By: Tim Swarens, The Indianapolis Star
John Gregg (Alpha '72), “the guy with two first names,” is one of the great characters of Indiana politics. And I mean that kindly.
So when a press release landed in my In Box this past week announcing that John would “splat” in the New Year by releasing 15 watermelons — yes, watermelons — from a 75-foot high platform in his beloved Vincennes, I just had to talk to him.
He didn’t disappoint.
“Mike Pence won the election and he got to go to the Holy Land for Christmas,” John said. “I came in second — it sounds better than saying I lost — and I get to go to Vincennes.”
Still, I teased, being the official watermelon-dropper has to be one of the defining moments of a long political career. “Absolutely,” the Democratic nominee for governor in 2012 said. “It rates right up there with frying fish at the Knox County fair.”
That’s John. Down home. And proud of it.
Not everyone was enamored with the flavor of Gregg’s 2012 campaign. It was heavy on small-town Hoosierdom and John’s self-deprecating sense of humor, and, for the most part, scooted past the heavy issues facing Indiana.
The “nice guy to have over for a cookout” approach was intentional. A poll early in the campaign showed Gregg’s statewide name recognition at a meager 7 percent — well behind not only Pence but also just about every other state and federal elected leader in Indiana.
“If the Lord ever wants to humble somebody, he just needs to take a poll,” Gregg said.
To counter the low name ID, Gregg and his team created a series of commercials that focused on his life in his hometown of Sanborn, population 415. The goal was to personalize a political unknown.
And Gregg says that it worked — in more ways than one.
His name recognition climbed to 72 percent by Election Day, and although Pence eventually won, the vote was much closer than many expected.
An added bonus, depending on your perspective, was that one of John’s buddies, a guy known as Hobo, became a minor celebrity after one commercial described his battle against cancer (it’s now in remission).
“Hobo got a letter from a widow in South Bend who offered to come to Sanborn and nurse him back to health,” John said. “Hobo’s wife didn’t find that as funny as everyone else.”
Still, Gregg admits, the country gold act wore thin on some. “Most of the people I met around the state told me they liked the commercials,” he said. “But the left-wing whack-a-doodles, the political types weren’t impressed by that.”
Left-wing whack-a-doodles? Did I mention that John is a Democrat?
Speaking of which, he’s contemplating another run for governor in 2016. He campaigned for the party around the state this fall (“You saw how well that worked out”). And he plans to make the call on his own political future next year.
But politics can wait for now. There are melons to drop.
The great Vincennes Watermelon Drop — think of the Southern Indiana version of New York City’s Times Square celebration — is in its seventh year and has attracted national attention from the likes of CBS’ “Sunday Morning” and Country Living magazine. CNN even covered it live last year.
So John’s decision to stay up late for the big drop — “we’re usually in bed by 10:30 on New Year’s Eve” — may be more politically crafty than it seems.
“You know, they’ve not invited Mike Pence to drop watermelons,” he said. “Score one for me.”
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