Cleaver Seen as Likely Candidate

Posted January 2, 2004 at 5:47pm

Former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver is leaning toward entering the open-seat race to replace retiring Rep. Karen McCarthy (D), according to several state sources, a move that may give pause to the other Democrats seeking to fill the vacancy.

“The prevailing sentiment around the city is that he is leaning toward running,” said Kansas City Democratic consultant Steve Glorioso. “Those are the vibrations he is sending out.”

“I think that he is going to run,” added Jackson County Legislator Scott Burnett. “I haven’t run into many people that think anyone can touch Cleaver.”

Cleaver has received numerous calls urging him to enter the race with Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) leading the charge, according to knowledgeable state sources.

Cleaver could not be reached for comment Friday.

Three other Democrats are already in the race: former Council on Foreign Relations fellow Jamie Metzl, public policy consultant Damian Thorman and Kansas City Councilman Terry Riley.

Both Metzl and Thorman unveiled their candidacies prior to McCarthy’s Dec. 21 announcement that she would not seek a 6th term.

Metzl, who said he has already raised $325,000 for the race, insisted he would continue running whether or not Cleaver decided to enter the fray.

“I am deeply confident about this race no matter who gets in,” he said Friday. “None of my supporters have expressed any hesitation about this race no matter who enters.”

Thorman sounded much less sure of his political future if Cleaver runs.

“I would have to reassess,” said Thorman. “[Cleaver] has a street named after him that runs through the middle of the district. He would be formidable.”

Burnett predicted that if Cleaver runs, Thorman would leave the race “immediately.”

Cleaver began his political career in 1979 when he was elected to the Kansas City Council. After 12 years in that office, Cleaver was elected mayor of Kansas City in 1991—the first African-American to hold that post. He was re-elected in 1995 and during his tenure served as the president of the National Conference of Black Mayors.

After leaving office due to term limits, Cleaver began hosting a radio talk show in the Kansas City area. He is also the pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, which boasts a membership of more than 2,000 parishioners.

Cleaver has remained a potent political force since leaving office especially in the black community. He currently serves as a national adviser to the presidential campaign of Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) with a particular focus on attracting black voters to the campaign.

His strength in the black community makes him the odds-on nominee should he choose to run. State observers estimate that at least one-third of the primary vote will be comprised of blacks, which gives Cleaver a major head start over any opponent.

But, even in his successful mayoral races, Cleaver was unable to win a majority of white voters in the suburbs of Kansas City, which could create an opening for Metzl.

In order for Metzl to win a one on one faceoff with Cleaver, he would have to show extremely strong among conservative and white Democrats and also benefit from significant Republican crossover voting in the open primary system, according to knowledgeable Democrats.

Metzl insists that despite Cleaver’s resume and strength among blacks, he will stay in the race to offer voters a choice.

“I am running because I have a positive vision for this district,” said Metzl. “I am sticking with the game plan that I have had since the beginning.”

Metzl presents an intriguing profile of his own, having served as deputy staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) from 2001 to 2003 and as a senior fellow and coordinator for homeland security programs at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Metzl also was involved in the 2002 campaign of Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.), helping to organize a series of foreign policy seminars for the candidate. He was also in the “legal war room” on the day of the election, which Carnahan lost 50 percent to 49 percent to Republican Jim Talent.

“I have the very experience that will make me the most effective representative for this district,” Metzl said.

Thorman, who served on Capitol Hill under former 5th district Rep. Alan Wheat (D) among others, took issue with Metzl’s contention.

“I have eleven times the experience of anyone in the race at this time,” Thorman said.

Thorman also hit Metzl on his decision to move back to the district to run for Congress.

“[Metzl] has never voted in a primary,” alleged Thorman. “Asking voters to come out and vote for him in an election that he never bothered to vote in is a real problem.”

In the event Cleaver decides against the race, Metzl, Thorman and Riley are unlikely to have the Democratic field to themselves.

Burnett said that if Cleaver takes a pass, several other African American candidates would likely run as well as a candidate or two from the Ward Parkway area — a wealthy, white collar, liberal enclave in the district. Burnett also suggested that a candidate from eastern Jackson County could also make a bid.

The district is entirely within Jackson County with Kansas City — located in the westernmost portion of the county — serving as the population hub.

Two Republicans, Grandview Alderman Steve Dennis and airline pilot Jeff Brauner, are running but not given a serious chance of victory.

The district would have given then-Vice President Al Gore 60 percent in the 2000 presidential race, 13 points better than he did statewide.

McCarthy’s decision to retire after five terms brings to an end a relatively low profile congressional career that was thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight last March.

On March 21, McCarthy fell down an escalator in the Capitol, cutting her forehead in the process and missing a floor vote on President Bush’s tax cut proposal.

McCarthy immediately checked into an alcohol rehabilitation facility in Arizona.

She was unable to escape re-occurring problems, however, including the loss of two chiefs of staff as well as allegations that she misused personal office funds to overhaul her Washington campaign operation.

In announcing her retirement, McCarthy told the Kansas City Star she wanted to “focus on balance in my life.”