publisher's note
July 1, 2006




Impressions from a candidates’ forum
by Bruce Rodgers

“We’re having this to put the Northeast back on the political map,” said Mike Bushnell, as he motioned to people to take their seats. It was time for the start of the Northeast Candidates Forum, held June 29, at Melrose United Methodist Church on North Bales. Bushnell, publisher of the Northeast News, was instrumental in organizing the forum, limited as it was.

The Northeast, roughly bounded by downtown on the west, the river on the north, Truman Road to the south and I-435 east, is Kansas City’s most diverse community, and one seeped in the history of the city. Whites, blacks, Asians, Africans, Latinos, Native Americans and those with European heritage live there. Homes can be grand and historical, neat and tidy, or suffering under the neglect of absentee landlords in a community that has gotten the short end of the economic development stick.

It’s an area rich in political history, too. Chicago-style factional politics has its legacy in the Northeast, as does the Mob. It’s an area that’s always been tough and macho, yet respectful of its seniors and determined to have its say with government. The Northeast has a big chuck of the narrative when telling the story of Kansas City.

The forum, sponsored by four neighborhood organizations, consisted of candidates introducing themselves followed by questions submitted by audience members. It dealt with the MO state representative race in the 40th Dist., the 10th Dist. state senate competition, the 1st Dist. Jackson County legislative contest and the Jackson County Executive race. Purely a Democratic affair it introduced candidates in competitive races affecting the Northeast. What Republicans that were present remained in the closet, except for Bushnell, who is said to be a GOP supporter.

Most every member of the audience of around 300 supported one candidate or another. Most of the questions seem to come from partisans either trying to bolster or attack a particular candidate. However most were relevant to issues affecting citizens.

In the 40th Dist., John Joseph Rizzo, son of Northeast politician and county legislator Henry Rizzo, is challenging incumbent John Burnett for the second time.

Burnett, closing in on his second term in the Missouri House, is an effective and polished officer holder, and the more experience he accumulates, the less beholding he seems to political interests that demand attention to their needs. Rizzo has youth going for him and a recognizable political name.

Most of the questions centered on economic development and crime, with both candidates agreeing there was too little development and too much crime. The rhetoric revolved around who could do better, leaving voters to decide on experience or youthful energy.

Burnett’s public service passion revealed itself in a question regarding the recently passed Voter ID law, which requires a picture ID in order to vote. Burnett said the law was “the most insidious piece of legislation we passed” alleging it very well could be “responsible for returning (Republican) Jim Talent to the (U.S.) Senate.” He also labeled electronic voting as “scary.” Rizzo agreed.

The only distinct difference between the two came with a question on abortion. Burnett claimed a “pro-life” position though saying he doesn’t share a lot with the “right wing” when it comes to contraceptive restrictions and opposing stem cell research. Rizzo didn’t hedge, saying, “I’m pro-choice and support a woman’s right to chose.”

Two men and two women are running in the Democratic primary for the 10th Dist. state senate, the seat being vacated by Charles Wheeler, who is running for Jackson County Executive. Only one candidate lives in the Northeast — Ingrid Burnett, a Kansas City MO school board member whose term expires this year and wife of MO state Rep. John Burnett. Candidates Mike Flaherty and Jason Klumb live in the Brookside area, and Jolie Justus lives in south Hyde Park.

In my opinion, Burnett and Justus are superior to Klumb and Flaherty. Here’s how I sum up the four office seekers:

Burnett — thoughtful, passionate about and deliberate in wanting to improve education, and obviously hardened by her tenure on the school board; Justus — an unabashed liberal and an idealist wanting “social advancement for everyone;” Flaherty — a conservative Democrat who repeatedly bought up the name of former state Sen. Harry Wiggins as his mentor; and Klumb — who, in my opinion, is a sound-bite machine, well in the running as the most obnoxious candidate in Missouri. Here’s a guy who repeatedly uses such meaningless phrases as “get things done for us,” “protecting our citizens,” “I will fight for you,” “I view this (race) as destiny,” “I have the ability to get things done” and “We need to cut waste, reduce waste.” What is even more annoying is that Klumb says such tripe behind a plastic smile plastered on his boyish face.

Despite conjuring up the ghost of former Gov. Mel Carnahan, Klumb reflects everything that is wrong with the majority of Democratic, and Republican, Party candidates — condescending, lacking in ordinary real-life working experience, heavily in debt to special interests, implying a right to hold office because of who one has known or knows, and assuming language will hide a lack of ideas when it comes to addressing issues before the public.

The 1st Dist. Jackson County legislative race pits incumbent Scott Burnett (no relation to John Burnett) against Patrick Dobson.

Dobson, a journalist and PhD candidate in history, writes for this web site and is a close personal friend. Obviously, I support him. In fairness, here is the contact information for both Burnett and Dobson in order to help avoid my bias: Scott Burnett, 816-561-4141, and Patrick Dobson, 816-896-4746,

Last on the bill were the county executive candidates, current County Prosecutor Mike Sanders, former Kansas City mayor and outgoing state Sen. Charles Wheeler, and perennial office seeker and anti-tax advocate Richard Tolbert.

Money and endorsements are falling upon Sanders and Wheeler. Tolbert helps lead the anti-tax, anti-Kansas City Star brigade — Tolbert called the newspaper the (new) “Pendergast machine” — among disgruntled citizen activists proud of their grassroots connections and doggedness in holding elected officials accountable. Tolbert and his supporters play an important role in that respect.

Sanders gives the impression of being on top of things no matter the county issue. He’s confident in speech making without appearing brash or ego-driven. Sanders as a prosecutor and a candidate has a dynamic presence, one who can entice people to listen to him without much effort.

“It’s time to chart a new direction,” Sanders said in his opening remarks, “a break from the old ways.”

Dressed in his trademark white suit and bowtie, Wheeler holds a special place in Kansas City politics. Truly an individual in most every sense — down to his high-pitched, squeaky voice — Wheeler has kept his endearing qualities into his 80th year, effortless in forging an easy-going connection to most anyone he meets. His compassion is evident.

“Government is too rancorous; I grieve over the escalation of argument. We’re not trying to seek solutions,” said Wheeler in his introduction.

The affection for Wheeler showed itself when he gently reminded Sanders of his back load of cases and urged him “to continue his prosecutorial career.” The crowd got it and gave Wheeler some healthy applause.

A question about what the candidates have done in public service for Jackson County had Sanders recounting his efforts to pass DNA legislation and putting serial killers away because of its use. He touted his five-point plan to combat the homicide rate.

Wheeler reached back forty years to voter approval of money and government restructuring to build new hospitals, roads and the sports complex. Wheeler also noted that it was he who set the April date this year for the vote on stadium sales tax.

Sanders said that the need of holding a vote to send tax dollars to the sports complex “came about because of a lack of leadership” in the county. Call it a subtle dig at current County Executive Katheryn Shields, who many believe convinced Wheeler to run against Sanders.

Tolbert opposed the stadium tax and said his public service has been “keeping more money” in taxpayers’ pockets.

Other questions dealt with COMBAT funds. Sanders and Wheeler thought the drug court and supporting programs a good idea; Tolbert labeled it “a good and worthy experiment that failed.” The three agreed in the need to improve ethical behavior by government officials and for a more favorable real estate assessment program. Wheeler thought things could be solved at the state level. Sanders called for fairness in the process. “The question that’s being asked,” he said, “is ‘Can I afford to live in Jackson County?’”

The Northeast community should be congratulated for holding the forum. It did a lot in communicating the persona and ideas associated with the candidates who appeared.

Sanders is a strong, energetic candidate with an encompassing grasp of what he faces if he’s elected as county executive. Wheeler put to rest the persistent rumor that he did not want to appear with Sanders because of his age. Tolbert remained the persistent contrarian.

More organizations need to do what the Northeast did, and candidates need to appear at such forums. The elective process needs to be open, and opened more. The primary election is Aug. 8.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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