“Why is a dangerous bank robber out of prison, and what is he doing on a state senator’s payroll? That’s coming up next on Five Finds Out, a special report by the Channel 5 investigative team.”
George Leland’s phone chimed as he snapped off the TV. He rummaged for it in his jeans pocket, glancing up to see a Nerf football sail over his grandson’s hands out in the back yard and thump against the picture window. Marc, the boy’s dad, pantomimed apologetically.
“Monday noon rally at Capitol to protest @SenatorLeland and #criminalstaffer endangering women. Please RT.” The tweet was from @Marty4Justice, opposition senator Martha Nash from trendy University Heights. Why not, thought Leland. They smell blood and they swarm. It’s what they do.
The land line rang in the kitchen. Seldom used now, its sound startled him. “Fran, would you get that, please? It’s probably about Clay Rice.” His wife disposed of the call and entered the family room, her apron covered with flour; baking day,
“Blake Peters of the Herald. Said he hates to see you getting creamed on this. He pitched his editors for a big Sunday piece giving your side, sympathetic angle on Clay, and all the rest of it, but they said no. The paper is solid for the Service Party line. Covenant in general and you in particular are reckless hypocrites and that’s that. But Blake said if you quote him, he’ll deny it.”
“Exactly what I’ve often told him,” laughed George. “Any bit of comic relief is welcome on this black Saturday. Where is this going, Frances my love? Where? What a mess.”
He stood at the window watching Marc toss the ball back and forth with 10-year-old Lee. The caller ID on his cell came up Ed Barrett. The senator spun toward a wall of bookshelves, stiffened as if to take castor oil, and said with pretended jauntiness, “Mr. Chairman, what an unexpected pleasure.”
“Save it for the constituents, George. We both know why I’m calling, and we both wish I didn’t have to. But cut the crap, okay?”
Barrett, owner of a dozen car dealerships, had been state chairman for Covenant, the party of the right, since before George entered the Senate in 2014. His political instincts, donor magic, and toughness in a crunch were legendary. He’d obviously decided this was a day for the latter.
“I’ve been around this game since Jerry Ford days, Senator, and 2016 is unlike anything I’ve seen. Covenant finally has a shot at the governorship, and then along comes Donald Trump. His win in Indiana, with Cruz dropping out, means Trump will be the nominee. Not our nominee, technically, but we hold down the conservative end of things in this state, so his stink will be on us.
“Which means no distractions from here on if we want Covenant to win this fall. Nothing off message. Which means you have to jettison this guy Rice. I don’t care how much of a choir boy he is. He has to go.
“You’re not the bishop in Les Mis, George. You’re not a pastor any more. You’re an elected official with a media mob after you and a party to protect. This is a team sport, buddy. So cut him loose, understand? Dump him.”
Ed Barrett ended the call before Leland could say a word. Outside, a lawn mower growled from the next yard, and Lee was shouting something to his dad. In the room, a pendulum clock struck 3:30 and Clay Rice’s future hung in the balance.
Thirty years of marriage had taught George he’d be a fool not to rely on Fran as his best friend and confidant in every area of their life together. Earlier, as young parents of Marc and Beth, with the hardware store to run and before he felt the call to seminary, they had a two-track approach, he as breadwinner, she as homemaker, no crossover. It took a “grew apart, fell out of love” crisis of near-divorce to really bond them.
So today, instead of heading out on a solo bike ride to brood over things as he once would have done, Leland asked his wife if she was at a stopping point – she was, and the boys could help themselves to ice cream – at which the couple took off on their favorite walk, three blocks to Memorial Park with its miles of meadows and wooded trails.
Leaving the front hall, Fran saw George about to pocket his phone and shook her head wordlessly. He left it on the table and out they went. Connectivity or sanity, pick one.
Ignoring the weeds that needed attention in a tulip bed by his mailbox, perfunctorily returning a neighbor’s wave from across the street, the lawmaker began thinking aloud about how the Clay Rice situation had gotten to this pass.
Leland’s mother and Rice’s mother had taught school together long ago. George, a decade older, scarcely knew Clay at the time, but remembered him as a wild kid with multiple arrests.
Their acquaintance only resumed in late 2015 when Clay showed up at George’s office in the Capitol with a prison haircut, a neat gray beard, and a sheaf of letters from correctional officials attesting to his full rehabilitation after serving 23 years for federal and state convictions for bank robbery – and subsequently, while incarcerated, for hostage taking.
It was a busy day, and Leland bristled inwardly at the uninvited visitor invoking long-ago family ties. But the 15 minutes he granted the man turned into an hour as Rice’s earnest demeanor and contrite candor about his past won over the skeptical senator.
“Hilltop Trail or Valley Loop?” Fran asked at a signpost where the path divided. George pointed up the incline and they began to climb. “He wasn’t coming for a job at first, just for leads,” she reviewed. “And he started attending St. Barnabas without even knowing it was our church.”
Right, said George. It wasn’t until nine employers who could have benefited from Clay’s computer skills, turned the guy down and he settled for part-time in fast food, that Leland offered the ex-felon 20 hours a week at $12 an hour out of his Senate office allowance, answering correspondence and phones.
They crested the hill and paused at an overlook with expansive views across the river to downtown Hamilton and the Capitol dome far to the east; not what George wanted to see right then.
“St. Barnabas at this point is his undoing, our undoing,” reflected the lawmaker. “Him giving his testimony at that prayer meeting, including the hostage incident he was pressured into helping with at Waterville, and that tracker from the majority staff taking video on her phone, and the bitterness of this governor’s race –“
“No good deed goes unpunished, they say,” Fran agreed. “It’s bogus theology, but still. That prison guard he locked in a cell had to be a woman. And this had to be the Year of Hillary. And the year Marty Nash hit menopause.”
“Frances Eleanor Jones,” George broke in, feigning shock.
“All right, I take it back. But I mean, come on. Hell’s bells.” Which was as close as the family ever heard Nana come to profanity.
A chilly wind had come up, and it was clouding over. They started back down into the trees. George methodically talked through the rest of the situation, like a lawyer prepping for court.
Point: Clay Rice was duly paroled, legally employable, lauded by his warden, no threat to anyone.
Point: The Service Party attacks were cynical partisanship from a faction usually harder on banks than on bank robbers.
Point: The media uproar was raw sensationalism and baseless fear-mongering. But…
Point: Like it or not, fear builds audience and moves votes. Hence…
Point: The chairman could be right. There was a team to think about. Rice might have to go.
Marc’s minivan was disappearing up the street as they turned onto their block, and rain was starting to patter down. Between that and the depressing litany, George shivered in his Packers tee shirt. He stopped by the mailbox and yanked at the tallest weed.
“One more point you might have overlooked,” Fran said. “What is a man profited, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Bret Sandberg, the young Texan who had taken over at St. Barnabas Church when George Leland stepped down a couple of years ago, preached on the 23rd Psalm and made the well-worn text feel new again, at least to West Hamilton’s beleaguered senator.
“A table in the presence of my enemies sounds pretty good right now,” George said sardonically as the organ postlude played and the family pew began to empty.
“But first, Dad, maybe a table at Red Robin,” Marc countered. Leland raised his eyebrows quizzically at Clay Rice, who had sat with them as he often did these days, and the staffer indicated agreement.
“Catch Senator McCoy and Senator Green before they leave, Clay, and see if they’ll join us,” Leland directed, pointing to the side exit where two of his closest Covenant Party allies stood chatting. “I’ll see if Pastor Bret can come too. That will make an even ten.”
Service was slow at the burger restaurant, but Jill Green and Dick McCoy found a lot in common with Marc and his wife Emma, both attorneys, while the two Leland kids played a video game and Bret queried Clay about prison chaplains he had known.
George picked at a taco salad and said little, his mind far away. Fran occasionally squeezed his hand. When the lunch was winding down, he finally spoke up. “Son, if you and your family will excuse us, I need to call a political huddle here. And maybe take Nana home on your way?”
Goodbyes were said, the check settled, and at Jill Green’s suggestion the remaining five headed to an umbrella table outside on the sunny patio. “I’ll bow out too, George, if that’s all right,” the pastor ventured; but seeing Leland demur, he sat himself.
As the server finished topping off everyone’s water, Green handed her a five and said, “We’re good here, thanks. I’ll wave if we need you.” Then to Clay Rice: “My friend, what a storm. So cruel. So unfair. How are you holding up?”
Clay shrugged. His eyes were sad, and there was strain in his thin face. “Senator, you’re very kind. All of you are. It means a lot. I’m holding up all right. Doing 23 years, killing your number day by day, learning to watch your back, you gain perspective, okay? Everything is ‘compared to what?’
“So all this screaming about me, ‘Rice the Robber,’ and all the rest of it, it’s ugly, sure. But compared to maximum security down at Waterville, it’s nothing. Because, you know, I’ve seen so much worse.
“What bothers me, though, Senator Leland, as I was telling the pastor earlier, is all the screaming about you. And the fallout for the Covenant Party, the good guys. My $12 an hour isn’t worth that, no way.
“The time has come I should quit, or if it looks better, you should fire me. I’ve prayed and prayed. Lost sleep. Christ Almighty – excuse me, pastor – let’s stop the bleeding here. To me it’s obvious.”
He crumpled a straw wrapper and flicked it off the table as if shooting marbles; as if shooting himself into orbit. George started to reply, but Jill stopped him with an upraised palm.
“Not to me, Clay, not at all,” she said. “That’s very selfless, exactly as we’ve learned to expect from you this session. But it rewards demagoguery, and that’s not what I came to the Senate to do.”
“Nor I,” George broke in. “Jill’s right, Clay. Appeasement doesn’t stop a bully. Sacrificing you to Nash and the Service Party and these media jackals would be a) cowardly and b) counter-productive.” The server came into his peripheral vision and he shooed her away with a frown.
“For all we know, she’s eavesdropping and texting Marty Nash with updates,” Dick McCoy remarked. “Rice’s face is famous now. Dammit, Clay, that came out wrong. Forgive me for talking about you as if you weren’t sitting right here. I guess this thing has all of us on edge.”
“No sweat, Senator,” the ex-convict replied with that disarming grin Leland remembered from their first meeting – eons ago, it now seemed. “Fame at any price, that’s me.”
George knew that McCoy, facing reelection this year in a union-heavy swing district up north, was edgy for the same political reasons as party chairman Ed Barrett. Dick might not admit it at this table, but it was clear in what he said next.
“Look, amigo, you’re an easy guy to like and an inspiration to everyone in our caucus. Probably also to millions across the state, no matter what Channel 5 and the Herald say. But I have to agree with your own conclusion about ending this thing the sooner the better, Clay. We’ll help you land on your feet. Ed Barrett Automotive has IT openings right now, in fact. I do their legal work. Let’s find you a parachute.”
“He’s right, George, Jill, Bret.” Clay leaned in and looked hard at each of them. “It’s obvious, like I said. Isn’t it obvious, pastor?”
Bret Sandberg took a sip of water and let the question hang in the air. “I don’t really know. What I do know is this is the Lord’s Day, notwithstanding all that mad commerce” – he gestured toward the bustling Meadow Park Mall across the street – “and all of you are probably wisest to leave any decision with Him for now. Pray on it overnight. He has the answer.”
“Wise beyond your years, Reverend,” Leland assented. “Close us on that note, would you?” They joined hands and bowed their heads. The server, idling near the kitchen door with the busboy, gawked and smirked. As he went to turn the table, she reached for her phone.
Monday dawned gray and cold. George Leland woke at first light, ahead of his alarm, and padded out to the driveway in robe and slippers to get the paper. Yes, he mentally parried Fran’s teasing, it was simpler to read on the iPad at HamiltonHerald.com. But George was stubborn about newsprint; safer to spill coffee on, for one thing.
He poured a cup and sat down at the kitchen island. Sure enough, there it was, banner headline above the fold: “Rice on Ice? Senator May Cut His Losses.” The byline was Lisa Kilgore, an opinion writer beloved of progressives for her strident feminism. It figured, thought Leland. Legislative reporter Blake Peters, no ally of his but at least fair, had been taken off the story.
Kilgore’s scoop started this way: “Embattled state Sen. George Leland may be close to cutting ties with convicted felon Clay Rice, his controversial staffer. Sources told the Herald the West Hamilton lawmaker was overheard yesterday at a restaurant near his home, talking with Covenant Party cronies about options to contain the mounting scandal.”
Fran glided in and hugged him from behind. “More mud from the media, sweet babe?”
“You know I told you McCoy was worried about that weasely little waitress? Seems he was right. And we now learn from Lefty Lisa that it’s ‘scandalous’ to help someone make a fresh start after he’s paid his debt to society. Who knew?”
The rest of the Herald story read like an oppo research memo compiled by Planned Parenthood. Readers were told in lurid terms that Senator Leland had not only put Capitol visitors in harm’s way from a dangerous parolee who had “brutalized” a woman guard at Waterville Prison; he had also voted against the morning-after pill, coed dorms in the state university system, and a Margaret Sanger Day resolution.
Yet Covenant Party leaders were still refusing to condemn this man, even as Americans seemed ready to break the ultimate glass ceiling and elect a woman president, Kilgore concluded breathlessly.
By the time he left for work, George’s mind was made up. Despite his wife’s pleading to give it another day or two, he felt sure that in the best interests of all, Clay had to go. Mondays in the Senate started an hour later and had a light calendar. As soon as they got off the floor, he would get with Minority Leader Tom Wilson and work out an exit plan. Enough was enough.
Senator Martha Nash, as luck would have it, sat just across the aisle from Leland on the back row of the chamber. Always something of a pompom girl – in Fran’s wry phrase – Nash seemed especially buoyant during second reading today. The Herald front page gloated at him from her desk. She wouldn’t meet his eyes when he looked over there.
Senate President Linda Maldonado, just before gaveling adjournment, announced that tomorrow’s first item of business would be special orders for consideration of a resolution of censure against Senator George Leland, sponsored by herself and Majority Leader Bill Martin.
Tom Wilson’s cramped little office was decorated with hunting trophies and smelled of pipe smoke, his indulgence in defiance of Senate rules. Ushering George in, he opened a window for some air and they heard raucous cheering and chants of “Rice on Ice” from two floors below as the Service Party rally got underway on the west steps.
Leland glanced out in spite of himself and saw a forest of protest signs – “Women Yes, Leland No” and “Away with Clay” – waving in time with Nash’s shouted invective. The Minority Leader made a gagging gesture. “Takes away your appetite for lunch, doesn’t it?”
Leland slumped into a chair and replied wearily, “Tom, you’ll have to forgive me. My sense of humor is gone. I kept it all weekend, but as of today I’m just licked. Rice wants to bow out, and there’s every reason to let him. Show me where I’m wrong.”
Wilson was a big hulking man in his late 40s, crew cut, favored cowboy-style suits, still easy to picture in his linebacker days at State. Even seated, he could dominate a room. Now he stood, strode over to the window and slammed it shut, then faced Leland with hands on his hips, glowering. Neither man spoke. The crowd noise was muffled but insistent.
“For starters, Georgie, you’re a senator now, not a pastor. Whole different playing field, different rulebook.”
“Funny, Ed Barrett told me the same thing, but he wanted me to fold.”
“Yeah, I know what Ready Eddie thinks, but he has it all backward. Here’s the thing. Marty, Linda, Kilgore, all of them, they’re not after one staffer or one senator. They’re after conservative blood, the big kill.” He jerked his thumb toward a moose head over the door.
“We show weakness, we buy into their story line – their narrative, as the progs call it – and they just come at us all the harder. November becomes a rout, exactly what Barrett is afraid of. Somebody needs to tell him fear always loses. Always.
“As for turning the other cheek, Senator – it may work in the pulpit, but in politics it’s just a way to get more teeth knocked out. We have to stand and fight. Fourth and long on our own ten-yard line, trailing with time running out, do you punt?
“Hell no. You throw a Hail Mary – and I might have one for you. Ever done the Mike Roseman show?”
Host: “Okay, we’re back, and thanks for listening to the Monday edition of the Mike Roseman radio program on NewsTalk 990 the Patriot. Conservative, combative, the show the left loves to hate. Our guests throughout this 4:00 o’clock hour have been Senator George Leland of West Hamilton and his much-maligned staffer – unjustly and shamefully maligned, in my opinion – Clayton Rice of Hamilton Terrace.
“For a quick reset if you just tuned in, we’ve heard in their own words about Clayton’s amazing rehabilitation in prison and his desire to give back to this great country now that he is paroled. And we’ve heard how the senator befriended him and wouldn’t back down, despite a firestorm of criticism from the bed-wetting liberals. A heartwarming American story, you might think, but it has become a political donnybrook with big implications for the 2016 campaign.
“Before the break, George and Clay, you spoke about a new perspective on this whole thing that you’ve just reached today. A few hours ago you were both at the point of caving in. Now you’re determined to fight it through. Tell our listeners again: what changed?”
Guest 1: “Well, Mike, as a legislator I swore an oath to the U.S. Constitution, and that form of government will fail if we don’t stop the politics of personal destruction. No way I’m going to enable that. Clay will stay.”
Guest 2: “I’m grateful to you, Senator Leland, and to you, Mr. Roseman, and to so many listeners out there who want ex-offenders like me to have another chance. I am in fact staying, no matter how the vote goes tomorrow – not for my own sake, but on behalf of all those in my situation that are just asking for a little grace. Just a little grace.”
Host: “Gentlemen, well said, both of you, and now as we go to the phones, here is a caller in almost the identical situation as parolee Clay Rice. Terrific callers we get on this show day after day, real Americans without an ounce of quit in them, salt of the earth. So this is David in Hamilton Terrace. You’re on with Mike Roseman, go ahead.”
Caller: “Mike, thanks for taking my call. I’ll be brief, but I just thought Brother Rice and Brother Leland deserve an amen from out here in ex-convict land – one mile from the State Capitol, but it feels like a million miles when one employer after another makes an excuse and turns you down. Again and again. Man, it gets old.
“Clay, you and I didn’t know each other up at Waterville, but I think we had a mutual friend in Marlon Nalitz. He always spoke well of you. You don’t deserve this, bud. That Maldonado, I gotta believe she knows better. Hang in there and God bless you. That’s all I had, Mike. Love the show, keep it up.”
Guest 2: “David, thanks so much, and bless you too, brother. Don’t lose heart. I sure do remember Marlon. Feisty guy, power lifter, his Bible study was something else. Mike, you may have known him yourself. He was a talk radio guy before the embezzlement conviction. Small world sometimes.”
Host: “Fill me in off air, Clay. Here’s a word from Innomax Sleep Systems. You’re with Iron Mike on NewsTalk990, stay tuned.”
Nothing in low-income Hamilton Terrace was much to look at, and the tiny duplex where Clay Rice lived was the seediest place on the block. George Leland stopped his pickup on the curb and honked. The Channel 5 SUV that had tailed him all the way from home, pulled in behind.
Leland gave them a wave in his mirror – not the finger as he was tempted to. Rice waved too, before climbing into the truck. “They’re stalking us like we were OJ,” he cracked, spirits undaunted.
A gaggle of cameras, microphones, and reporters awaited them by the west steps. They nodded politely, ignoring the shouted questions, and headed inside. At the foot of the grand staircase, where the lawmaker usually paused each morning to pray “Deliver me from senatorial pomp,” they stopped by prior arrangement for a different prayer on this day.
“The Lord is our shepherd,” said George in a low voice. “We shall not want,” Clay came back.
Halfway up the curving marble steps, there was Alice Gomez kneeling at her daily task, making the brass balustrades shine. “Buenos dias, amiga,” George greeted her.
“Vaya con Dios, amigos,” she returned gravely, crossing herself.
“The Senate will come to order.” President Linda Maldonado rapped her gavel and directed the clerk to call the roll. Thirty-five present, no absent, no excused; everybody wanted to witness this one.
For the invocation, Maldonado called on black pastor Steve Brown, a friend of George’s since seminary; that calmed his butterflies a little. Then for the Pledge of Allegiance she recognized Majority Whip Ross Derrick, who had come home from Iraq with two prosthetic feet. “One nation under God,” whispered Jill Green to Leland as Derrick concluded. “One!”
There was a rustle in the chamber as members took their seats. The press table was full, and the side benches were packed with staff and former senators. The balcony gallery was full as well. Clay Rice sat on the front row, right side, flanked by Frances Leland and Bret Sandberg. George looked up and caught his eye.
The staffer had rebuffed the senator’s urging not to attend this morning. “Remember the Bill of Rights says I get to confront my accusers,” he had said. “This isn’t a formal trial, but I still want these Pharisees to know Rice didn’t run and hide. So thanks but no thanks, boss.”
Maldonado’s gavel banged again and there was silence. Majority Leader Bill Martin stepped into the well and was recognized. “Madame President, I move Senate Resolution 16-31, ‘Concerning a Senatorial Censure under Rule 9b.’”
Maldonado: “Mr. Majority Leader, as prime sponsor of this resolution, I wish to make an opening statement. Senator Derrick will please take the chair.”
A startled Derrick mounted the dais with the agility that had made him a Paralympic 10K medalist. The President handed him her gavel and took Martin’s place at the lower microphone where debate was conducted.
Something about this felt unscripted, Leland thought. He saw puzzlement on Marty Nash’s face. Linda Maldonado looked straight up the center aisle, resting her gaze on Marty and then on George. She glanced upward to her left at Clay, then started in.
“Members, it has been a tumultuous ten days for this body as the controversy over one senator and one staffer has pushed important legislative business off our agenda. This troubles me in terms of what we owe the people of this state as the 120 days are dwindling.
“But something else troubles me more. It’s said charity begins at home, and overnight I have gained a home-front perspective on this situation of a paroled felon walking these halls every day with a legislative ID badge on. Should he be here or shouldn’t he? My answer today, which may surprise you, is that he should.”
Derrick gaveled for order as voices erupted throughout the chamber. “Madame President, you have the floor. Please continue.”
“Thank you, Senator Derrick. This body, in the course of honoring me with leadership, has come to know my husband Ramon and our twins in college, Carmen and Roger. Today I want you to meet another family member for the first time, my brother, David Bonilla.
“David lives in Hamilton Terrace and works for a janitorial service. I am proud of what he has made of his life in the past year after completing a long sentence at Waterville for auto theft and menacing with a firearm. We have reconciled after being estranged. We have learned to give each other grace. Members, David Bonilla is my guest at the Senate today.”
Another shocked uproar, another stern reprimand from the chair, and the President was able to resume.
“Senator Nash, Senator Martin, and others of my colleagues in the majority caucus, I know you may see this differently. Even some of you in the minority, perhaps Senator McCoy, perhaps others, may believe your colleague Senator Leland is in the wrong here. But as for me, talking it over with my brother last night, I simply cannot cast the first stone.”
It was all George could do not to bury his face in his hands and cry. Jill Green forgot decorum and put her arm around his shoulders, hugging him hard. Linda went on:
“I am withdrawing the resolution of censure, and I appeal to all of you in both parties that we declare this matter closed. There is work to do. The highway bill, the hospital bill, the opioid bill. Let’s come together and finish the session strong.
“In closing, colleagues, I have a personal word for Mr. Clayton Rice, Senate minority staffer in good standing. Mr. Rice, we have ill used you, and I apologize. You have borne yourself with dignity. We welcome you among us, sir. We embrace you.”
She turned and looked up at where Clay was sitting – but past him. “Clay Rice, allow me to introduce your fellow parolee David Bonilla, seated just behind you. Having never met as inmates at Waterville, you two met yesterday over the phone on a radio show. I believe it was no coincidence. It set the stage for justice to be done.
“David my dear, Mr. Rice, would you please both stand so the Senate can properly welcome you.”
Tumultuous applause as the ex-convicts got to their feet, shook hands, bear-hugged, wiped away tears, and waved shyly to the gallery around them and the senators below.
Insistent banging of the gavel, this time to no avail. Linda mobbed in the well. George flocked with senators from both parties congratulating him. Overheard amidst the din, three voices.
Senator Green: “The Lord is our shepherd.” Senator Leland: “We shall not want.” Senator Wilson: “Hail Mary completed.”