In 1980 the Republicans scoured Baltimore’s unemployment lines for the perfect candidate—not to run for office but to criticize those already in it. They found James “Bruzzy” Willders, 34, a lifelong Democrat who was mad at his party over the loss of his factory job and didn’t mind saying so. The Republicans put Willders in front of a TV camera and paid him $50 an hour to make a network commercial. Standing forlornly in the empty factory where he used to work as a $5.75-an-hour machinist, Willders grimly intoned: “They closed the plant for good. I’m one of millions of people in this country who have lost their jobs…So we’ve got just one question: If the Democrats are good for working people, how come so many people aren’t working?”
Two years later the Republican President Bruzzy had helped to elect is still unfailingly optimistic. A week before the release of September’s 10.1 percent unemployment figures, Ronald Reagan announced, “America is on her feet again.”
Not if you ask Bruzzy Willders. He has a job now, as a $6.00-an-hour maintenance man with a local utility company. But many of his friends—steelworkers, autoworkers, shipbuilders—are still among America’s 11.3 million unemployed. “They’re all really bad off,” he says. “Some of them are applying for welfare.”
So Bruzzy, an unmarried Vietnam Army veteran, went back on TV for the Democrats. “Remember me?” he says in his new commercial. “In 1980 the Republicans paid me to go on television because they promised they would make things better. And I believed them. Well, since they’ve been in control, unemployment is the highest since the Great Depression, and businesses are closing every day…I’m a Democrat, but I voted Republican once—a mistake I’ll never make again.”
Bruzzy’s disillusionment with the Grand Old Party goes beyond Reaganomics. Before the 1980 commercial, for which he was paid $3,400, Bruzzy had a beard and long hair. Both were shorn for the cameras. Somebody stuck a pack of Lucky Strikes in his T-shirt. “I don’t even smoke,” he says. “They told me, ‘It’s a prop, you know, part of the working man.’ ” He says some Republican officials hinted about helping him get a job with the U.S. Postal Service and inviting him to Reagan’s inauguration. “As popular as my commercial was, I thought, ‘Well, hey, at least I’ll get to meet the President—go to the White House.’ That never came about,” Bruzzy notes.
All he got was a souvenir card that said: “This is a commemorative invitation and does not constitute admission to any of the inaugural events.” (Rich Galen, a National Republican Party press secretary, denies any promises were made—especially that Bruzzy would be rewarded with a government job, a clear violation of the law.) By late 1981 Bruzzy was also getting razzed by his blue-collar buddies. “Hey,” they said, “when are you going to get your buddy to get us back to work?”
Just last year he made a radio ad supporting Reagan’s tax cut. But Bruzzy came to believe that Reagan was no better at economics than Jimmy Carter. “Things turned sour with the Republicans,” he concludes.
The Democrats asked him to turn his coat in a new TV commercial after reading a newspaper story about his disappointment. Bruzzy eagerly agreed. He wore the same jeans and T-shirt and stood in an idled Baltimore factory. He shaved again, because the Democrats wanted him to look familiar, but there were no Lucky Strikes this time.
“I was sincere about what I said in the Democratic ad,” Bruzzy says. “I more or less did it as a rebuttal to the first one. I wasn’t getting paid for this one, so that proved to people that I wasn’t a political mercenary.” The Republicans say that if Bruzzy wasn’t paid, he should have been. “If there was no payment,” sniffs the GOP’s Galen, “then the ad is in violation of union work rules.” Bruzzy maintains that he’s happy to be back with his old party. But, he adds, if the Democrats ever want to put him on TV again, they may have to pay him.