For proponents of the Jackson County half-cent sales-tax increase that would have funded medical research, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.
Boosters of the measure lost by a staggering margin — 84 percent of voters said no. And the steepest rebuke of a significant local election in memory was even more remarkable because the proposal had been engineered to pass easily.
Early polling suggested that a wide majority of voters would approve the idea. And the short time between the idea's first public announcement — August 8 — and the November 5 vote should have short-circuited the formation of organized opposition.
Backing the tax were some of the business community's more visible luminaries, chiefly Hallmark Cards executive Don Hall Jr. It was the kind of high-profile support designed to lock up credibility, and the pro-tax movement had tapped into enough local wealth to draw a $2 million campaign war chest.
Supporters of the tax also had sewn up commitments from KC's leading political operatives: Jeff Roe, Pat O'Neill, Steve Glorioso and Pat Gray. That quartet represented a flying wedge against any opposition, blocking access to the most experienced consultants in town.
Then Gray broke formation.
"Pat Gray has decided to step back from the campaign from this point forward," reads an October 26 e-mail from Roe to pro-tax electioneers. "Please leave him off any and all campaign communications from here out."
Roe's note capped weeks of speculation within the pro-tax campaign that Gray was working covertly for organizations opposing Question 1, the measure to send $40 million a year to St. Luke's, Children's Mercy and the University of Missouri–Kansas City for translational medical research.
His announcement also came three days after a mysterious entity called Citizens for Fairness filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission. That committee poured hundreds of thousands of dollars toward killing the sales-tax measure while obscuring its own origins and the identity of its principal financier (listed in ethics-commission documentation as Government Policies Foundation).
The day that Citizens for Fairness filed its financial disclosure with the Missouri Ethics Commission was the same day that Gray was corresponding with E.E. Keenan, a Kansas City lawyer who coordinated the secretive committee.
The Pitch has confirmed the exchange between Gray and Keenan on October 23 that discusses campaign strategy.
The correspondence seems to confirm the suspicions of multiple sources involved with the sales-tax campaign, who told The Pitch that they thought Gray collaborated with Citizens for Fairness in the weeks leading up to Election Day, taking with him key data including polling and messaging gained from his work for the pro-tax campaign. (Many sources do not want to be named because they continue to have political dealings with Gray or fear retribution from him.)
Gray did not respond to several phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment for this story.
Roe, a political muscleman usually aligned with Republican interests, became the point man for sales-tax proponents. He declines to comment specifically about Gray. "We had a bipartisan collection of top-level operatives who did a great job," Roe tells The Pitch. "We had one situation I had to take care of in that campaign."
Roe does not elaborate on that one situation.
Campaign finance records show that Gray's company, Cambridge Consultants, was paid $10,000 on October 21 but received no further payment from then on.
The pro-tax campaign, called Committee for Research, Treatments and Cures, amassed about $2 million to convince voters to pass the tax, much of it coming from the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City. The Civic Council, a klatch of business executives, pools its resources behind various missions. It was the primary group trying to pass the sales-tax measure, and it helped suck up that $2 million war chest by calling on a narrow slice of the Kansas City business community.
But it didn't count on a personal-injury lawyer from Springfield, Missouri, named Brad Bradshaw, who entered the campaign with his own fortune aimed at defeating the tax. And it didn't expect a furtive and well-funded campaign committee, in Citizens for Fairness, to crop up.
Whoever worked on behalf of Citizens for Fairness — and its equally nebulous nonprofit financier, Government Policies Foundation — understood well Missouri's lax election laws. Citizens for Fairness filed paperwork in September with the Jackson County Election Board, the Independence office of which isn't usually visited by local media. Reporters are more apt to stake out the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners, in Union Station.
Citizens for Fairness established itself with the Missouri Ethics Commission on October 23, two days after getting a check for $196,000 from the Government Policies Foundation. The foundation applied to the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit, meaning that it wouldn't have to disclose the names of contributors and making it an ideal cloak for anonymous special-interest money. The name Government Policies Foundation suggests a stodgy think tank that has been around forever, but it was established on September 17 of this year. Its incorporation papers list the address as 1025 Winchester Avenue, a dingy building in the Blue Valley Industrial District owned by Ford Warehouses Corp.
Government Policies Foundation organizer Doug Patterson, a Leawood lawyer, has declined to say whose money finances the foundation, citing attorney-client privilege. (Patterson is also the secretary of Ford Warehouses Corp., which explains why Government Policies Foundation used the Winchester address.) Patterson, a Republican, used to serve in the Kansas House; Gray helped him get elected.
Asked if Gray worked against the sales-tax campaign, Patterson again summons attorney-client privilege.
"I'll tell you, as you know, lawyers have privileged type of information that we're prohibited from disclosing," Patterson says. "I can't tell you one way or the other."
Regardless, the Government Policies Foundation played a key part in smothering the sales tax. The group poured $200,000 into Citizens for Fairness — almost all the committee's cash. It also paid $40,000 to Freedom Inc., a longtime black political club in Kansas City that's sometimes considered influential to its voting bloc and has a reputation for requiring payment from political interests that seek its endorsement.
Freedom Inc. came out against the sales-tax measure on October 3, saying that funding translational research wasn't the responsibility of Jackson Countians. Two days later, Bradshaw paid Freedom Inc. $25,000.
Gray has been known to work with Freedom Inc. in the past. Pro-tax campaigners became suspicious that Gray was in league with Freedom Inc. again when the political club's anti-sales-tax mail arrived at Kansas City houses. The well-produced pieces resembled direct-mail items that Gray had sent in previous campaigns.
John Carnes, an Independence lawyer who has worked with Gray (and sometimes against him) in prior political contests, took up ranks with Citizens for Fairness, spreading the word in eastern Jackson County about the faults of the proposed sales-tax increase.
"I think the Freedom people may have had some discussions with Pat, but I don't know," Carnes says. "I don't know if he was for it or against it."
Freedom Inc.'s and Citizens for Fairness' materials would prove influential in sinking the sales tax. Patterson says he understood that polls dropped "like a lead balloon" after Freedom staked its opposition.
Freedom Inc.'s Kiki Curls and Gayle Holliday could not be reached for comment.
If Gray took up ranks with the opposition after signing on with pro-tax campaign committees, it wouldn't have been the first time he crossed the street in the middle of a political campaign.
Gray was hired by former development lawyer Dick King in the 1991 Kansas City mayoral race. The two didn't work well together, and Gray was fired from the campaign. He quickly started working for Brice Harris, a community-college administrator handpicked by the local business community to challenge King.
Both candidates ran an exceptionally sleazy campaign in the primary, a race neither won. Emanuel Cleaver went on to beat Bob Lewellen in that year's general election, marking the first term in the Kansas City mayor's office for the present-day congressman.
And Gray is widely believed to have double-crossed former Jackson County legislator Henry Rizzo in 2010. Gray worked as Rizzo's consultant in a race against 2nd District challenger Crystal Williams. But he also worked on behalf of Terry Riley, another Jackson County Legislature aspirant who was challenging incumbent Fred Arbanas. A mail piece went out that summoned imagery from the crime movie The Usual Suspects by depicting all the incumbents in a police lineup.
"I was shocked to find out that my consultant, who I paid to represent me, was also partly behind the negative mailer that hurt me in the last two weeks of the campaign," Rizzo told The Pitch in 2011.
Rizzo lost that race to Williams. Gray passed Rizzo's complaints off as "political gossip."
Larry Jacob, a political consultant with the Dover Strategy Group, which worked on the pro-tax campaign, says he has been told that Gray defected to opposition groups.
"If, in fact, that did happen — if, in fact, it turns out to be true and he left — he burned a bunch of bridges for no reason," Jacob tells The Pitch.
The sales tax was doomed regardless of Gray's position. But the whose-side-is-he-on-today mystery was just one of many signs indicating a troubled campaign.
Roe says his pre-campaign polling showed that 58 percent of the Jackson County electorate would have voted in favor of the sales tax.
Campaign critics have quietly surmised that such a result came from a push poll — the kind that asks questions in a manner designed to elicit the response a campaign committee wants to hear.
Roe disputes this, saying no reputable firm does push polls.
But there's no doubt that the campaign got off to a terrible start once news of the ballot measure made the front page of the August 8 Kansas City Star. And things didn't get easier once Bradshaw got involved.
Bradshaw, a physician who later became a personal-injury lawyer, has been working on proposing some form of statewide sales tax in Missouri for medical research for the past 30 years. The Jackson County proposal seemed to co-opt some of his ideas, and he set out to defeat it with his own money.
His advertisements against the tax struck early and often between the time the tax was announced and August 27, the date that the Jackson County Legislature approved the measure for the November 5 ballot.
Meanwhile, the pro-tax campaign was unwilling to launch a meaningful election effort before legislators could look over the issue. This allowed Bradshaw's criticisms of the tax to go without a rebuttal.
"Bradshaw tried to kill us in the crib before the Legislature had even voted to put it on the ballot," Roe tells The Pitch. He says the early polling lead was whittled down 10 points because of Bradshaw's work.
Steve Glorioso, a longtime political operative in Kansas City and beyond, thinks Roe may be overestimating Bradshaw's efforts.
"If that's all we had, we would have had an outside chance at winning, because his [Bradshaw's] stuff was laughable," Glorioso says. What hurt, he argues, was the Citizens for Fairness campaign. "Their stuff was top-notch," he says.
Keenan emerged as the Citizens for Fairness spokesman, but he didn't have much to say. In published accounts, Keenan wouldn't say where the campaign's money came from or who was working with it.
Citizens for Fairness, contrary to the equitable nature suggested by its moniker, went to considerable lengths to obscure its funding sources as well as whom it paid for various campaign services.
The committee's filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission show that it paid tens of thousands of dollars to a company called Franklin & Lee LLC to do mailers, robo calls, research and polling. Franklin & Lee was created on October 4, 2013, according to the Missouri Secretary of State's records. Its address is listed in south Kansas City at 520 West 103rd Street, which is actually a UPS Store in a strip mall next to a Gold Rush Exchange shop and an out-of-business pizza parlor.
Some have speculated that the local union and construction community, except for J.E. Dunn, pooled resources to oppose the tax because they favored a proposed statewide 1-cent sales tax for highways. That measure may come before voters in 2014.
Keenan, a young, Harvard-educated lawyer who briefly worked for Plaza law firm Steuve Siegel Hanson before starting his own pro-union office, did not return The Pitch's calls.
Campaign literature against the sales tax was combative and often focused on the costly and regressive nature of a sales tax. Mailers at times called out research proponents as a bunch of Johnson County fat cats looking to make a buck off Jackson County taxpayers.
By contrast, pro-tax TV spots were tug-at-the-heartstrings stuff that showed sick people on the mend, implying that a yes vote on the sales-tax increase could send Grandma home from the hospital with a clean bill of health. But the ads failed to directly address the opposition's complaints.
"What really surprised me was the extent to which the proponents didn't really understand public sensitivity to sales taxes and the disconnect with sales taxes and medical research," says Dan Cofran, chairman of the Citizens Association, a longstanding political club that rejected the sales-tax proposal.
The lack of endorsements also hurt the sales-tax effort; few would stick up for the issue once opposition started to grow.
"When you start to erode, you lean on groups," Roe says. "When the attacks come, you have someone to rely on. We didn't have Freedom or many of the unions or Democrat advocacy groups."
Still, Roe says the polling eight days before the election still had the pro-sales-tax side winning by two points.
That polling is at odds with the final outcome, a devastating loss for the Civic Council, which had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign that convinced a pittance of overall voters of the merits of its plan.
For its trouble, the Civic Council again found itself on the losing side of an electoral question.
In 2011, it refused to support the Kansas City Zoo tax. (It passed.)
In 2012, it refused to support the Kansas City sales tax for parks. (It passed.)
That same year, it favored a statewide tax increase on tobacco products. (It didn't pass.)
And this year, it whiffed on the sales tax it supported for medical research.
The Civic Council is run by executives from primarily large corporations or law firms. It's a nonprofit with a small staff. Those who do work for the council are well-paid; executive director Jewel Scott took home $461,764 in 2012.
The Civic Council is made up of sophisticated businesspeople, but they failed to predict the mood of voters. Still, some of its members focus on the opposition's attack ads as the reason for the proposal's demise.
"I think the messaging got a little bit cluttered," says Mark Jorgenson, U.S. Bank regional president and a Civic Council executive committee member. "This is a biased opinion, obviously, but there were some misstatements of fact that were out there. I think you always have that in a campaign."
But even some proponents see the outcome differently.
"I obsess over things that are 55 percent to 45 percent, even up to 60 percent," Jacob tells The Pitch. "When the margin is where it is [84–16], it tells me the voters just flatly rejected the concept."