Candidate Henry Merritt Stenhouse is working the crowd at the Golden Skillet Fried Chicken restaurant in his hometown of Goldsboro, N.C. “I hope lean count on you,” he says as he presses the flesh and hands out campaign literature. Then he turns aside for a moment and winks. “I don’t tell them why they should vole for me. I just tell ’em I need ’em,” he confides. “If they fall for that, I’ve got it made.”
Watch out, Washington! Henry Stenhouse has finally decided what to do with his life—he wants to be the first centenarian in Congress. On May 8 Stenhouse will be smack dab in the middle of the Republican primary, running against two rivals, in North Carolina’s Third District. If he wins, he’ll face Democratic incumbent Martin Lancaster in November, and a month after that he has another important date—his 101st birthday.
A Navy veteran of World Wars I and II, Stenhouse acknowledges that his primary chances are not good. He’s running a one-man show with no consultants or staffers, and not much money. “I’ve spent about $4,000, all my own. I believe I’ve got to pay my own way.” Then again, the semi-retired ophthalmologist figures he has a lot of friends in the tobacco country of Wayne County. He also has a built-in constituency: Married in 1919 to Mary Cleaves Daniels, who died in 1983, Stenhouse has five children, 16 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren, some of whom have crossed over to the GOP so they can vote for him.
For Stenhouse, the decision to enter public life was made after the State of North Carolina yanked his driving license when he was 99, claiming that his eyesight wasn’t good enough. “I don’t know of anything wrong with my health except just an allergy to the trees,” he says. “I’ve got my equilibrium, and I know I can see well enough to drive.” Riled at the way he was treated and generally disgruntled with the way things have gone since he was born during the 1889-93 administration of Benjamin Harrison, he chose to take his case to the people. “I’m trying to do something about big government,” says Stenhouse. “I’m fed up.”
Running on an ultraconservative platform, he describes himself as a Republican “like Republicans are supposed to be, but a lot of them get off the track.” He’s against foreign aid, the welfare system (“Sell it back to the churches”), federal income tax and “this boompa, boompa music you have today.” True to his philosophy, he has a political hero from the past. “Coolidge was the best President,” he says, “He had the ability to make decisions—to take things by the short hairs and do something, not just stand around and argue.”
And, like all politicians running for office, Stenhouse is making wild campaign promises. “I told folks I’d not offer more than two terms,” he says. Meantime, he’s moving at his own leisurely pace. “I’m going to coast along till the primary is over. If I get through that, I’ll start working hard.”
Run, Henry, run.