He's been spurned by Ruckus and had half his columns spiked, but Steve Rose still rises.

Mr. Johnson County 

He's been spurned by Ruckus and had half his columns spiked, but Steve Rose still rises.

Annabeth Surbaugh presides over her coronation as the queen of Johnson County. She beams out over a hundred of her most loyal subjects, who've gathered at the newest First Watch restaurant at 119th and Metcalf in Overland Park. Speaking into a CB-style microphone normally used by a hostess to call out the names of the hungry, Surbaugh thanks the people who helped her campaign for the just-created position of Johnson County Chair.

At Surbaugh's direction, her steering committee members raise their hands. Her campaign chairs come forward. Metcalf State Bank's Ben Craig, whom Surbaugh dubs "Mr. Johnson County," takes the mic and nods to the Almighty. "Thank the Lord for saving us from Charlotte!" he says of Surbaugh's opponent, Charlotte O'Hara, a political newcomer and construction-company owner who put hundreds of thousands of her own dollars into her campaign against Surbaugh.

As cheers fill the room, Craig walks to the booths near the cash register -- toward Steve Rose.

Surbaugh's eyes follow Craig past the mauve tables and Mylar balloons. "I have to give a special thanks to Steve Rose," Surbaugh tells the crowd. "Steve, I can't thank you enough for all your help."

Rose smiles and hesitantly claps for himself along with everyone else. While Surbaugh turns to give a thumbs up for the flashing cameras, Rose runs a finger across his sweaty forehead.

His relief is understandable.

For more than thirty years, Steve Rose has run the Sun newspapers, a collection of free neighborhood publications, first at his father's side, then as sole owner and recently as advisor to the company that bought him out in 1998. His face -- it appears atop the column he's written since college -- has fallen on every driveway in Johnson County twice a week. He's also had plenty of exposure representing Johnson County on Ruckus, KCPT Channel 19's public-television debate show.

This year, though, Rose has been a high-profile pusher of some big flops.

In July, Rose and other chambercrats on both sides of State Line had to admit that their plan for a second bistate sales tax -- this one an attempt to renew the money that voters had earmarked for Union Station in 1996 and spend it on stadiums and arts programs -- would hardly earn a majority in the Royals' bullpen, much less among voters in Johnson and Jackson counties.

In August, Channel 19 President Bill Reed canceled Ruckus, which had dared to put print and radio journalists on television. Along with Rose and host Mike Shanin, the regular "Ruckettes" were liberal radio host Trudie Hall, Kansas City Star editorial writer Yael Abouhalkah and conservative ideologue and K.C. Jones publisher Rich Nadler. On November 5, as Surbaugh was ascending her throne, Rose was conspicuously absent from a special live edition of Ruckus that Reed had brought back the night of Election Day.

Just last month, the Johnson County Sun announced that it would slice its frequency in half, publishing only once a week beginning November 21. "I have to find 52 things I'm not going to write about," Rose says.

After that string of insults, Rose saw the Surbaugh campaign as a referendum on himself, the man who is, regardless of what Surbaugh says, the real Mr. Johnson County.

Bit by bit, Steve Rose's hold on Johnson County has slipped.

"It's sort of been a creeping, dribbling realization," says Dave Raffel, who stayed plenty busy this election year as head of Kansas Families United for Public Education, a grassroots organization that spent the summer campaigning against conservative Republican candidates who threatened to cut school funding. He chuckles about an e-mail he recently received from Rose. Raffel reads Rose's message -- "Your failure to endorse a gubernatorial candidate is very lame" -- and plays up what he says is its superior tone.

"The Lord has bestowed his benevolence upon us," Raffel says of Rose. "I think maybe Steve Rose thinks of himself maybe a little more highly than maybe other people think of him."

In fact, Rose knows exactly how highly other people think of him. He's seen the polls.

During this summer's Bistate II debate, Public Opinion Strategies in Alexandria, Virginia, surveyed 422 people. Overall in the metro area, 36 percent had a favorable opinion of Rose; 11 percent had an unfavorable opinion. In Johnson County, 52 percent of the people liked him and 16 percent didn't. His numbers were a little worse in Olathe and Lenexa than in northeast Johnson County. Overland Park loved him.

Neil Newhouse, who coordinated the poll -- which was paid for by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce -- says he was doing Rose a favor by tacking on a question about him.

"The rule of thumb for political candidates ... is, you want to have a favorable/ unfavorable ratio of at least three to one," Newhouse says. "He's sitting right at that three-to-one ratio."

Political consultant Steve Glorioso knows of another poll commissioned by a candidate who wanted to know how important a Rose endorsement was. "He polls real well," Glorioso says. "He has high name-ID and high favorables."

Rose is still just a newspaper columnist, though, not a political candidate.

At least not yet. Rose tells the Pitch he has no intention of running for office. But over the years, as the county he represents has changed, Rose has evolved as well. And the county and Rose are very much in a state of flux.

Rose is a first-generation Johnson Countian. He was born in 1947, two weeks after Stan and Shirley Rose moved to Prairie Village.

At the time, parts of Prairie Village still had deed restrictions to keep Jews from buying homes there. "They were highly encouraged not to move in," Rose remembers of his parents.

The Roses published several little papers, including a teen magazine called Prom and a television magazine, out of their house near 69th and Roe. Though these publications were small, executives at The Kansas City Star did not appreciate the competition. They threatened to freeze out businesses that advertised with the Roses, forbidding them from advertising in the Star. In response to these threats, the Department of Justice later filed a class-action suit, and the Star was ordered to sell the WDAF television and radio station. Until 1999, a judge barred the Star from owning other area newspapers.

The Roses found a haven in Prairie Village. The new Prairie Village Merchants Association wanted them to promote the nascent community and its shopping center, so business owners went to the Star and obtained special permission for the Roses to publish their weekly paper.

For the debut issue of the Prairie Scout in 1950, the front page had a story about a neighborhood boy with measles and a column in which Stan Rose explained to readers that the new paper would focus on their neighborhoods, their schools and their families. Shirley Rose became the advertising department.

They sent their paper to each of the 3,000 homes in northeast Johnson County. "That's all there was," Shirley says.

But the place had a spirit about it, filled as it was with young couples making up for time lost to World War II. "They called it 'Pregnant Village,'" Shirley remembers. "It was beautiful."

Those young parents were eager to see their new community grow and succeed. "It was the spirit of Johnson County," Shirley says. "They were for everything."

Steve Rose grew up taking classified ads at his front door and dreaming of the day when he would be in charge. Early on, when the paper sponsored the Christmas-light contest and the annual parade, Rose saw the power of the press. "Santa Claus would come down our street," he recalls.

Rose and his older sister, Robbie, went to Shawnee Mission public schools. He graduated from Shawnee Mission East in 1965, having spent his summers working in the circulation, advertising and editorial departments of his father's paper.

Rose went to the University of Missouri to study journalism, but he was interrupted by the Vietnam War. He joined the Army National Guard his junior year. In 1968, Rose's superiors sent him to Southeast Asia. Bound for the front as a supply clerk, Rose obtained a two-hour pass during a layover in Da Nang and hitched a ride on a jeep headed for the public-information office. He presented himself to the colonel, explained his journalism background and was almost kicked out of the room before the colonel asked him to type something. The fastest typist in the history of Indian Hills Junior High earned an assignment away from the front.

Rose wrote features about the men and women who were serving behind the front lines -- the soldiers who repaired gas masks and sorted the mail and made ice cream -- to send back to papers in the states. He also wrote columns for his father, who ran them on the editorial page of the Scout-Sun. "He was proud of those columns," Rose says.

In October 1969, three months after Rose returned from Vietnam, his father had a heart attack. Shirley basically moved into the hospital to be by his side. They would be gone for six months.

Rose, then 21, stepped in to take over what had become a thirty-employee business that had moved its operations south, into a small office building at 95th and Nall. His first assignment was to replace the editor, who left in disgust at Rose's arrival.

It was a busy time for Rose, who commuted between Prairie Village and Columbia with notes propped on the steering wheel. He also had begun seriously dating Carol Brady, a Stephens College student and granddaughter of a Baptist minister. The two had met in September when another student had stepped into Rose's apartment to borrow his phone. The visitor was supposed to be going on a blind date but canceled when he learned she didn't like beer. Rose got Carol's number from the guy, called her back and took her to a movie.

"By the second date, we were already talking about how many children we wanted," Rose says. (They would have two daughters and a son.) "It just happened, like some sort of movie."

They were engaged by January and married on May 31, 1970, just after Rose graduated. Carol converted to Judaism.

Stan was cleared to work again, but his and Shirley's return created friction with their son, who by then was used to making all the decisions. The newlyweds moved to Mexico. They had $1,200 to their name and lasted five months in Manzanillo. Rose was working on a book about his war experience, War Is Absurd, but This Is Ridiculous. It was a nonfiction account of war life away from the fighting, an existence so mundane that soldiers resorted to watching the television show Combat each night.

But his money ran out, and the publisher who'd shown an interest in Rose's writings a couple of years earlier had lost his enthusiasm. Rose returned to his father's paper for good. He still wonders whether he made the right decision. Other than one interview with the Washington Post, he'd made few attempts to strike out on his own.

"I don't know if I took the coward's way out," Rose says now.

Shirley stepped back from her advertising duties to make room for her son. Rose and his father reached a détente. "I was more of a businessman," Rose says. "My father was a journalist."

Stan refused to support Rose in a 1972 run for state representative. "He told me the newspaper wouldn't report it and wouldn't endorse me," recalls Rose, who got 1,300 votes to the winner's 1,800.

But Rose's column, which he'd kept writing from Mexico, continued. It oscillated between national political commentary and a young man's family anecdotes: Jimmy Carter wrote a bad book; Rose and his wife couldn't keep houseplants alive; Richard Nixon was like Napoleon in exile; Rose felt guilty about having no hobbies.

He wrote of his own culture shock when he'd been a guest speaker at mostly black Central High School in Kansas City, Missouri. He recounted his first brush with the abortion debate in October 1974, after he had accepted a controversial ad for the newspaper. It showed a skull and crossbones and urged a vote for Bob Dole, who supported a human-life amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ad became an issue during Dole's 1976 vice-presidential run against Walter Mondale. NBC News interviewed Rose, who told the television reporter he didn't think Dole was responsible for the tiny ad.

Slowly, Rose assumed more responsibility at the paper. In 1977, his father named him president of Sun Publications. The company branched out to publish the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, the Kansas City Nursing News, the Johnson County Business Times and the College Boulevard News.

In 1989, Rose borrowed what he will describe only as "millions" of dollars to buy out his parents.

Nine years later, Rose made $13 million of his own when he sold the company to Lionheart Holdings of Fort Worth, Texas. The 1998 sale included a stipulation that Rose's column would remain on the front page as long as Rose wanted to write it. This was a sticking point at the negotiating table. Rose's column was well-read, Lionheart executives agreed, but they wanted assurances it would remain that way.

"They wanted some language to protect them if I were to become senile," Rose says. The company declined Rose's offer to take an annual psychiatric test. Instead they settled on language requiring the column to live up to "industry standards."

That clause was argued in court in the summer of 2000, after an editor had tried to relegate Rose's column to a corner of the front page and keep him from endorsing political candidates. Rose sued but settled with Lionheart when the company fired the editor.

What began as glorified diary entries had slowly become Rose's semiweekly chance to name names, point fingers and prod his county to support public schools, reject the influence of the "Far Right" and publicly appreciate his family.

The opinionated, highly visible Rose emerged as the voice of a county that, from sprawling Overland Park to tiny, landlocked Countryside, was a loose collection of independent towns. Rose and the president of Johnson County Community College have been the only two people with a countywide sphere of influence. The county commissioners, elected in districts, have rotated their chairmanship annually.

Rose pushed for the creation of a county chair who would serve four-year terms at the helm of the County Commission. With her victory, Annabeth Surbaugh will take some of the stature Rose has held by default.

"Most of the leadership of Johnson County is invisible," says Shawnee City Councilwoman Tracy Thomas. "It's not that [Rose is] really running the county. He just talks about it all the time, and everybody else is Mr. Cellophane."

When Channel 19 was planning a knockoff of the national McLaughlin Group in the summer of 1995, Rose was the first person producers called after lining up WDAF 610 personality Mike Shanin to host.

"I was to the left. Mike was to the right," says Steve Glorioso, who had originally pitched the Ruckus idea to the station. "Rose fit the bill as a moderate." Rose's Johnson County ties were important as well. "Rose was a twofer," Glorioso says.

The show put a voice and personality to what had been a long-running monologue in newsprint. Other guests had more extreme viewpoints, so Rose came off as the sensible one -- though he was certainly passionate about his county. He was handsome compared with the others and had a much more commanding voice. While various members of the panel came and went, Rose stayed.

As Rose's profile was growing, he still sat down at a typewriter twice a week to pound out his "Memo" to the county. Sun Publications now dispatched its paper to more than 100,000 homes across the county.

The young families from "Pregnant Village" had aged, their houses now shaded by full-grown trees. The young, vibrant centers had shifted far south and west, reaching to the once-isolated Olathe. A vocal portion of a county that had been for everything was now against a lot of things.

In retrospect, Rose was writing about issues that would be significant for years to come.

In January 1996, Rose named several characters who played roles in this month's election.

He banged on Phill Kline, then a state representative, for his proposal to eliminate property taxes. "The brash young leader who is chairman of the Tax Committee knows which comes first. ... He has determined it is the chicken. Cut off the chicken's head, and you get no more eggs." To Rose's disgust, Kline will most likely soon be sworn in as the state's attorney general, having pulled out a November 5 squeaker over his lesser-known challenger, Chris Biggs. (The votes were still being counted as the Pitch went to press.)

Later that month, he ripped the Reverend Cecil Washington, then chaplain of the Kansas House, for insisting on praying in the name of "Jesus," which offended non-Christian members of the body. Rose blackballed the conservative speaker of the house, Tim Shallenburger, who had chosen Washington as chaplain. Rose refused to talk to Shallenburger until only a few weeks ago, when the two made amends -- and Rose endorsed Shallenburger for governor.

And he propped up then-County Commissioner Surbaugh, who had worn an orange prison jumpsuit as part of her successful campaign for a new county jail.

On January 31, 1996, he rang the Johnson County bell. "Will the growth never end? We hope not. Despite what you hear from anti-growth cynics, our kind of growth is good for all of us."

Rose would eventually broaden that perspective, however. Glorioso attributes that to Rose's time on Ruckus.

"He's become less parochial," Glorioso says. "When he first came, he had kind of a chip on his shoulder for Kansas City, for the condition and plight of the urban core. I think he then became more sympathetic for the problems of the Kansas City School District. He grew in that regard. If nothing else, once a week he had to drive to [Channel 19's studios at] 31st and Main."

Former Sun employee Rebecca Shelton, now the managing editor of the Kansas City Kansan and president of the city's press club, has seen the change as well. "When I worked for him, he used to tell us it was only Johnson County," Shelton says. "If a nuclear bomb went off in Kansas City, our headline would be 'Radiation cloud floats over Johnson County.'"

Rose's evolving metropolitan view was what drew him into the fight to pass the first bistate sales tax.

The concept of such a tax to provide arts funding in both Kansas and Missouri had been bounced around since the late 1980s. It began to catch on in the mid-'90s, under the guidance of Jack Craft, a Kansas City attorney. "When I first tried to develop a Kansas-Missouri partnership, [Rose] was one of the first people I went to see," Craft says.

Rose knew from polling that citizens across the metro would support a tax for saving Union Station. He favored scrapping the arts and shooting for an eighth-cent sales tax solely for the station.

"That's what I proposed. Jack Craft about turned white," Rose says. "Jack had the unpleasant task of going back to the arts groups and telling them they wouldn't be a part of it."

Leading up to the November 1996 election, Rose gave more than 300 speeches and sent direct-mail letters to Johnson County voters. Most of them received a missive highlighting Rose's lifelong residence in the county and his belief that it was important to support the station renovation. But Olathe residents, who cared more about education than about Steve Rose, got a version highlighting the proposed science museum.

Voters approved the tax in Johnson and Jackson counties, the only two places it was required to pass in order to take effect. As a bonus, it passed in Platte and Clay counties. It was defeated only in Wyandotte County.

Rose was a hero to folks across the state line.

With Bistate, Rose crossed another line as well, the one between reporting the news and making it. He shed a little more of his identity as a journalist while showing powerful people in Missouri and Kansas that he could deliver votes and get things done.

Now, though, Rose is in danger of losing touch with his neighbors, says Nick Jordan, a conservative state senator from Shawnee. Jordan says he's known Rose since he worked as a busboy at the Glenwood Manor resort, where Rose and his family often dined. As young men, they talked about the future and what it would bring.

"Some people are concerned," Jordan says. "They're concerned about this movement toward greater metro area. It waters down the energy or focus on Johnson County and what we need to do out here to continue our growth. ... There is a line somewhere where people say [to Rose], 'You're kind of losing heart.'"

Once Rose's perspective aligned with 80 percent of the county, but that number has dropped to more like 55 percent, guesses attorney Larry Winn III, Rose's political ally and friend.

"There are just several hundred thousand people now. They are in, and they are out. They don't have loyalty to the county. They don't have a long-term view," Winn says. "The county is probably less progressive, sadly enough ... I think there are people living in western Lenexa or southern Olathe that don't have any intention of going downtown or to Union Station or seeing the Plaza lights come on."

Rose ran in influential circles, counting as friends the members of what political observers call the Dick Bond Club. The group of like-minded politicians included the eponymous state senator, fellow Kansas senators Barbara Allen, David Adkins and former State Senator Audrey Langworthy as well as Mary Birch, who in May gave up her spot as president of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce to run for lieutenant governor. Rose also had the ear of Overland Park Mayor Ed Eilert.

Little happened in Johnson County they didn't approve. And through Bond's relationship with Governor Bill Graves, their influence reached beyond the county line.

Pete Levi, of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, says Rose was part of "a natural Republican evolution of leadership" in the county. At the same time, he says, "For many years politics in Johnson County was much more simple than it is today."

Birch lost her bid for lieutenant governor in the August primary and no longer runs the Overland Park Chamber. Graves' term as governor ends in January. Eilert pledges that his current mayoral term, which expires in 2005, will be his last.

Rose's friends are losing some of their official powers.

Meanwhile, Rose has been losing on issues. When the push for a second bistate sales tax tanked over the summer, Rose ended up playing the goat.

The successor to the Union Station tax would have put some money toward arts and some money toward renovation of Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums. From the start, the proposal prompted violent opposition. "There was a feeling by the average citizens that they were supporting the rich people," Rose says. "I held my own nose to some extent. I didn't love this plan."

The Kansas City Chamber's Bistate Committee decided on July 18 not to put the tax on the November 5 ballot.

The story hit the Star the next day, a rude surprise to many people who had been involved in the process. Their anger simmered for a couple of days until a chamber meeting. The 25 people in attendance let Rose have it.

"There were a lot of strong feelings that were addressed that day," Levi says.

The next month, Channel 19 canceled Ruckus. Station President Bill Reed said the show was a victim of budget cuts, but Rose thought it was a political decision. In his column, Rose wrote that he had sought and found someone to underwrite the program but that Reed had snubbed Rose's sugar daddy. Reed responded with a letter to the editor and a promise that Rose wouldn't participate if the show were revived. The final regular episode was broadcast August 22. Rose now says he was invited back but declined. Reed won't talk about it.

The lack of airtime "is a loss of influence" for Rose, says Glorioso. The show had been seen by a core audience of about 10,000 households, but they weren't just regular TV viewers, Glorioso says. They were "opinion leaders and hardcore voters," he adds. "If you were trying to sell your point of view, you very much could do it on Ruckus."

On the show's last regular episode, Rose suffered the final humiliation in a discussion about how Union Station had failed to support itself after its mid-'90s, Bistate-funded renovation. He was forced to admit that "Rich Nadler was right, and the experts were wrong."

By then, however, Rose was well into his crusade to get Annabeth Surbaugh elected.

He had spent the weeks before the August 6 primary beating a drum for Kansas' public schools. He'd been the most dynamic speaker at a June 25 forum on school finance, calling the struggle between moderate and conservative Republicans a "war" over education. He had named the candidates who were "enemies" of public schools in a July 17 column. (His enemies had mixed results: Mary Pilcher Cook and Karen DiVita were defeated in their primaries, but Ray Merrick and Dan Williams will be returning to Topeka on behalf of Johnson County.)

After the primary, Rose turned his attention to politics in a way he never had before, almost with panic in his voice -- and with one big inconsistency that floored some county activists.

Rose has dedicated countless columns to listing the dangers of Johnson County Republican Party's conservative wing.

Yet he endorsed acknowledged conservative Tim Shallenburger for governor. That upset so many of his moderate Republican brethren that Rose spent a second column explaining it, writing that he had chosen Shallenburger because the candidate favored local control of school funding and Rose didn't think Democrat Kathleen Sebelius could funnel more state money to schools, given the Republican majority in Topeka and the state's current budget crisis.

The endorsement was "mind-boggling," Dave Raffel says.

"One day you love him. One day you hate him," Raffel says of Rose. "He's schizophrenic."

But there's another reason Rose didn't have a problem endorsing Shallenburger.

Rose is anti-abortion.

Although the loudest contingent in the hated "Far Right" movement has been Kansans for Life, Rose admits that he, too, "leans toward the pro-life position."

Rose says he wouldn't want to put another life in jeopardy, but he is fuzzy on questions of physical or mental health for the mother or the baby.

"That may be the reason I [had] no problem supporting Shallenburger," he says.

But Rose never loved anyone the way he loves Surbaugh. From the moment she won the primary race for the new "county mayor" post, he's been her loudest supporter.

Rose couldn't stand the idea of seeing his county elect Charlotte O'Hara, who had supported right-winger Kay O'Connor for state senator. In return, Kansans for Life had backed O'Hara's campaign for county chair.

O'Hara didn't embrace Rose's metropolitan view. She said she'd like Kansas City to succeed, but she was not interested in sending Johnson County tax dollars to Missouri. He worried that she would appoint conservatives to the Library Board and feared she might censor performances at Theatre in the Park. Rose also seemed outraged at how much of her own money O'Hara was spending -- more than $100,000 for the primary and more than $200,000 more for the general election.

O'Hara was troubled that Rose never interviewed her.

Rose says he learned enough about O'Hara during an interview session arranged by the Johnson County Committee of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

To unify Surbaugh's supporters with those of Kent Cripin (who had finished third and out of the running in the primary), Rose served them hors d'oeuvres and wine at his marbled Mission Hills mansion. It was a new crowd for Surbaugh, who had grown up on the rough side of St. Louis and had begun her involvement in Johnson County as a neighborhood activist angered by the fact that more public money was going to College Boulevard than to her aging street in north Overland Park. Rose's soiree raised only a few thousand dollars, but the gathering brought Surbaugh instant credibility with the "members of the club," the "moneyed" people of Johnson County, she says.

In his column, Rose praised her independence, her leadership and her experience, likening her to his beloved Ed Eilert.

And he fired on O'Hara, labeling her a "living testimony to 'leapfrog' growth" and "a charter member, a dues paying member, a full-fledged, hardcore Far Right candidate." On the Friday before Election Day, Rose published a final plea for Surbaugh instead of his usual complete list of endorsements. "[O'Hara] is running a slick, self-funded stealth campaign, under pleasant-sounding prepackaged themes meant to appeal to the uninformed." The very future of Johnson County lay in the balance, Rose insisted.

"This year is a year Steve really became aggressive in his columns in political races in the county," his old acquaintance Nick Jordan says. "This year in particular ... he was pretty -- I don't know if the right word is vicious -- to some candidates."

O'Hara was surprised at his venom. "He has had such a bad year. Now he's put all his apples in this one cart," O'Hara said just before the election. "He is just desperate to remain relevant."

On that point, Rose might have agreed with O'Hara.

Standing at First Watch the evening of Election Day, Rose pondered what it would have meant to him if Surbaugh had lost.

"Everything my family and I had done in fifty years ... would have been thrown down the drain," he said as the party continued. "This was a referendum on which way this county was going to go."

Rose spent the evening hovering at the shoulder of the man pulling up early returns on a computer propped up next to the restaurant's cash register. When the final numbers appeared, Rose got to deliver the good news. He took three steps toward the crowd, raised his hands to his mouth and hollered.

"Sixty to forty. It's over!"

It was the end of a long year and a wonderful birthday present on the day Rose turned 55.

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