Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Born to Rise


Christine Jennings

As reported in national news media last November, a female candidate came within less than 400 votes of winning the contest for the 13th Congressional seat vacated by disgraced pedophile congressman Mark Foley. The candidate who nearly won was Christine Jennings, a native of New Boston. Jennings is not just a local girl who made good. She is an all-American success story. She went to work as a bank teller in Portsmouth immediately after graduating from high school. She spent fourteen years with Ohio’s Huntington National Bank, and in 1984 she became vice president of commercial real estate for Southeast Bank of Sarasota. In 1987, she was chief lending officer at the Liberty National Bank, in Bradenton, a bank she helped charter. Then she was a key figure in the founding of Sarasota Bank, where she made a concerted effort to attract women customers. Knowing that women did not feel comfortable at many banks, she made sure they felt at home at Sarasota Bank. “They just need to feel they are wanted, and welcomed, and appreciated,” she told a reporter. As President, CEO, Chairwoman of the Board, and Director of the Sarasota Bank, she made her mark in Florida banking. “Her determination built Sarasota into a success that sold for $40.5 million in 2003 and made Jennings a millionaire,” the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported in a feature story on her.

How many millionaire bankers are Democrats? Very few, and yet Christine Jennings, though she may have flirted with Republicanism, is a New Boston-born-and-bred Democrat. She has not forgotten her New Boston roots or her parents, who were deeply involved in the Democratic Party of New Boston. Her father was a steel worker and union leader and her mother was president of the New Boston Democratic Club. “I think you have to pattern the traits and qualities, the things that you see in people you admire,” she once said. Presumably, her parents were her first role models.

Still going strong after all these years, Richard Noel, a candidate for Portsmouth City Council, worked with Jennings’ father and uncle in the steel mill, and knew them well. Noel told me he thinks Christine would have taken after her mother and father no matter where she was. Her father, who is listed as the Rev. Kenneth Jennings on his death certificate, was a man of conviction and her mother, who is still living, was deeply involved in activities to better the community. No daughter of the Jennings would have sold out, Noel claims.

Jennings homestead in New Boston

The New Boston house where she grew up still stands, humbly but proudly, on Gallia St. I talked to relatives and neighbors, who are proud of her success. Instead of retiring and counting her money, as we expect some of our Portsmouth millionaires to do when they retire to Hilton Head, Jennings jumped into politics, running in 2004 for the 13th House seat and again in 2006. Sarasota has not had a Democrat in Congress for thirty years, so it was something for her to have come as close to winning the disputed contest as she did. Her opponent outspent her by a three to one margin in the campaign but won by less than 400 votes. In yet another botched-up Florida election, 18,000 ballots in the 13 District were not counted. Jennings charged the voting machines were at fault, but they were never examined.

I suppose those votes would not have mattered if Jennings had outspent her opponent by three to one, instead of the other way around. Ironically, Jennings attributed her success in business in part to being very frugal. “Through it all,” the Herald Tribune reported, “Jennings followed a penny-pinching, conservative style that has been her trademark since starting as a teller four decades ago in Ohio.” She told a reporter, “If my staff wanted Post-it notes, they had to buy them. . . . If a napkin was under a glass or cup of coffee, we collected those, turned them over and used them again.”

How times have changed! I recall going into a recently renovated Portsmouth bank about ten years ago to open an account. Which bank? Who can keep straight which bank is which anymore, or what its name was ten years ago? Anyway, I looked at the lavish interior and the preening personnel, who were obviously proud to be working in such a plush place, especially since the rest of downtown Chillicothe St. was so grungy. I asked myself, “Why should I subsidize such airs?” I suppose all the fancy appointments were supposed to overawe the locals into thinking they were lucky to have their money in such an imposing bank, just as some locals will probably drink coffee in the new Starbucks even if they can’t afford to. Was it the same bank that not too long ago was reportedly trying to get out of Portsmouth, providing it could unload the building off on the public as a new city hall? Who knows?

I doubt any of them are reusing napkins. Republicans were once the frugal ones. Now they run up budgets as high as the Aspen mountains they go skiing on and with ethics as low as the Hilton Head sea-bottom they scuba-dive down to. What would have happened to Jennings if she had not ventured out into the competitive world beyond our pork-fed, government-subsidized, abatement-batty, eminent-domained-to-death Portsmouth, engaging not just in the customary back-scratching but in the kind of financial mutual grooming our non-competitive local primate plutocrats engage in? Would she have maintained her frugal values? Would she have risen higher than a bank teller? If she had become the president of one of Portsmouth’s banks, would she have become one of the corrupt crowd who play an important role in helping the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership keeping the pork in Porksmouth and keeping real competition out? Would she have become skilled at the art of sponging off local, state, and federal treasuries, and profitably unloading worthless properties off on the public? These are not people who recycle napkins; these are people who recycle useless department stores as city halls and visitor centers, at great profit to themselves, and who unload at scandalously high prices white elephant residences like the Thatcher house on Franklin Boulevard and Dr. Rooney’s house on Camelot Drive as houses for the president of SSU, however unsuited and poorly located they may be for the purpose. What does that matter, as long as the over-privileged of Portsmouth are bailed out at public expense?