U.S. Rep. Sam Graves and his lackeys never miss an opportunity to rough up a local political race.

Goon Squad 

U.S. Rep. Sam Graves and his lackeys never miss an opportunity to rough up a local political race.

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With no shortage of programs to choose from, Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group, held up the goth grant and the Reefer Madness-like logic behind it for ridicule. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, appearing with the group, equated the worthiness of the anti-goth crusade to the study of squirrel mating. Graves is not a rhetorical flamethrower. He seems almost shy, or at least not as attention-needy as most politicians.

Last month, he brought a U.S. Department of Education official to Liberty to discuss the Leave No Child Behind initiative. After introducing the official, Ron Tomalis, to educators, parents and reporters, Graves sat silent, taking notes on a manila folder until it was time to conclude the discussion. Even when his pen was still, Graves tended to keep his head bowed.

Graves is no show horse. While a state legislator, he hurried home on weekends to be with his family and to tend his farm. Even today, as a congressman, he'll climb on the roof of his house when it needs new shingles. "There is absolutely no arrogance," Hurst says. Lager adds: "Sam does not feel the need to have the spotlight on him."

But humility belies ambition. Graves is said to covet the U.S. Senate seat held by Kit Bond, who is running for re-election this fall. Bond will turn 71 in 2010, the year his third term would expire.

In the meantime, Graves is consolidating power, helping like-minded conservatives fill offices throughout the region. "The Graves family is probably the most partisan, political, Republican family in western Missouri," says Steve Glorioso, a political adviser to Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Kay Barnes. He's referring also to Sam's brother Todd Graves, a former Platte County prosecutor who was appointed the U.S. attorney for western Missouri in 2001.

No race appears too small for the operation to get involved.

In 2002, Larry Dougan, a longtime Nodaway County commissioner, ran for the Missouri House of Representatives and lost. Dougan is a Democrat, but he's no one's idea of a candy-ass. He drives a Dodge pickup that kicks gravel when he drives to work. He wears a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and an embossed leather belt. His voice is loud, his manner friendly.

Dougan lost the race to Lager, 29, a former member of the Maryville City Council and self-proclaimed man of "strong Christian values." Dougan says he tried to run a clean race. His radio advertisements reminded voters of his place in the community; at various times, Dougan has been an Elk, a school board member, a volunteer firefighter and the owner of a meat-cutting shop. In one radio spot, he talked about driving his elderly mother to her hairdresser.

Dougan, however, was unprepared for the attack ads that flooded the small media market in the waning days of the race. One radio spot called him "Liberal Larry" and suggested that he would be inclined to raise taxes because he lived in a sleazy-sounding "renovated motel" and, therefore, didn't pay taxes himself. (Dougan managed an apartment complex that once had been a motel.)

A group called the Republican 6th District Congressional Committee placed the "Liberal Larry" ad. The committee is closely tied to Graves. His campaign gave the committee $20,000 a week before the 2002 election. The committee also reimbursed Jeff Roe for expenses, according to documents on file with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

After Dougan lost the race by 700 votes, he retired from politics and was appointed to the job supervising the county's roads and bridges.

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