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Letter From Cuba City

Kerry Detours to Visit Town Skipped by Bush

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2004; Page A01

CUBA CITY, Wis. -- Who knows? Given the closeness of the election in the swing state of Wisconsin, it might all come down to what happened here in the City of Presidents.

First, a few months ago, President Bush blew right on by, his bus rumbling down Main Street at 40 miles an hour without stopping, done and gone in a wave and a blink. Then, this Tuesday evening, right at suppertime and before the big lightning storm, here came John F. Kerry, zigzagging his Believe in America bus caravan several miles off route on the road from Beloit to Dubuque just so he could stop at the place that Bush slighted.


President Bush waved to the crowd as his bus passed through Cuba City in May, but he didn't stop. (Tom Lynn -- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)





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Reg Weber, one of three brothers who run a sausage factory on the edge of town, was waiting for Bush that day in May when he breezed past and was there waiting again this time when Kerry bounded out of his bus to work the rope line, a gesture that seemed to make all the difference. "By God, he's my man now," Weber said of Kerry. "All he had to do was stop and he got my vote. He recognizes the little people."

You might ask why Cuba City, with its population of 2,174 and its remote location, is getting any personal attention at all in this presidential election. Good question, but first let's deal with some other imponderables. For starters, why is Cuba City called Cuba City? Turns out its original name was Yuba, but there was another Yuba in Wisconsin, so some town father a hundred years ago or more started going through the alphabet -- Auba, Buba -- and stopped at Cuba. It might have been Guba or Ruba or Tuba. Nothing to do with Hemingway or cigars.

And how in the world did Cuba City become the City of Presidents? Even better question. No president has ever come from Wisconsin, let alone from this little sausage-and-dairy town tucked into the southwest corner of the state. But back during the bicentennial in 1976, the elementary school principal had a dream that morphed into a reality beyond his expectations. Joe Goeman's dream was to have a Parade of Presidents on Main Street. From George Washington onward, the lampposts running through town would have red, white and blue shields of the presidents, with their silhouettes, term in office and home state.

The shields have been upgraded twice over the years and now glisten in invulnerable vinyl, but the dream did not stop there. Then came flag posts in front of every shop and house along Main Street, with dozens of American flags "flying 24-7," as the proud chief of police, Kevin Atkinson, explained. Then the water tower was painted red, white and blue, declaring City of Presidents in lettering visible most of the way to the village of Hazel Green.

Now all of Cuba City is in on the act. Turn into the parking lot near the Millard Fillmore shield (New York, 1850-1853), and there is the presidential caboose, all shiny red, with blue trim and white stars, the names of the presidents lining the top and a bearded visage of President Ulysses S. Grant on the front. The general was not quite a homeboy, but at least he lived for a time across the Illinois border in Galena.

Once you've got yourself a City of Presidents, why not lure some real, live presidents and would-be presidents? Goeman and other members of the City of Presidents commission, along with students in the elementary school, all began writing Washington with invitations urging presidents to visit the city that honors them. Dreams are big in this modest corner of the universe. Baseball's Field of Dreams is only 30 miles away in a cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa. If you build it, they will come. Not only baseball immortals, but politicians as well.

It was on May 7 that Bush came, and briefly saw, but didn't conquer. Word had reached Cuba City a few days earlier that the presidential bus caravan would pass through Cuba City on its way out of Dubuque and up through western Wisconsin. The city buzzed with anticipation. Schools were let out for the day and kids were bused in all the way from Dickeyville. A thousand schoolchildren lined the sidewalks near the corner of Main and Clay. Two funerals were postponed so that they wouldn't get in the way. A huge cutout of Bush was placed near the caboose. Chief Atkinson called in reinforcements from the Grant County sheriff's office and had the local fire department volunteers remove any possible hazards from Main Street.

"We were all ready," Atkinson said. "And Bush didn't stop."

The Cuba City disappointment was big news in the tri-state triangle from Dubuque to Galena and up to Platteville. Madison lawyer Brady Williamson, a former Clinton advance man, got wind of the story and quietly placed the City of Presidents on the map when he began plotting the Wisconsin leg of the Kerry bus tour. They didn't want to make it an official stop, but memos in the Kerry camp made it clear that a jog to Cuba City would have a payoff.

On Tuesday morning, Chief Atkinson was dealing only with rumor. "Are they coming through?" townspeople would ask, and all he could say was that he wasn't sure. He had heard not a word from Kerry's advance team or the Secret Service. When he stopped for lunch at Nick's on Main Street with Dick Davis, the hardware store owner and mayor, he still was not certain. The Dubuque paper was saying that Kerry was going to stop only at an Amoco parking lot 12 miles away in Shullsburg. Platteville radio had the same message: Shullsburg, yes; Cuba City, probably not.

At 3 that afternoon, word changed again. Kerry was coming. Chief Atkinson was sent to the parking lot between Owl Furniture and the presidential caboose to start preparing for a visit. He was met there by a young man in a blue shirt and dark shades. Secret Service. Joe Goeman showed up wearing his City of Presidents hat and T-shirt. A county sheriff K-9 team led by a dog named Najeh (for backup Packers running back Najeh Davenport) began sniffing around the caboose.

Into the parking lot zipped a white van with Staff 1 on the windshield, carrying a four-person advance team led by Kerstin Smith, an events planner from Chicago. The parking lot was empty aside from the cops and Presidential Joe. Kerry was due in less than two hours. They had to make something out of nothing. The volunteer driver, Craig Miller, an electrician from Manitowoc, headed out into the neighborhood on foot to round up a crowd. He found men mowing their lawns and kids playing in the street and elderly women sitting on their porches. "Come see John Kerry, the next president," he would say. "Is he really gonna stop or blow by like Bush?" they would ask.

Kerstin Smith persuaded the fire department to bring in a hook and ladder for the kids to sit on next to the caboose. It is amazing how word can spread through a small town on a slow summer afternoon. Reg Weber came from his sausage plant.

Sam McGrew, the superintendent of schools, arrived in dress shirt and tie. Nearby was Quentin Bottoms, a handyman, in blue jeans and farmer cap, with a pocketknife that the Secret Service politely took for safekeeping. Mary Hoff, who writes a local recipe column, showed up in her white terry-cloth bathrobe. She had been on her way to water aerobics when she heard Kerry was coming. By 5:30 the parking lot was full, 400 strong, with a hundred more across the street. "Less than two minutes!" an advance man told the crowd, instructing them in how to shout "Ker-ree! Ker-ree!"

These Cuba Citians were not big on shouting. They weren't going to get suckered again. But they were willing to wait. Mary Hoff went off to water aerobics and was back in her bathrobe and still no Kerry. Finally, at 6:20, the flashing lights could be seen down at the bottom of Main, and then the big blue bus and all the press buses behind, and the caravan circled around the block and pulled up right in front of the caboose, and Chief Atkinson was there, hand out, and the door whooshed open and out bounded John Kerry, his bushy gray-and-black hair bobbing in the crowd -- winning votes just by stopping not in Yuba or Ruba or Tuba but Cuba City, City of Presidents.


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