Connie Schultz is prettier than her headshot in The Plain Dealer would suggest. She's also more comfortable with smiling than you might think, an approachable, chatty woman with a fondness for expansive answers to simple questions. But she's interested in your thoughts as much as her own.
So it's hard to understand what it is about her that provokes ordinary people to refer to her with such expressive terms as "bitch" and "diesel dyke." In e-mails and phone messages, she's been told to get a haircut and informed that her children are illegitimate. To those who occasionally agree with her, she is "schizophrenic."
And so it's been for the last year, since Schultz began writing her column for The Plain Dealer's Arts & Life section. In that time she's become a liberal lightning rod, attracting responses far more intense than her liberal-but-not-that-liberal views would seem to merit. Even Schultz, a 46-year-old divorced mother of two, believes she is "really about as mainstream as you can get." But to many of her readers, she is the media elite. And that is not a good thing.
She came to the job after nine years as a reporter, during which she nearly won a Pulitzer Prize for her series on a wrongly convicted man. "I thought Connie had a unique voice and an interesting perspective," says Editor Doug Clifton. "She's a fine writer and not afraid to speak her mind."
Her subjects range from major issues like civil rights and war, to less-than-pressing matters like sex in advertising and the touchy-feely "pay it forward" concept.
But there is something about Schultz that burrows under the skin of readers. Take, for example, her Labor Day installment, an admiring recollection of her mother's years as a nurse's aide. It was a celebration of shift workers everywhere.
Unless you count a one-line reference to the American soldiers "working" and dying in Iraq, the column really wasn't political at all. But readers were incensed nonetheless. "Each person makes his or her own decisions when it comes to employment," wrote one. "But dufus Democrats never look to individual responsibility as the solution; they look to blame big business, the government, or some other bogeyman. Thank goodness people like you are in the minority."
Wrote another: "Your mother should have quit her job and done something different if she didn't like it. To put blame on some exterior influence is typical of liberal pukes like you."
On other days, it's not uncommon for her to get hundreds of e-mails, chastising her for everything from wasting The PD's money to worshiping "Hilbeast," otherwise known as Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps it's the backdrop against which she works. Newspapers in general have become less challenging, giving birth to a new breed of columnist who seem like neighborly term life salesmen from Strongsville, rather than the ranting curmudgeons of old.
Sam Fulwood and Regina Brett, the paper's most prominent columnists, don't often use their prime real estate on the Metro page to throw rocks. Fulwood occasionally takes pops at county commissioners and the mayor, but seems more comfortable -- and more prolific -- writing things like "Now, get out there and taste Cleveland." Brett can be a firebrand, but has a tendency to pull her punches, and often writes with the heavy perfume of a Hallmark card.
"I think Sam and Regina do a pretty good mix of hard and soft," says Clifton. "I get lots of angry e-mails on both of them when they go hard, so they must be hitting a nerve . . . I think a good columnist has to move the reader, and that can be achieved by way of nuance, rage, humor, whatever comes most natural to the writer."
In Schultz's case, it's confidence in her convictions. "People like to knock people who are confident," says her editor, Stuart Warner, "and she has a confident air to her writing." He counsels her to watch the preaching.
Not that Schultz doesn't get squishy. She's even fallen into that black hole of columnists everywhere by writing about her cats. But for a writer relegated to the features section (by her request, she says), she manages to stir the pot frequently -- sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes with gusto.
She positively gloated when Fox News withdrew its lawsuit against liberal writer Al Franken, which prompted this reader e-mail: "The whole article sounded like sour grapes because conservatives are finally getting the upper hand against liberals like yourself in this country . . . People are starting to think for themselves again and realizing how full of lies the liberal press has become. I bet you're still whining about the presidential election. Get over it Connie!"
"I really don't think of it as goading people," Schultz says of her columns that goad people. "What I enjoy is finding my own courage -- not courage in the heroic sense, but in not doing the girl thing and worrying that people won't like me."
She says she was "raised to be popular." But she is also the daughter of a union activist, raised in an Irish-German house where a photo of John F. Kennedy hung next to a portrait of Christ. "I grew up with the notion that we weren't even supposed to date Republicans," she says. "I don't know how I could have turned out any other way."
Schultz understands that "good people can disagree" and says she always responds to sincere criticism. What she doesn't get are the responses that accuse her of ulterior motives. "If you think caring about things like the civil rights movement 40 years later is just part of a liberal agenda, I worry for you."
But in recent months, she's seen signs of hope. In August, she wrote of failing to understand the vehement opposition to same-sex marriage, and as she expected, some of those opponents wrote in to describe -- sometimes graphically -- what goes on in gay people's bedrooms. Yet an elderly Solon man left a voicemail saying, "We're trying to get where you are, but it's going to take us time." Schultz wishes he'd left his number.
The number of positive responses has been growing; she now often hears from more fans than enemies. She's especially encouraged by those who write just to be supportive, notes along the lines of "I'm sure you're getting a lot of hate mail, so I just wanted you to know I loved what you wrote." She's also grateful for, but confused by, messages describing her as courageous: What's so courageous about speaking your mind? she wonders. Why do some female readers confide that they love her column, but would never tell their husbands?
Yet the hate mail continues, and always will. "I've learned," she says, "that the delete button is a wonderful thing."
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