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Campaign tragedy in the tail winds

After a senator's deadly crash, frequent-flying candidates fight the jitters and soldier on.

November 05, 2002|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — It was a combination of lasagna, Mexican food, candy corn and campaigning. After several weeks of blitzing the state, the candidate looked worn out. He even had to cancel most of his Friday stops. Just a week earlier, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone's plane had crashed in Minnesota, but Ron Kirk couldn't afford to think too much about it. Like other candidates across the country, the Democratic contender for a U.S. Senate seat was getting on and off small planes, flying several thousands of miles across Texas as the election entered its final hours.

*

Saturday begins before 6 a.m. It is still dark and raining when Windle Turley, an attorney, parks his burgundy Jaguar convertible at Dallas' Love Field Airport, just north of the city. As the owner of a Citation Cessna, one of two planes chartered by Kirk's campaign that day, he wants to make sure everything is OK.

Kirk's schedule for the day: Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, McAllen, Brownsville, Houston. Without leaving the state, the former mayor of Dallas will fly through two time zones and three climates, from the westernmost point of the state to the Gulf of Mexico. "He's going to cover a lot of ground," Turley says as he goes to talk to the pilot, "but that's the life of a politician."

And it's been the death of several in the last 10 years, among them Mel Carnahan, governor of Missouri; South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson; and Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz. Although no one is eager to talk about the most recent casualty, it has raised the anxiety level among Kirk's entourage.

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Rachel Graves, a reporter with the Houston Chronicle, pulls up in a cab. "The first time seems glamorous, but the glamour wears off when the pilot's climbing over you to get to the cockpit," she says of the traveling.

Just days earlier, she had looked at lightning below and the stars above, the plane caught in bad weather. "It feels a lot different on a tiny plane," she says. "It's the difference between a motorcycle and an SUV."

Gromer Jeffers of the Dallas Morning News has traveled with Kirk for months. Even before Wellstone's death, he says, Kirk talked about flying and mortality in the same breath. "He has said to his family, 'When I go, it'll probably be in a plane.' "

Lisa Falkenberg, with Associated Press, arrives in another cab. The day after Wellstone's crash, the Dallas bureau chief had told her, "Don't go if it's a small plane and they only have one pilot." When she got to the airstrip, she found a small plane with one pilot. But despite the admonition from her boss, Falkenberg had little choice if she wanted to cover the campaign.

"It's not going to happen again in the same election cycle," Graves says as she goes inside to get coffee.

*

Justin Lonon, Kirk's press secretary, talks to the pilot on the wet runway. The reporters overhear a snippet about "issues with the plane."

"They just said, 'We've got a couple ... ' A couple of what?" asks Graves. "Gallons of gas?"

Falkenberg counters: "Parachutes."

Half an hour later, the plane is off, rising above the rain. Lonon, who has spent the better part of the last 10 months on planes such as this, talks about his 18-month-old daughter. She "calls me 'daddy-bye-bye,' " he says.

*

The plane touches down in San Antonio to pick up Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Kirk, who insists on carrying his own bags, has relegated the nicer of the two planes to Cisneros, along for two campaign stops. The plush Cessna Citation travels 506 miles an hour as the early morning sun gives a golden glow to the clouds, like pulled cotton.

Cisneros chats with the reporters, who are passing cough drops around. Everyone is feeling under the weather. "When I was traveling with Clinton, everybody got so sick," he says. "I would joke, we should put a red cross on the plane. It was like a traveling hospital." Another casualty of six or more stops every day is one's sense of place, Cisneros says. And as the plane lands on a strip surrounded by red desert, he jokingly says, as if to remind himself: "El Paso. We're here for Ron Kirk."

*

Later, Cisneros talks to a crowd of about 100 gathered at an airport hangar in McAllen. They chant, "Si, se puede" -- "Yes, we can," the official motto of the campaign. Near the small podium, Kirk is waiting for his turn to speak. His lips are moving. "McAllen. McAllen," he seems to whisper to himself.

*

In Brownsville, a small city on the Gulf of Mexico, it's 78 degrees and humid. Kirk is talking to a reporter about the Wellstone crash. It made him extra cautious, he says -- and, as father of two girls, less likely to travel with his wife, Matrice.

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