One of the most disturbing moments in my short run in politics came right at the end, when I was working on the campaign for light rail in fall 2008.
I was the Mayor’s Office rep on the campaign committee, which was chaired by Pat McLarney, a lawyer who worked for a long time at Shook Hardy & Bacon and who is involved with all kinds of civic stuff. Anyway, we had just finished a meeting with the committee and a few of us were lingering in the conference room at Shook’s headquarters when McLarney declared that he had an idea for how we’d get voters’ attention.
“We’ll just have Tracy stand out by the highway with her shirt off,” he said.
I turned to Tracy – an aide for a City Councilman Russ Johnson – and said, “Did he just say what I think he said?”
“Yes he did,” she said, flatly, clearly offended, but neither one of us said anything, which I still regret.
But really, what can you do?
We were just hired hands passing through. And this was one of the city’s vaunted leaders. He serves on the Civic Council and the Downtown Council and he was named “Citizen of the Year” by Mayor Barnes in 2002.
That’s right, folks. It’s people like Pat McLarney who’ve made Kansas City what it is today.
I learned a lot on that campaign, not the least of which being that I am completely inept at electoral politics – especially the way they’re played in Kansas City
But I also saw up close how democracy works here, and probably everywhere.
It’s quite simple, actually.
First, a campaign committee is formed. I use the passive tense here because there’s no one person or entity that creates the committee. It just sort of comes together on its own by way of dozens of breakfast meetings and phone conversations among rich white people like McLarney.
Then this committee, or, more likely, the committee’s officers, meets in secret and chooses someone to work the campaign. In Kansas City, there’s only about three or four people you can call for this sort of thing, and really only two who get the big jobs: Pat Gray and Pat O’Neill.
Gray got picked to run the light rail campaign. O’Neil got hired by the opposition.
The campaign committee meets a couple of times week, and at these meetings the sole topic of conversation is fundraising. It goes kind of like this:
Gray: How much have we got from Burns and Mac? (meaning Burns and McDonnell, one of the two big engineering firms in town.)
Campaign staffer: $5,000.
Gray: $5,000?!?! They have to give us more than that, with all the contracts they get from the city. (He turns to a City Council member.) You’re head of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, right? (Council member nods.) Call them up and tell them they need to give us more money.
I don’t think anyone ever said, “Tell them to give us money if you want to have a contract.” But clearly, it didn’t have to be said.
I really got a kick out of watching Gray do all this. He would push and push on the money front, get all these movers and shakers like McLarney out there hitting up their rich friends, and make sure the money was there before he’d let the campaign meetings devolve into discussions of less profitable things like strategy and principle.
Honestly, I liked him. A real pro.
Gray made good money off that campaign, I’m sure, but he spent a lot, too. When a big-money campaign like that goes through, everybody’s got to get paid.
Want an endorsement from a Hispanic group? Make sure the group leader’s nephew gets a contract to do god knows what for the campaign.
Endorsement from a black organization? Same thing.
Want the Northland? So and so needs a check.
Hell, even I got paid!
And that’s pretty much it.
Oh, there’s other little things that need to be done. Like designing mailers and buying TV commercials. But really, it’s just all about the money.
The rich pay to play. And the hustlers scramble to snatch the coins that fall between the cracks.