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Tack Cornelius: How Reagan won over a lifelong Democrat
AP 519579039067
Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan stands before a cheering Republican National Convention on July 17, 1980, in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. Reagan went on to defeat incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter in the fall election and serve two terms as president, overseeing one of the nation’s greatest periods of economic growth from 1982-1989.

I despised Ronald Reagan long before he ran for president. I despised him still more when he took office.

“A dangerous right wing-radical,” President Jimmy Carter had warned us during the 1980 election.

I sided with Carter then. But there was a long and winding political trail ahead with “dangers, toils and snares” — and surprises.

During the 1980 campaign, I wrote editorials for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald, which had been the city’s Democratic and liberal-leaning newspaper for decades, so my editorials lived happily on the left. I fully expected to write the Herald’s endorsement of Carter for re-election.

But it was not to be. “The Herald,” under new leadership, endorsed Republican Ronald Reagan. I was stunned. This was unheard of: The Herald did not endorse Republicans, certainly not for president.

I was sick. I mourned. I pinned the turncoat editorial page on a bulletin board in the newsroom with a funeral wreath above it, a wide black ribbon around the edge. At least one TV station shot footage of this expression of disgust.

Things got darker. On Nov. 4, Reagan won 489 electoral votes, Carter 49. I was stunned. A loss was one thing, an avalanche another. How could 45 million people be so ill-educated as to vote for Ronald Reagan? I feared for the country.

Today my bias of that time is embarrassing. Those voters, who I thought ill of, wanted an effective leader to deal with high inflation, high unemployment, our hostages in Iran and the Soviet Union.

After Reagan was elected, the gods of politics and newspapers delivered a wry twist to my life: I was sent from Lexington to Washington as a correspondent in the newspaper group that owned The Herald. I was excited to be reporting from D.C. but still sick about Reagan.

He played his role true to form: His first executive order ended the remaining price controls on oil. These controls had been instituted by two Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, in response to the 1973 oil embargo, which hit the economy hard. A big drop in Iranian oil production in 1979 delivered another blow to the economy.

Carter had removed some controls. But he also passed along stagflation, which he himself had inherited.

And here Reagan was looking out for the oil companies and their rich and powerful friends.

On the left there was much weeping and wailing, warning of coming higher prices for gasoline and heating and calling for new price controls.

Gas was $1.25 a gallon at the time, up from 40 cents a gallon before the oil embargo. Reagan had the gall to say that with the controls ended, we would eventually see gas prices under a dollar a gallon.

What did he take us for? The oil companies would obviously jack up the price of gasoline and continue doing so as long as we could pay that higher price.

But I was wrong. Worse, Reagan was right. In early ’86, the price dropped to 94 cents a gallon and was 89 cents when he left office. How could this be?

The Reaganites said removing the controls provided incentives to pump more oil and drill new wells. The litany of free-market conservatives rolled on. Supply, demand, cost, price.

I remained a steadfast Democrat. But in fact with that fall in gasoline prices, Reagan had poked a small hole in my liberal armor. The fall gnawed at me. So did other of Reagan’s policies that worked.

He stood fast as Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker squeezed a ruinous inflation out of the economy. It was painful. Unemployment hit nearly 10 percent in 1982 and ’83. Reagan’s approval rating dropped to its lowest in his eight years as president. Reagan didn’t budge. He knew inflation had to be cut drastically.

The drop of inflation, along with his 25 percent tax cuts over three years, moved the economy along. He delivered prosperity and well-being. The conservative Hoover Institution says that America’s economic growth from 1982-1989 was the greatest expansion in our history.

I still did not like the man, but I was opening up to some of his policies and ideas. When I looked around the world, it was clear free markets could deliver higher standards of living. I remained on the Democrat side of the divide, though I had begun to question liberal policies more often. I opened my eyes and ears and mind — an open mind is a wonderful thing.

Change was slow. My Democrat roots were strong. But change came. I moved closer to the divide between the parties but did not cross it. My dad was a populist union bricklayer — he taught me the trade — and I had been a populist liberal Democrat since before I was old enough to vote.

A big step was going to work for a Democratic governor, a conservative Southern governor, Martha Layne Collins of Kentucky. She and others taught me much about politics and policy.

Nationally, the left wing of the Democratic Party, moving ever leftward, seemed determined to run off middle-class voters. They were succeeding. For the three presidential elections of ’80, ’84 and ’88, total electoral votes for Reagan and Bush were 1,440, and for Democrats Carter, Mondale and Dukakis, 173. That 173 electoral votes over three elections is 97 short of the 270 a candidate needs to win the presidency in a single election cycle.

In politics and business I had begun to know Republicans as close friends. Surprise! They were good people — bright and well-informed, not “deplorables.” I even trusted them to take care of my children.

Going to work for a Fortune 100 company, BellSouth, put me right at the edge of the divide. I had always despised big companies, but when I met CEO John Clendenin I decided to take the job I was offered. He was one of the best men I ever worked around, and the people I was close to at BellSouth remain a part of my life today, if only in my heart.

When I got to BellSouth, we had 102,000 employees. They delivered to nine Southern states a communications network that was the envy of the world. (Those employees also paid a tremendous amount of income, sales, property and other taxes to federal and state and city governments, as did the company.)

The nature of BellSouth’s big owners pushed me on across the divide. My stereotype of big owners was not advanced much beyond the image of the top-hatted aristocrat on the classic Monopoly board.

Our two biggest owners were the Texas Teacher’s Retirement System and the California Public Employees Retirement System. Their investment in BellSouth stock buttressed the pensions of their members.

I knew I was a Republican in 1990, though I did not vote Republican until 1992. Pulling the Republican lever the first time was difficult. Now it’s easy.

And today, both Democrat and Republican friends keep our grandchildren.

And while I despised Reagan for decades, I now look at his leadership and policies in the light of the admiration he is owed. As he would always sign off: God bless America.

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