Festering mounds of uncollected trash. Potholes big enough to swallow a Suburban. Broad-daylight purse snatchings with no cops in sight.
These are the scenes that Kansas City, Missouri, leaders want to have haunting the minds of voters come April 5, when an election will determine the fate of the city's annual allowance: the earnings tax.
The "e-tax," which collects 1 percent from the paycheck of anyone who lives or works in the city, accounts for about $200 million a year, money responsible for basic services such as snow removal, trash pickup and police work. But in November, Missouri voters approved Proposition A, a ballot issue dreamed up by St. Louis billionaire Rex Sinquefield that forces St. Louis and Kansas City to weigh the fate of their e-taxes every five years. The first weigh-in is in April.
If the tax is voted down, it will phase out over 10 years, meaning that a family making $60,000 a year would eventually save $600 every year — a nice flat-screen's worth of cash. But to ward off those civically apocalyptic scenarios, the city would look for ways to replace the revenue: taxes on trash, quadrupling property-tax rates, new utility taxes. And with no help from suburban commuters, the whole $200 million tab would land in KCMO's lap.
Kansas City voters signaled a willingness to let the tax expire when they joined the rural areas of Missouri in voting for Prop A in November. (St. Louis voters favored keeping the tax.) Three months later, many voters still relish the idea of starving Big Government until it can squeeze into its skinny jeans.
Which is precisely why, late last year, the city's most moneyed movers and shakers started searching for a skilled spin surgeon to help save the tax. A panel of union heads and business leaders hunkered down at the offices of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce to screen the city's best political strategists. They had a big pile of money to spend on the campaign, reportedly as much as $1.5 million. All they needed was someone to hand it to.
They called Kim Carlos, a City Hall veteran who worked under Emanuel Cleaver. Pat O'Neill, a likable, longtime campaign guru whose roots reach back to the Pendergast era, made a pitch. They even interviewed conservative strategist Jeff Roe, widely regarded by Democrats as the Darth Vader of state politics.
But in the end, they settled on Pat Gray, the city's most infamous electoral puppeteer.
"He's a master at keeping all the frogs in the wheelbarrow. He's very good at managing relationships, personalities, egos — and his own is always in check," concedes Roe. "I think if there's a guy who can master that kind of campaign, he's the one."
But while Gray has 30 years of political campaigning under his belt, his early years were spent crafting arguments against taxes. And he comes with a reputation as a brass-knuckled fighter who leaves bruises that linger.
"One thing Pat Gray doesn't do well is build friendships and build momentum," says Michael Fletcher, a 3rd District City Council candidate who views Gray as a major liability. "He likes to exact revenge, so there are going to be people who are helpful, who have real constituencies, who are not going to be brought onboard because Pat Gray doesn't like them."
Gray's famed win-loss record, once as brawny as a pair of Wranglers, has recently started to fray. Several of his clients were considered shoo-ins but instead suffered stinging losses in November's election. In his 60s, he also reportedly has retirement on his mind. But the e-tax job, whether he's ready — or right — for it, is his. And, win or lose, it will be lucrative. Consultants typically pocket 10 percent of total campaign spending, sources say, so if businesses and union leaders pony up $1.5 million to save the e-tax, Gray's take could be as much as $150,000.