tampabay.com

Good crowd pleasers, a little stringy

Associated Press
Published August 7, 2005


WAUSAU - When it comes to bidding on possums, Tom Gallagher is fiscally conservative, Scott Maddox knows that size matters and Jim Davis, well, let's just say he's learned not to send a boy to do a candidate's job.

The gubernatorial candidates each won a marsupial Saturday at the annual Possum Festival and it was easy to tell which of the three was the most experienced. Gallagher made sure he was the first winner at the possum auction and then showed he knew what to do with his prize.

Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer and one of two major Republican candidates, spent $150 to win a baby possum, then held the palm-sized critter up by its tail before wandering the crowd with a big smile and letting kids pet the animal as cameras snapped.

After his win, the prices just kept shooting up - something Gallagher suspected would happen. He's been to many of the Possum Festivals since his first in 1986 and once saw a candidate wait only to bid $700.

Maddox, the former Tallahassee mayor, didn't get serious about bidding until a full-grown possum was up for grabs. He paid $220 for the right to clutch it by the tail on stage, shaking it so it wouldn't reach up and bite him.

"You can tell a north Florida politician," Maddox said afterward. "He can handle a big one."

With one possum left, U.S. Rep. Davis, who earlier opened his wallet to count his bills, knew he had to join the other candidates and claim a possum. He let his eighth-grade son, William, do the bidding. As Corbin began his fast-talking auctioneering, William began raising his arm just as quickly. Davis turned and looked at his son and immediately jumped to hold down his arm.

Too late. The price for another baby possum was already up to $270. Davis took the stage and held the tiny animal, learning that it doesn't pay to wait.

During the bidding, Davis said, "Geez, man, I thought a possum was a varmint, not a delicacy. Based on these prices. ..."

The possum festival has become a must-attend event for politicians since it began in 1970. Gallagher, Maddox and Davis are each hoping to replace Gov. Jeb Bush, who is leaving office because of term limits. Locals point out that since the festival has grown in popularity, every successful gubernatorial candidate has attended.

So what's that mean for Attorney General Charlie Crist, who's challenging Gallagher, and state Sen. Rod Smith, the other major Democrat in the race?

"It's been noted," said Dalton Carter, who helped create the festival more than three decades ago. "If you don't attend Possum Day, you can forget it. It's just bad business if you don't show up."

The event is not your typical campaign stop. The festival was largely a celebration of Southern heritage and a tongue-in-cheek tribute to being a redneck.

The possum king and queen weren't selected for their good looks. Just the opposite. The king wore tattered pants held up with suspenders, toeless boots and fake rotten teeth. The queen was about 150 pounds overweight, had a good stretch of skin between her denim cutoff shorts and knee-high nylons, and wore a white top pulled up under her armpits and leopard skin sneakers.

Many in the crowd wore T-shirts proclaiming hillbilly, redneck and Rebel pride. Confederate flags abounded and trays of possum meat were available - though none of the candidates ate it.

"There are three things I will not do to win an election," Maddox said. "I won't lie, I won't kowtow to special interests, and I won't eat possum."

Said Davis, "I didn't come for the food, I came for the company."

Gallagher said he tried possum years ago and found it stringy and greasy. That didn't stop him, though, from buying a plate for campaign manager Brett Doster, who at first objected.

After some coaxing, Doster finally took a bite, made a face, and decided his boss was right.

Once is enough.