Mr. Buick makes bid to dethrone Carson: Automobile dealer Dickerson takes grass-roots approach

Keywords Government / Health Care
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Eric Dickerson held his hands out, palms facing each other, as if playing an accordion. He moved them closer to illustrate the narrowing margin of victory by which 7th District congresswoman Julia Carson has won re-election since 2000.

A couple of tables away in the Starbucks near Broad Ripple, the founder of a private Indianapolis company sat listening to the political polka. Suddenly, he was up and talking to Dickerson, who wants to be Carson’s Republican challenger.

“I want to support you,” said the businessman, apologizing for butting in and muttering that the Democratic Carson is “an embarrassment.”

Welcome to the grass-roots world of Eric Dickerson for Congress, one that might be titled “Mr. Buick goes to Washington” if he pulls it off.

And, in case you’re wondering, no, this is not the former Indianapolis Colts running back with the same name.

The owner of Eric Dickerson Buick and former Marine Corps helicopter pilot didn’t bother to consult his Republican party or go through its slating process. He had the ball bearings to stride into the state election board one day and file the paperwork for the May primary.

Within two hours, party hacks that’d made former City-County Councilman Ron Franklin the Republican candidate to dethrone Carson called his cell phone.

“They wanted to know what in the world was I doing? What was I thinking? Was this some sort of publicity stunt?” recalled Dickerson, 57.

“The rumor mill on me has been just tremendous.

“People find it incredible. A successful business guy, a guy who wants to be involved in the primary, must have a loose screw,” he said.

Longtime friend Marvin Recht remembers Dickerson’s telling him once that Congress might be his next move.

“I said, ‘OK, sure, and I’m going to be pope or something,'” recalled Recht, executive in residence at Butler University’s College of Business Administration.

“Of course, I wasn’t surprised.”

Dickerson is an entrepreneur who doesn’t frighten once his mind is made up, friends say. He preaches that government needs private-sector solutions. He calls Gov. Mitch Daniels’ plan to privatize northern Indiana toll roads “brilliant” for the billions of dollars it promises to bring the state.

And he makes a proverbial raspberry at the class-envy dirge Democrats like to sing. Businesses, he argues, shouldn’t have to apologize for making a profit.

“One of the things I hear is that that [toll road company] is going to make a lot of money doing it. Well, duh, they make money,” Dickerson said, capping his sentence with a habitual chuckle that’s an octave or two higher than his speaking voice.

On the expanded drug benefits under federal Medicare program that have become a fiscal mess, he said: “It was put together by a bunch of politicians. … Successful businesses have found a way to fix problems quickly.”

Not a shoo-in

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Dickerson might have good ideas. And he is black, which could help in a district with a large percentage of black citizens represented by Carson, who also is black.

But Carson has been entrenched in Congress since 1996. These incumbents can be as prickly to remove as a light bulb from a rusty socket.

More than that, Carson is royalty to some protective Democrats, including those who carry side arms.

“She’s our queen,” Sheriff Frank Anderson reverently told the city’s daily newspaper last month.

Aye, the bloody gall of it: a commoner without political pedigree-a car dealer, no less-trying to unseat the Queen Mother? It’s enough to give one the vapors.

“Mr. Smith … people don’t like it when Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” Dickerson said.

Indeed, “It can be difficult if the candidate doesn’t have an independent base of voters or an independent source of money,” said Bill Blomquist, an associate professor of political science at IUPUI. “They usually lose.”

As far as money goes, Dickerson said that’s not a problem-at least through the primary. Twice now, his dealership has ranked No. 1 in sales for Buick in the automaker’s 10-state sales district.

“My biggest fault? No, I’m not politically connected. I don’t owe anybody anything, but that’s not bad … . One thing I know for sure is I can make a positive difference.”

In one sense, Dickerson has been in public service, said Allen S. Novick, vice president of market intelligence and support at Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis. He pointed to a radio show on how to become an entrepreneur that Dickerson once hosted on WXNT-AM 1430 in Indianapolis.

Dickerson also speaks to college students about entrepreneurism.

“His glass is always half full” not half empty, Recht said of Dickerson’s perspective on life.

The candidate said his desire to run stems back to his days in the military. Dickerson’s dad had his own painting business. While the family wasn’t wealthy, “I really felt I lived a privileged life. I really felt I owed something to this country and that’s why I joined the Marine Corps. The same feeling overtook me a couple years ago about politics.”

Plus, Dickerson confesses, he’s not getting any younger. He’s turned over daily operation of the dealership to one of his four kids, son Blan.

“I know he thinks he can help out the neighborhood. He has, to a large degree, been a self-made man,” Novick said of the elder Dickerson.

Corporate connections

After time in the Marine Corps, where Dickerson learned to fly helicopters, General Motors Corp. hired him as an engineer and test pilot. He may be more known around town as the former head of public relations/advertising for GM’s Allison Gas Turbine-now Rolls-Royce-jet engine plant on the west side.

When GM still owned Allison, in the early 1990s, Dickerson was asked to fly a company helicopter to give one of the automaker’s top executives a tour of Indiana plants.

The passenger was Harry Pearce, who rose to become GM’s No. 2 executive. Pearce might be better known for his successful lawsuit against NBC over its “Dateline” program that showed older GM pickup trucks exploding after being struck in the side.

NBC conducted the tests

in Indiana, where then-general counsel Pearce came to look at the evidence. It was later shown that, while the fuel tanks mounted outside the protective frame rails often leaked when hit hard, NBC had installed igniters to set ablaze the spilled fuel and make for more exciting TV.

Anyway, Pearce and Dickerson hit it off. Both had been military pilots.

“He said, ‘Eric, what are you going to do if we close down Allison or sell it?'” Dickerson said.

Pearce then told Dickerson about a GM program that helped train minorities to own and operate dealerships. “He said, ‘If you ever want to be an auto dealer, just let me know.'”

In 1997, Dickerson took Pearce up on his offer. He attended the National Automotive Dealer Academy in Virginia. Later, he worked for basically nothing at Tom Wood Pontiac-GMC-Mazda for two years, learning the ropes.

In 1999, Dickerson

acquired a Buick dealership at 7250 N. Keystone Ave. Again, he did things his way. He ignored advice not to put his name on the dealership because people might think he was the Colts running back.

“They said, ‘Hey, that guy wasn’t well liked in this town.’ I said, ‘Hey, I’m putting my life savings into this.'”

Some also advised him not to use the cult-of-personality advertising approach used by other car dealers, who often look downright dorky.

Dickerson did low-key commercials. No hand-waving. No tuxedo. No babes wearing evening dresses in the showroom. His motto: “I’m at the dealership every day.”

“An awful lot of people told me, ‘You’re making a mistake.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s my money. I’ll do it.'”

Dickerson also is ignoring advice in the political realm. Ask about his platform and he says: “I’m for life, liberty and for the pursuit of happiness. People say, ‘Eric, you just can’t grab the Bill of Rights.'”

The short of it: As for life, if someone commits a heinous crime, he should be locked away forever (not executed). And as for abortion, “Given the choice between life and terminating [pregnancy], I’m in favor of preserving life.”

Regarding liberty, “I don’t think the government should be able to come along and seize my property and give it to another private business entity,” he said.

As for happiness, Dickerson is for the proverbial smaller and less-intrusive government.

As for specific business issues, Dickerson said he’s concerned about the future of Rolls-Royce here, which employs more than 4,000 people. It appears the federal government may throttle back on an order for jet fighter engines produced by a Rolls-Royce/General Electric venture.

“If I were the congressperson, I would be in the face of Pentagon officials every day. I know how the Pentagon works and I know how aerospace works,” he said.

He’d also like to work to rein in health care costs.

If Dickerson doesn’t win at the polls, it’s no big deal, he figures. He and Blan are working on opening Westfield Collision Repair, a 13,000-square-foot facility, by the end of March. He’s also on the lookout for a second car dealership.

“I think a lot of people think that this [seat] is an endowment [to Carson]. If voters decide they’d rather have someone forever, that’s fine. But for new blood not to try to enter the system is wrong.”

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