The Elmo Files

The saga of would-be liberal crusader and ex-con James "Elmo" Spaulding proves that anyone can get a second chance in America. And a third. And maybe even a fourth.

Though his pastime as an armchair politico runs out the clock, it doesn't pay his bills. Spaulding figures he needs to earn $400 to $500 a week to cover his expenses. To that end he files bankruptcies and brokers deals on behalf of people facing mortgage foreclosure. The freelance job gives him flexible hours, providing plenty of free time for other do-it-yourself legal matters for those too old or sick to do it themselves. He says clients pay him what they can afford.

In February 2000 a federal judge ordered Spaulding to stop filing Chapter 13 bankruptcies. "Some people say I'm practicing law without a license," Spaulding relates. At this he laughs gleefully. "I say, "Drop dead.'"

Even though his cash flow has been sporadic (and of dubious legality), he scraped together enough money to buy some time on a Palm Beach County radio station. For eight consecutive, glorious weekdays in July, he hosted his own talk show, Elmo's X-Files. (Elmo is the name his wife gave him because, he says, he tickled her, like the Sesame Street character. They are getting a divorce.)

A latter-day Common Sense?
A latter-day Common Sense?

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With this used mechanical bull, Spaulding transformed his late stepfather's restaurant into a country-and-western disco
James Spaulding
With this used mechanical bull, Spaulding transformed his late stepfather's restaurant into a country-and-western disco

The show consisted largely of Spaulding's own brand of braggadocio: bombastic, free-associative rambles that serve as a primer for his fervent, if scattered, brand of liberalism. He constantly refers to himself in the third person and takes delight in repeating his mocking characterization of TV Republicans, with their "blow-dried hair" and "that pinched look on their face[s], and their butt cheeks squeezed so tight you couldn't pry them open with a crowbar."

He took phone calls as well: Those who agreed with his views got to talk; those who didn't got mocked or simply cut off. Often as not the show spun onto tangents, such as one caller's desire to have a harem or Spaulding's contradictory, tongue-in-cheek claims: that he's gay, a "man of color," a communist, Jewish, and "a black lesbian woman trapped inside a white male body."

Though he relished his time on the air, Spaulding could neither attract underwriters nor afford to continue buying the time himself. Even so, he hasn't given up on countering what he sees as a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" that dominates the airwaves. "I just want to buy one station," he says. "We have to have one station, and then we syndicate the programming to compensate for the dozens of national conservative talk-radio hosts."

He takes another bite of donut. His voice brims with vitriol, as do the hastily written, sometimes misspelled diatribes he distributes. He begins to ramble on about the judicial system -- the inequities of sentencing and so forth -- forgetting his point but remembering his big thesis: Power corrupts, and "the system" is corrupt.

His solution: Acquire power, then change the system. Before he went to prison, his goals were far different. "I was chasing the almighty dollar," he says disgustedly. He was a Republican. Now, as a Democrat, he still loves the sound of his own authoritative baritone, still gets worked up and fed up, but wants to use his powers of persuasion for good now, not evil.

Spaulding's one-man "movement" began when he sat at his computer in the dark basement home office Thanksgiving Day. He typed his thoughts; a formatting program turned them into a newsletter. Spaulding added the obscure name and a trademarked symbol to its acronym. The MANSA Report looks semiofficial, but the phone number listed on his newsletter reaches Spaulding's modest Lake Worth condo; the group's "members" are mostly his friends and family.

Number of contributions to date: zero.

Spaulding pauses to walk over to the neatly trimmed hedge at the edge of the mini mart's parking lot, leaning over it as he finishes the last of his glazed donut, which is threatening to spew sticky red filling all over the foliage. He stands upright and interrupts his own interview. "This is great," he says, as if to pinch himself, "I love being on a soapbox."

Spaulding is proud of the fact that he's a local, more or less. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1944; his family moved to Boca Raton when he was just nine months old. His stepfather, Russ Benson, managed the golf locker room at the posh Boca Raton Resort & Club. Spaulding didn't get along well with his stepfather, who he says once came after him with a tool used for picking up golf balls. Spaulding, who has three younger half sisters, says Benson was an alcoholic who abused his mother.

"I was basically the man of the house," Spaulding remembers. "I was what they call the "hero child,' the child who protects the family from the alcoholic."

When his mother finally divorced Benson, Spaulding had graduated from high school. Still, he remembers his youth as an otherwise happy time, the Beach Blanket Bingo era.

"It was fun. I loved it," he remembers. "I was so absorbed with the opposite sex."

On the wall of his home hangs a framed headshot of Spaulding, a black-and-white high-school photo circa 1962. He takes it down, the better to admire it. "This is my favorite picture," he says wistfully. "I'd like to start over from there."

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