One of this column’s various mandates is to keep track of people who get fired from their jobs solely for holding certain political beliefs. Firing a person because you don’t like his or her politics runs contrary to just about everything this country stands for, but it is not against the law. My interest in this topic was stimulated a couple of years ago when I learned that my childhood friend Michael Italie, who sewed U.S. Navy jackets for Goodwill Industries in Miami, got fired for appearing on television as the mayoral candidate for the Socialist Workers Party, in which capacity he made some predictably provocative statements. Subsequently, I wrote about Bryan Keefer, who lost his job as a research assistant with the Service Employees International Union for writing an online column critical of the coinage, “Enron conservatives.” In both of these examples, the extracurricular activities that caused offense were entirely unrelated to the fired person’s job and were not performed, or even discussed, in the workplace.
The same is true of Lynne Gobbell of Moulton, Ala., who on Sept. 9 was fired from her job at Enviromate, a company that makes housing insulation, for driving to work with a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker in the rear windshield of her Chevy Lumina. The person who did the firing was Phil Geddes, who owns the company and is an enthusiastic Bush supporter. (Although Gobbell hasn’t done any proselytizing for Kerry at Enviromate, Geddes distributed a flyer to all Enviromate employees explaining why they should vote for Bush.) Here is how Gobbell related her story to Clyde Stancil of the Decatur Daily News:
“We were going back to work from break, and my manager told me that Phil said to remove the sticker off my car or I was fired,” she said. “I told him that Phil couldn’t tell me who to vote for. He said, ‘Go tell him.’ ” She went to [Geddes’] office, knocked on the door and entered on his orders. “Phil and another man who works there were there,” she said. “I asked him if he said to remove the sticker and he said, ‘Yes, I did.’ I told him he couldn’t tell me who to vote for. When I told him that, he told me, ‘I own this place.’ I told him he still couldn’t tell me who to vote for.” Gobbell said [Geddes] told her to “get out of here.” “I asked him if I was fired and he told me he was thinking about it,” she said. “I said, ‘Well, am I fired?’ He hollered and said, ‘Get out of here and shut the door.’ ” She said her manager was standing in another room and she asked him if that meant for her to go back to work or go home. The manager told her to go back to work, but he came back a few minutes later and said, “I reckon you’re fired. You could either work for him or John Kerry,” Gobbell said. “I took off my gloves and threw them in the garbage and left,” Gobbell said.
The story was picked up by Daily Kos, a political Web log, and spread quickly around the Web. By this morning, Geddes, who has declined to comment publicly on the matter, had apparently had enough of the bad publicity. Through an intermediary, he offered Gobbell an apology and said she could have her old job back. But Gobbell said she wouldn’t return without some written guarantee that Geddes wouldn’t turn around and fire her once he was out of the spotlight. Then, late this afternoon, Kerry himself phoned Gobbell. “He was telling me how proud he was that I stood up,” Gobbell told me. “He’d read the part where Phil said I could either work for him or work for John Kerry. He said, ‘you let him know you’re working for me as of today.’ I was just so shocked.”
Gobbell accepted Kerry’s job offer, “so I reckon I’ll be working for John Kerry.” Kerry left it that someone from his campaign would call Gobbell to work out the details. Let’s hope there’s quick follow-through (I’ll be checking!) because Gobbell told me she couldn’t wait to tell Geddes that she had a better offer.
Although there’s an excellent chance the Kerry campaign will flog (or perhaps already has flogged) this story in the press, I should emphasize that it did not tip me to Gobbell’s story. By sheer coincidence, I happened to call Gobbell while she was on the line with Kerry, and got a busy signal. When I called back a few minutes later, Gobbell explained who she’d just been speaking with. In a political campaign, I should note, it’s entirely appropriate to hire somebody based on that person’s politics.
[Update, Sept. 15, 9:10 a.m.:Stancil reports in today’s Decatur Daily that Leslie Dach of the Democratic National Committee contacted Gobbell late yesterday and that they’ll work out the details of her job today.]
[Update, Sept. 17: I checked in with Gobbell this afternoon. “I go to work in the local [Kerry] office Monday,” she said. Kerry is matching her salary at Enviromate and is giving her health benefits. Gobbell is very happy about the latter because Enviromate (you won’t be surprised to learn) did not. Gobbell was vague about what her duties will be, but she said, “a little bit of traveling may be involved.”]
[Update, Sept. 20: Stancil reports in today’s Decatur Daily that Gobbell is set to travel to Florida on this, her first day working for Kerry, to tell her story to CNN, among others. Already, she told Stancil, she has appeared on 15 to 20 talk radio shows. Apparently telling the story of her firing by Enviromate is more or less going to be Gobbell’s job. This looks to me like a wise investment on Kerry’s part.]