Charles Wheeler dropped out of the Kansas City mayor's race this week. Did The Kansas City Star eliminate another contestant?
Six days before the election, the paper's readers learned of a 15-year-old allegation that Deb Hermann referred to a Hispanic police officer as "Captain Taco." The Star is citing police memos from 1996, when Hermann was a neighborhood leader who helped run a community policing center. Hermann denies saying such a thing.
The story, written by Steve Kraske, the paper's chief political writer, potentially dooms Hermann's chances of advancing out of the primary.
What makes the story so devastating is its singularity. Prior to Wednesday, the Star has treated the mayoral candidates as a unit. On Tuesday, for example, the Business section used a round-table format to present the development views of the seven candidates. On Wednesday, the Neighborhood News section recycled the 350-word assessments of the candidates that appeared in the paper at the end of January. The Star's coverage of the race has resembled a sports section on the eve of the NCAA men's basketball tournament: Here's what you need to know about Wisconsin-Green Bay.
The non-incumbents criticize Mayor Mark Funkhouser's leadership at every opportunity. But the campaign hasn't been a series of eruptions -- attack mailers rushed to the printers, hastily called press conferences, etc. Mike Burke answered questions about his role at the Port Authority of Kansas City. Yet the scandal at the agency hardly parked on his doorstep.
In short, the candidates haven't been defined by the media (free or bought). Until yesterday.
Broken business model and all, daily newspapers remain significant players in municipal elections. I don't know what the Star's penetration rate is these days. But you can be sure that the people who plan to vote next Tuesday were more likely to have seen the "Captain Taco" story than those who skip the election.
Fewer than 58,000 people voted in the 2007 primary. In a contest with five viable candidates, the Page A6 story in yesterday's paper needed to influence only a few hundred readers to cost Hermann whatever shot she had.
UPDATE: This post originally stated that 45,000 people voted in the 2007 primary, a number that didn't incorporate the results from Clay, Platte and Cass counties. (Thanks, @YaelTAbouhalkah!)