publisher's note
August 11, 2006



Post-primary punditry
by Bruce Rodgers

Outside of a few notable surprises, the Aug. 8 primary election was not this metro area’s finest hour in democracy. Democratic Party leaders have nothing to brag about as the backbiting showed itself in the final weeks and voter turnout in some precincts hardly surpassed the number of people waiting for an ATA bus at 12th & Main on a Saturday.

As for the Republicans, they did what Republicans generally do: keep the competition and the controversy in the primary to a minimum, and erode away at the opposing party’s core. The exception was the state senate race in the eastern Jackson County’s 8th District. The strategy by incumbent Matt Bartle of only communicating with his church-going base — knowing that they would go to the polls for him — seemed to have worked. It appeared to be a calculated move — however cynical — based on the assumption that moderate Republicans wouldn’t turn out enthusiastically for challenger state Rep. Bob Johnson.

Something else that could have hurt Johnson were moderate Republicans picking up Democratic ballots in order to vote in the county executive race between County Prosecutor Mike Sanders and outgoing state Sen. Charles Wheeler.

One Sanders campaign worker who helped organize support in eastern Jackson County for Sanders said there was an effort to get moderate Republicans to cross over and vote for Sanders. The enticement was the chance to vote against outgoing County Executive Katheryn Shields.

Ironically, another source said that Johnson had considered running in the county executive race before deciding to challenge Bartle. Many in eastern Jackson County still believe Johnson would be a strong Republican challenger against Democratic primary winner Sanders.

The large margin by which Sanders beat Wheeler surprised both camps. A Sanders’ worker said that as votes began to be counted on primary night, “We were gnawing at our fingernails.”

Over on the Wheeler side, there was initial surprise at the quick lead Sanders built up then reality set in. “Sanders had better organizational support, particularly in eastern Jackson County,” said one Wheeler campaign worker. And, said the worker, while the Wheeler campaign received money from business leaders, “that didn’t translate” into support at ground level.

The Wheeler supporter accused the Sanders’ campaign of playing the “age card.” Combined with that was what the worker termed as “nitpicking” in the way Wheeler was covered by The Kansas City Star. “(Reporter) DeAnn Smith wouldn’t do substantive coverage (of the issues).”

A Sanders supporter didn’t deny that age was a factor in defeating Wheeler. The supporter said that as Wheeler campaigned, he began to remind people of “the negatives” surrounding him, and the “age and energy issues began to percolate.” People began to realize “Charlie was 30 years ago.”

Sanders’ campaign credits the anti-Shields sentiment in helping push his race to victory in the primary, particularly in eastern Jackson County. Not really says the Wheeler supporter.

“I don’t think it was widely known (that Shields supported Wheeler) and Sanders didn’t exploit it. He probably could have but it didn’t affect the race that much.”

“The age issue defeated Wheeler,” said the Wheeler supporter.

The Wheeler supporter condemns the controversial ads used against Wheeler in which Wheeler’s silhouette, apparent in his yard signs and other campaign literature, was distorted while referencing Wheeler’s voting record in the state senate. “It was ugly and repulsive, made him look like an old evil man,” said the supporter.

The financing of the ad, through a donation made to Citizens for Responsible Spending by GCM Investments LLC, reported by the Star as controlled by Bill Clarkson Sr., is now the subject of a complaint filed by the Wheeler campaign with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Generally agreed by all contacted was that negative campaign suppressed voter turnout.

“It’s becoming a standard in how we do politics,” said Ingrid Burnett who lost in the four-way Democratic primary race in the 10th state senate district. Burnett, along with her husband, state Rep. John Burnett from the 40th district, felt that they were both targeted “as a team” with negative campaigning in their respective races. The 40th district, along with a part of the 10th senatorial district, covers the northeast part of Jackson County. “We were accused of trying to establish a Burnett dynasty,” said Ingrid Burnett.

Rep. Burnett, who won his race by just 13 votes and faces a recount, said that voter turnout “fell by more than 50%” from two years earlier. He charged that negative campaigning, accusing him of being “soft on crime” and pornography, depressed turnout and that “was intentional.”

Ingrid Burnett added, “I think that negative campaigning affects leadership — a leadership issue in the Democratic Party.” And for the northeast community, which traditionally has had high voter turnout, “If we’re not seen as a strong voting bloc, we remain oppressed politically and economically.”

The winner in the 10th district in the Democratic primary was Jolie Justus. Some political observers were surprised by her win, figuring the district would go for the more moderate Jason Klumb.

Justus’ message of progressive stands on economic justice issues, pro-choice and health care reform, and her pledge to “stand up to (Gov.) Matt Blutt and the Republicans” and not compromise galvanized local liberals. Plus, said one supporter, “(Her) campaign was grassroots and Internet-based, the first one locally.”

Another who voted for Justus said, “Justus was really clear in saying, ‘We are the progressive candidate campaign.’ It was impressive, her breaking out as the progressive choice.”

While liberals gravitated toward Justus, they stayed away from Ingrid Burnett and Sanders, many supporting Wheeler. For many, that avoidance was coupled to one thing: That conservative Democratic state Sen. Victor Callahan was backing Sanders and Burnett.

Callahan told me in an interview in late July that he did not support Sanders or Wheeler. And Burnett said, “They keep trying to tag him on me even though we are at odds over the Independence school issue.” Callahan supports pulling away western Independence schools from the Kansas City MO School District. Burnett is a school board member.

In addition to Justus, most liberals backed incumbent Jackson County 1st Dist. legislator Scott Burnett, an established politician facing a state ethics complaint. The complaint centers on conflict of interest concerns that may have allowed Burnett to benefit his private business through his position as a county legislator. Burnett beat his challenger, Patrick Dobson, in the primary and does not face a Republican challenge in November.

Dobson (who is a personal friend) can be described as liberal, also. But since he comes from a working class background, maybe a better term is “populist.” His position on most issues mirrors that of Justus. Scott Burnett has never articulated the positions Justus has.

Other than Kansas City PRIDE Democratic Club, liberals ignored Burnett’s ethical issues, the suspicion that proxies were using dirty tactics through negative mailers to destroy Dobson’s credibility with voters, and Burnett’s pursuit of business and Republican help during the campaign, including that of former Mayor Richard Berkley.

Other than the grassroots support Dobson got in the neighborhoods, he said he was basically “by myself” in his campaign to unseat Burnett. He attributes his lack of liberal support to not having “social connections” among the city’s liberals. This is understandable considering Dobson’s career as a journalist and the need to keep himself free of charges of being bias in his reporting.

Dobson said he made appeals to local liberal organizations for help, and outside of Kansas City PRIDE, got little response. The endorsement from the firefighters union, though helpful financially, did not pan out at the polls.

“Basically, everyone was working hard for Sanders,” Dobson said.

Dobson also suffered under charges that he received money from the porn industry through a PAC established in John Burnett’s 40th District. An email sent to voters in the 1st district used the word “laundered” in accusing Dobson in how he received the money, and came from a lawyer connected to Scott Burnett’s campaign, Leland M. Shurin.

While the email sent out by Shurin did not tilt the election to Burnett, it shows the kind of “eat your young” mentality that dominates the local Democratic Party apparatus.

The liberals that are a part of that “machine” have nothing to be proud of.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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