Scoring an upset win, Dick Kulpa defeated a shell-shocked incumbent to score his first elected office in 1977. Within weeks, all Hell broke loose when cops demanded his head!
By Dick Kulpa
While I never gave much thought to merging cartoons and politics, that decision was made for me when, a week after my election, I turned over recent “Double Eagle & Co.” comic strips to the local paper for free use. Appearing as filler in a free advertising weekly, one of those strips would set a whole new course for my “political” career when it hit the stands.
To make a long story short, local cops believing I was intentionally “picking on them” protested the donut strip to area media, and the story took off. The public loved it, however, and had there been a mayoral election that week, I’d have won!
I was innocent, I tell you!
The strip, published in the Freeport, Ill. Journal Standard in 1976, was included with a bunch given my local editor, though there was, ehhh, a bit of truth to police assumptions. That comic was drawn and sitting on my board the same evening local cops beat the daylights out of one of my neighbors — kitty-corner from my house and to the screams of his hysterical wife — a year earlier. That dose of official brutality was terrifying, but what could I do? A year later, I’d learn “I already did.” Those cops screamed louder than that man’s wife.
As this issue eventually faded away, I came to immediate terms with the value of cartoons in politics, and would put that to use just a few months later — again, over a police issue.
A phone call from a fellow alderman set those wheels in motion. I firmly supported the administration whereas he politically opposed it, but eyebrow-raising questions surfaced over the new police chief’s allegedly unusual activities. My colleague felt he’d be shot down raising them, and these very much needed to be raised. “Only you can do it,” the alderman advised.
Accepting the task, I got absolutely nowhere with the mayor, who summarily dismissed it as a crass attempt to embarrass his administration. I then relayed my colleague’s concerns to my editor, who, after looking into them, published a front page puff piece praising the chief’s accomplishments. Ohhh-kay…he obviously chose not to believe me. Nonetheless I smelled a rat, politics or not…the gloves came off, and out came the pencil, brush, ink…and paper!
Submitting two cartoons the following week, the editor agreed to reconsider. I could tell these drawings got through to him. A major headline story appeared, obviously different from the previous week’s whitewash, sparking a “Watergate-style” atmosphere for months as the mayor defensively dug in defending his appointee.
When the smoke cleared, nothing was ever proven (or unproven) and this affair eventually ended when the chief was simply not reappointed the following year.
Cops were happy with the outcome, however, and new bridges were built between the PD and me. That was a good thing, because within a few months, a new threat would emerge … from a formidable source far bigger than anything local, one which had never fathomed defeat, representing a major embarrassment to the local constabulary. By then the city powers-that-be fully appreciated the power of the political cartoon, and the mayor reached out to the one person on Earth he believed could possibly save the day. Mwoi.
“Dick, did you know that ‘EPA’ is ‘APE’ spelled backwards?” the mayor, a jovial, balding rotund ex-school principal asked. I’d been called into an emergency meeting at his office, where he would explain that the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was set to fine our city a whopping $18,000 over the police department’s removal of catalytic converters from new squad cars. This was a standard practice back then, but recently-enacted federal legislation now prohibited it. My immediate concern dealt with the fact that taxpayers would foot that bill. Back in 1978, $18 grand was mucho money.
Five cartoons, conceived, written and illustrated by me, were eventually produced and published in the local weekly, and city officials sent copies to every congressman and Senator deemed relevant. As a living extension to the cartoon campaign, I talked a local merchant into appearing at the city council meeting wearing a gorilla costume as the EPA APE. Illinois Sen. Adlai Stevenson III soon stepped in, and the EPA was advised to quietly end this circus, since they were being made to look “like fools” in this small town.
An eventual phone call to the mayor carried the offer of “we’ll rescind the fine in exchange for $1,500 in attorney fees”, and the case was settled. Quietly. Truly a significant victory by any stretch – especially since this came at the expense of the very powerful EPA. To my knowledge, nothing even remotely close has ever occurred anywhere else, as the EPA continued to fine other municipalities for various infractions with impunity.
Not many contemporary political cartoonists can wear such a feather!
As a footnote to this incredible victory: The mayor prepared to announce the EPA settlement at Monday night’s city council session. Pulling me aside, he quietly asked, “Can we just credit the big politicians for their help and not you? It’ll build bridges with them in the future, should the need arise.” In other words, there would be no “thank you,” and no official recognition for my efforts. No money either, not that I expected any.
But I was not about to argue political wisdom with a man who’d paved the way for an end to the city’s tax, which to this day is not levied on its residents. (I was one of the majority who voted in favor of that, by the way. There were eight members on the council.) I did not mind the credit issue, knowing why we’d won. Publicity bored me, since how many times do you see your name in print before it gets old? That was happening all the time. BUT, I also knew that without some form of official recognition, a cartoon campaign like this could become a tough sell in a future event.
Fortunately I was proven wrong – at least here, and though I would actually bill a good buck for a future major cartoon campaign (after my city tenure), the city would receive that money back, and specifically, at 1000-fold!
Many political cartoons were drawn during my seven-year-tenure as a city alderman, and more samples will appear in my next segment. Of all my past, present and future associations, I cannot think of a finer group of people than my fellow alder-persons on that council, and I nourish many fond memories of that extraordinary period.
But it sure was fun nailing ’em to the wall with political cartoons!
This was just the beginning. Next Week (Or Sooner!) The Rise of ALDER-MAN, Defender of Truth, Justice, and His Hometown’s Way.
SUPPORT Brenda Erby Fudge’s campaign to put Kulpa’s Sandy Hook Santa Cartoon on a Postage Stamp! SEE VIDEO!