Talk to people about Tony Botello, the 36-year-old man-boy behind Kansas City's biggest independent blog, and they inevitably ask some variation of the same question: "Does he really live in his mom's basement?"
Botello makes regular mention of living down there, constructing an image of a lair filled to the ducts with porn and campaign fliers. Readers, though, wonder whether it's just an ode to a blogger stereotype. The answer is a little of both. Botello says he does spend most nights in his mom's basement. But he also thrives on his image as a bottom-feeding outsider, even as that image becomes clouded by his influence.
Also, his parents are divorced. He spends a lot of time at his dad's.
"My dad always has, like, food," Botello says. It's a warm February afternoon. He just arrived at his dad's house from downtown, where he was covering a hearing. I had asked to meet at his mom's, but he refused. "I draw the line at the lair," he said. So instead he invited me to his dad's place, a bright-green two-story on the West Side that's neatly decorated with his father's Chicano art collection. There's a basement, but Botello works in the living room.
Over the past several years, Botello's site, Tony's Kansas City, has evolved into a surprising must-read for journalists, politicos and others in Kansas City's small sphere of civic influence. It also, many in that circle agree, has begun to seep into the homes of everyday Kansas Citians.
But spending an afternoon with Botello feels more like hanging out after school than conferring with a media powerhouse. He wears loose-fitting khakis, skater shoes and a dark thermal. His hair is matted to his head, his usual Chiefs hat taking a rare breather. He offers me a drink from the fridge and laments his dad's recent diet, which he expects will wreak havoc on the usually solid deli selection.
And he talks about chicks.
"She looks exactly like Uma Thurman!" he says. He's waving the business card of a journalist he met at the hearing. "She's 26 — way too young for me," he goes on. "I actually found myself being nice. I catch myself being nice sometimes."
The woman — "Uma Thurman!" "I swear to God!" — mentioned that she's interested in working at a newspaper. This sends Botello into one of his go-to soliloquies, about the dismal future of newspapers. I say something about the waning supply of reporting jobs; he agrees, but with one small caveat.
"If they did it based on a hotness contest, though," he says, trailing off and typing away.
Botello launched Tony's Kansas City in 2005, partly as a way to drum up freelance-writing business, he says. But it quickly became clear that his content — the tone, the trappings, the institutions at which he flung it — wasn't going to get editors lining up at his basement staircase.
"I've slung arrows at every print publication," he says.
He's the child of activists. His parents, who divorced when he was in his 20s, helped found the United Mexican American Students club at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His mom, Rita Valenciano, once ran for City Council. But though Botello worked some campaigns, he applied his activist spirit to covering Latino politics, as a freelancer for Dos Mundos and Kansas City Hispanic News.
"It was maddening," he says. "I went to all these events — you know, the press conferences — and you're just supposed to smile and accept what they say. ... You're not able to call bullshit on people."