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.

"I was surprised when I found out he was a businessman," Mad Dog remembers. "I thought he was some kind of politician. I had met politicians -- senators, representatives, judges who were in the system. They were hale fellows, they had their hand out, they were always speaking as if, "Vote for me.'"

Spaulding acted just like them: "He was a "Vote for me' kind of guy."

And vote for Spaulding they did. He was elected president of the prison chapter of Toastmasters, an office Mad Dog also once held. In prison, amid the camaraderie of other white-collar convicts, fly-by-night schemers, dreamers, con men, and salesmen like himself, Spaulding found a niche. He was big man on work camp.

The answering machine calls this MANSA's "corporate headquarters"
The answering machine calls this MANSA's "corporate headquarters"

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 1997, Spaulding, just prior to his release, gave the equivalent of a valedictorian's address. His speech was a pulpit-pounding oration called "I Am a Man of Color"; part of his premise was that he is not white but rather "pink with beige overtones."

"He brought down the house," Mad Dog remembers. "He was really good." (Though the pair have remained friends, they, as ex-cons, are legally forbidden to associate.)

Four years later Spaulding still gets a chuckle out of his signature line and keeps a copy of the four-page speech in his desk at home. He planned to give it again for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2001 but couldn't garner an invitation to speak anywhere.

On a recent Tuesday night, the Boca Raton Community Center is packed. In one room an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is being held, while across the hall about 20 elderly men sit in neat rows, some of them wearing garrison caps and pins, all of them appearing to listen politely to the senior citizen behind the podium.

With his relative youth and his lack of military regalia, sitting on a metal folding chair at the end of a row near the door, Spaulding stands out from the crowd. He leans back, his leg splayed out to the side, a bright white ankle peeking out from black pants. His bluish-silver hair is pulled back with a terry-cloth ponytail holder.

On the floor beside him sits his omnipresent brown leather briefcase. Inside it looks more like a giant purse, filled with odds and ends that include a bristly pink hairbrush. Occasionally he will repair to a restroom, returning with hair freshly fluffed. He's always worn his hair long, in defiance of his father, who made him get crew cuts when he was a boy. Now, he laughs, he tries to encourage his son, Christopher, to grow his own hair long. (Chris, a snowboarder, shaves his head.)

Spaulding billed this gathering as a Manumit Society affair, but that was a lie. In fact it is a meeting of the Disabled Veterans of America. Spaulding's sister, Travis James, is present, but she can't go inside the meeting because she's a woman. When both the AA and the DVA meetings have adjourned, the alcoholics and veterans mix in the pink-hued lobby of the hall, lingering with Styrofoam cups. Spaulding works the room, hoping to drum up some interest in MANSA, especially among the DVA members.

Though they listen politely as he greets them, many of the vets are politically conservative and staunch supporters of the military. They humor Spaulding and his neoliberal platitudes for a short while before interrupting with stories of deceased spouses, time-worn riddles and jokes, and sage life advice for this whippersnapper.

He smiles warmly. The group is having a military ball in March, and Spaulding volunteers to sell tickets to it. The veterans are not aware that he's an ex-con. "Do you think I should tell them?" he later wonders aloud. As of last September he no longer has to check in with a corrections supervisor. Legally, he says, his ten-year ordeal was over then, but it hasn't really ended.

Spaulding says he is different now. He insists on his innocence, as do his friends and family. His mother, Ruth Sheller, is impressed with her son's intelligence. "I agree with all he says, most of the things. I read his writing," she adds with a sigh. "He's so darn smart; I just wish he'd find a niche."

And he's persuasive. He convinced his second wife, Cynthia, to become a Republican back in the '80s. Unlike her husband she remains one to this day. Their present political rift is emblematic of their estrangement.

"He'd love to debate with me, but I'm not interested," Cynthia Spaulding says. To her, religious faith renders earthly leadership moot. "God is sovereign, and he says no leader would be put upon the throne without God's permission," she explains. Her husband has attended the occasional Promise Keepers meeting and considers himself a born-again Christian, but his most prominent devotion is to politics.

Whatever he does, though, Spaulding can't seem to shake his past. "It's not going to do MANSA any good," he frets of his felony convictions. He has filed paperwork to get them overturned. If they are, he figures merrily, "I'm just another Ollie North."

He knows how he must look to an outsider. The irresistible process of telling and retelling his tale has caused him to reflect on it. He wants to edit his own life story, which he knows will be word-processed, boiled down, psychoanalyzed, and twisted like the frayed yarn it is. Just like all his favorite characters from CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN, James "Elmo" Spaulding will be spun.

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