,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. “The focus is going to be much more single individuals who are predisposed toward one party or the other.”

So this might be a P.R. Latta kind of election, which would make him happy.

As Miller noted on his blog: “PR and I did agree that democracy would be better if the personal endorsement of a candidate’s sign in a citizen’s yard was as important in politics as big money.”

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