Robert kennedy, ted kennedy barnstorm indiana with political neophyte

Doherty brought with him several young women who were experts at working the phones and compiling data on how Democratic convention delegates were leaning. Mary Jo Kopechne, who would drown in July 1969 when a car driven by Ted Kennedy went off a bridge into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, was part of this travelling crew, though she did not come to Indiana. Kopechne is the subject of a movie that opens in theaters Friday,

Riley got the signatures with the help of a number of Kennedy supporters including a Black Panther named Snookie Hendricks, who in 1997 would be shot dead outside his house at 40th and Boulevard, and several Young Democrats, including 26-year-old Louis Mahern, would serve four terms in the Indiana State Senate from 1976 to 1992.


Mahern recalled Riley late one night handing him the keys to his Buick so he could transport blank petition forms to Lake County. He met the Lake County crew at a gas station in Hammond, turned over the goods, and drove home. "Never even got out of the car," Mahern said, "this was before FedEx"

Mike Riley, chairman of the 1968 Robert F. Kennedy Campaign in Indiana holds a photo of himself with Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy taken by Art Harris for The Indianapolis News, on the night of 1968 Presidential Primary election during a press conference at The Lincoln Hotel in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 25, 2018. (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

Kennedy, who was in favor of Civil Rights and against the Vietnam war, believed a victory for him in conservative Indiana would prove that he could be elected president. So he spent a lot of time in Indiana, a bit of it in Riley’s living room, where he filmed a TV commercial. He occasionally stopped in at an abandoned Lum’s restaurant on East Washington Street. Lum’s was a short-lived Florida-based chain that specialized in hot dogs steamed in beer. Riley leased the space for use as Kennedy’s Indianapolis headquarters.

Kennedy often stayed down the street at the Sheraton Lincoln Hotel, which is now occupied by the Hyatt Regency. Mahern recalled having a 30-minute conversation with Robert Kennedy in his room here — "he was in suit trousers and stocking feet and a dress shirt, sleeves rolled up, and Ethel (Robert Kennedy’s wife) was there, and he was just really interested in our opinions on the political situation here."

One time, Riley arranged for Kennedy to meet with some businessmen at a plumbing company. Kennedy said he wanted to walk, to get some exercise. "We started walking down Washington Street, and in a little while he said, ‘OK, that’s enough, where are the cars?’ There were supposed to be cars following us, but they weren’t there, so he tells me to stop someone on the street and get us a ride."

With some trepidation, Riley said, "I stopped someone, they were driving an Edsel. I ended up in the back seat of this car, full of greasy auto parts. Bobby Kennedy got in the front seat. The guy (driver) kept saying, ‘Nobody at work will believe this, I’ve got the g– d— Senator Robert Kennedy here.’ He was probably Appalachian. He was really a funny guy." ‘Not used to such high-level negotiations’

Riley had long respected Robert Kennedy politically but soon came to like him personally. At home, Riley had a wife and two children. "Bobby, unbeknownst to any of us, called our spouses on his own and said he appreciated our work and knew we were spending a lot of time away form home and wanted them to know how important we were to him," Riley said.

The Kennedys were famously well-off, and Indiana Democrat higher-ups drew attention to their buying power. In early April, Gordon St. Angelo, the Democratic state chairman and a backer of Branigin, told the Star Kennedy had "at least $650,000" to spend in Indiana, way more than any other candidate. Riley derided that as "pure guesswork."

But he does remember seeing stacks of cash. "Right before the primary we had a meeting in the (Indianapolis) Athletic Club," Riley said, "and Stephen Smith — he was the Kennedy’s brother-in-law and their money guy — he had a table full of money. People would say, ‘I need to pay workers $10,000, or $5,000.’ Smith would count it up and put it in grocery sacks. There was no accounting. That’s how politics was done."

Kennedy’s plan was to give a standard stump speech but upon learning of King’s death he switched gears. He spoke off the cuff and for just five minutes but with such heart that some people say he diffused anger and prevented race riots from breaking out in Indianapolis as they did in many other cities.

Riley is the person who planned the Kennedy’s appearance that night. "The task I’d been given was to come up with a place to have a rally in the African-American community," he said, "and I found out about this park, but back then as I recall it was just a vacant lot, or maybe two lots. The Kennedy name was big in the African-American community, and that was a place Bobby was looking for a lot of support."

Riley was "not used to such high level negotiations," reports Ray Boomhower in his 2008 book about the campaign, "Robert Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary." But Riley, a recently-minted lawyer from a small law firm, held steady against the mayor, telling Lugar: "You’re not going to get (Robert Kennedy) to do anything he doesn’t want to do." Sweet revenge on Indiana’s senior senator

The victory party was in the ballroom at the Sheraton Lincoln, and Kennedy asked Riley to stand with him on the platform as he made his acceptance speech. Sen. Vance Hartke, who’d represented Indiana in Washington since 1959 (and would go on until 1977; died in 2003) wanted badly to stand up there, too. But Hartke had not endorsed Kennedy, and Kennedy didn’t want him there.

About five years earlier Riley had tried to meet Hartke at a Democratic Party confab in French Lick. Hartke was holding court, greeting well-wishers and posing for photographs. Riley, who’d never seen a U.S. senator, approached Hartke, and got dissed. "You’ve got a long way to go, boy," Hartke told the president of the Marion County Young Democrats.

Mahern recalled that some time in March, about six weeks before the primary, he was walking in Downtown Indianapolis with Ted Kennedy. It was the night President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the presidential race, an unprecedented move by a sitting president.

Just two months after Martin Luther King’s death, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles following his win in the California primary. "It was like 3 a.m., I was home asleep," said Riley, his voice suddenly drained of enthusiasm, "and somebody called and said, ‘Turn on your TV,’ and I did. It was extremely shocking and so sad."

At the Kennedys’ invitation, Riley went to the funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Later Ted Kennedy asked him if he’d chair a committee on gun control that was formed after his brother’s death. "I did that," Riley said. "I didn’t realize how hateful people were about their guns."

Riley stayed active in politics on a local level. He ran for Marion County Prosecutor in 1970 and lost. He raised money for Democrat candidates and was a delegate to several Democrat national conventions. In 1979 Riley moved to the northern Indiana town of Rensselaer and later became the Jasper County Democratic Party chairman. He still practices law there.