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.

From a distance Bob Dole didn't quite look real. For one thing he was wearing makeup for the countless cameras that surrounded him in front of the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on November 26. For another he was too far away from the assembled protesters for them to hear him. His mouth was moving, but it seemed no sound was coming out -- a talking head without the talking.

Inside the courthouse the county's three-member canvassing board tried to divine a nation's future by contemplating 1800 questionable ballots as if they were tarot cards. Outside, CNN kept watch, gathering sound bites from the irascible ex-senator while waiting for a final tally in the postelection trauma of the Al Gore­George W. Bush race.

The crowd stood corralled behind wooden sawhorses like livestock, hundreds strong and ornery, skin glistening in the humidity. The protesters were political pilgrims, rightfully confused and perhaps not surprisingly cranky, milling about on a Saturday night in an otherwise abandoned downtown.

For fun they yelled. A lot. Through megaphones, cupped hands, and chapped lips, they chanted. Their slogans, some angry, some silly, some nonsensical, piled up like alms at a Deep South tent revival.

"Thou shalt not steal," read one.

"Out with the GOP Mafia," exhorted another, "Gore got more."

"A dimpled chad is happy voter," blared one puzzling placard.

Some in the crowd hawked Gore pins or Bush pins, and their corresponding pro- or anti-recount arguments. All around, the sound of a two-party system thundered through battery-powered megaphones. A mother-daughter team sported matching homemade T-shirts professing their faith in Republicanism.

The Bush supporters were out in greater force. At the back of the anemic Gore crowd, a man perched on the balls of his feet and craned his neck to see over the commotion. He wore a blue button-down shirt and khaki pants and seemed suspiciously quiet, possibly Republican.

"We've got to organize," he said, his voice ringing with urgency as he passed out sheets of white paper. But James Traynor "Elmo" Spaulding had not come to convert the Gore supporters, or to join them, even. He came to sell himself.

The single-page flier he distributed there was the first edition of the newsletter of his nascent political organization, the Manumit Society of America (MANSA). Manumit is not a rodent, it's a verb that means "to emancipate." The MANSA Report is its newsletter, a "premiere" edition with a mission statement (which fails to put forth any discernable mission), a couple of strident editorials, and a plea for support, signed simply, "Elmo."

Though the newsletter is brand-new, the 57-year-old Spaulding is an old hand when it comes to self-promotion. His past winds behind him in a trail of half-baked enterprises and harebrained schemes dotted with glossed-over disasters. He's reinvented himself often, a practice he considers a patriotic birthright: "In this country, you wake up in the morning, you're a new kid, and you can become anything you want," he says. "Europeans just don't understand that concept."

That night, outside the Broward County Courthouse, Spaulding was high on American-style liberty, in love with the power of the First Amendment and the disheveled beauty of democracy in action. He knows how precious the right to vote is, because he no longer has that right.

In 1991 Spaulding was convicted of conspiracy, bank fraud, money laundering, and aiding and abetting, for which he served 63 months at Eglin Air Force Base in a federal big house for white-collar criminals and 5 months in a halfway house. He also paid $5775 in restitution to his victims and spent three years on supervised release.

Yet while other ex-cons are running from their pasts, Spaulding ponders running for Congress. He hates the system he says betrayed him but hopes somehow to change it. Spaulding sees the contradiction and revels in it: "Maybe," he says, arching an eyebrow and offering one of his favorite phrases, "there's a Freudian piece of underwear in that."

Two weeks after his appearance at the courthouse, Spaulding pulls over to a candy-pink Yamato Road mini mart. He has stopped to use the phone but returns to his road-weary beige Toyota Camry without having made the call, holding a white waxed paper bag.

"I love this stuff," he says, "I just can't get enough of it."

He's referring to presidential politics, not the cherry-filled glazed donuts he offers. During the past two months, Spaulding has, by his own admission, been obsessed with the election. November 7 he spent the entire day shuttling voters from his mother's Lake Worth retirement community to the polls, certain his elderly passengers were Gore supporters. He says he logged hours in front of the television, watching political shows that flooded the cable TV infotainment-industrial complex. Afterward he logged on to their Websites and sent dozens of e-mail responses.

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Amy Roe