Now 75, Wheeler has come out of a two-decade retirement from politics to run for the Missouri Senate's 10th District seat. He says his candidacy is in citizens' best interests because term limits have ousted his old friend Harry Wiggins, who held the seat for a quarter century.
"I think it's important that someone with a strong record on Kansas City issues get that seat," Wheeler says. But for CCP members, that someone is longtime State Representative Henry Rizzo.
On a recent Tuesday, club members -- among them many powerful local Democrats wearing name tags -- gathered to bestow endorsements for the August primary. A local attorney in a gray suit pounded an empty Bud Light can on a table. "Quiet please!" he shouted. "May we call this meeting to order?"
He read a list of candidates that the CCP's board had recommended for endorsement. Among them was Rizzo. Tanned and beaming in a crisp white dress shirt, the 48-year-old lawmaker accepted the CCP's endorsement -- the most important one in the race -- with a short speech.
"Thank you for your vote of confidence," Rizzo said. "I made a lot of phone calls, and obviously they paid off."
Still, Wheeler is campaigning, trying to convince voters he's not too old for Jefferson City. He's heard rumors that he may not be mentally or physically fit to serve in the Senate, but as a doctor, he knows better. At one political forum, Wheeler, wearing his signature bow tie and wire-rimmed spectacles, told the audience he expects to defy actuarial charts.
"If you weather that stormy decade between 55 and 65, you stand a reasonable chance of living to be 100," he said before launching into a scientific explanation of the aging process. "The main problem in aging is, people's chromosomes begin to fray at the ends," Wheeler said. But, he added reassuringly, he is vigilant about his health.
"My own wife looked at me the other day and said, 'Either I'm growing taller or you're growing shorter.' I took that seriously and put myself on some calcium pills. I feel great at this particular time."
A week after the CCP's meeting, Wheeler learned that his old friends had not endorsed him. "I think it's the good ol' boys against the public," Wheeler says, narrowing his eyes.
In recent census-driven map changes, the Senate's 10th District became more attractive to Democrats. Its 160,000 residents include many party stalwarts: youthful progressives in Westport, limousine liberals in the Ward Parkway corridor, working-class unionists in the Northeast and middle-class blacks in Grandview.
"After they redrew the lines, people looked at this as the premier local race," says Steve Glorioso, a longtime Democratic political consultant. Observers anticipated that big-name Democrats with lots of cash would battle for endorsements and support during an exciting primary campaign. In the November general election, the Democratic winner would go up against a formidable -- and rich -- Republican opponent from Ward Parkway.
Yet the Republicans fielded no candidates, so the Democratic primary may well decide who goes to the Senate from the 10th District.
In fact, the race is probably over now. With seventeen years' experience, Rizzo is the only candidate with money and the support of political clubs and associations; he has $220,000 and more than 25 endorsements. Wheeler has $10,000 and no endorsements. The third Democrat in the race, Brookside businesswoman Suellen Dice, has $10,000 and only two endorsements -- from the Greater Kansas City Women's Political Caucus and the Missouri chapter of the National Organization for Women. (Another 10th District Senate candidate, state Representative Tom Hoppe, who had been a Democrat, will appear on the September ballot as an independent.)
A successful candidate would have at least $50,000 by mid-July, Glorioso says. "Everyone's waiting to see whether Dice or Wheeler has any money to run a campaign," Glorioso says. "If you don't have endorsements, you'd better have money. The ideal is both."
Wheeler has neither, despite his résumé.
Wheeler's uncle collected votes for the Pendergast machine, and Wheeler closely followed the career of Harry Truman, a sometime Pendergast cohort.
At age seventeen, during World War II, Wheeler got his first job, working in the local FBI office and showing a youthful penchant for forensic crime-solving. Two decades later, in his late thirties, Wheeler won the coroner race, giving the CCP its first victory, which the group still mentions in its brochure.
In 1971, Wheeler became mayor of Kansas City, a position he held for two terms, until 1979. He was popular at first, and the city built Kemper Arena and Bartle Hall during his tenure. He published Doctor in Politics, a kind of journal of his dual career. But strife between firefighters and the city contributed to his losses in two subsequent mayoral bids, and he had a short, embarrassing stint as an uninvited vice-presidential candidate in U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson's 1976 campaign for the White House.
Wheeler may be old and politically rusty, but the other two candidates have weaknesses as well. Rizzo spent three months in federal prison a decade ago for lying to bank about a bad-check scheme at an auto dealership he co-owned with his brother. Dice has no experience in elected office.
At campaign events with Wheeler, the 52-year-old Dice rarely uses the word old but manages to work the word new into every other sentence. "It's really important and very exciting for the voters of this district to send new representatives to Jefferson City," she says, adding that she has "a new perspective" and would be "a new voice" perfect for "a new economy" and "a new time."
Rizzo politely stops short of mentioning Wheeler's age or Dice's lack of experience but enthusiastically stresses his own age, stamina and health -- which he says are necessary for the grueling legislative sessions, receptions and meetings with lobbyists and constituents in Jefferson City.
"I'm 48 years old, and I'm in great shape," Rizzo says. "I work out all the time, I do all the right things, I try to eat right and I don't drink or smoke, and [the last legislative session] kicked my butt. It's just one firestorm after another, just going, going, going."
Rizzo also emphasizes his experience. "The thing that sets me apart is my institutional knowledge of the general assembly," he says. "It's a very complex body. It's a real maze down there for a newcomer. It took me three years in the house before I even knew my way around."
The time he served in prison will not affect his chances of winning, he says.
"It was a mistake," he says. "I'll readily admit it. And I think seven reelections say that it's not an issue."
Rizzo entered politics at age seventeen when he joined picketers to save a fire station in his family's northeast neighborhood. From there, he went on to study marketing and work at various car dealerships. He was first elected to the House in 1985.
Dice, who previously worked in the food-service industry selling giant jars of Hellmann's mayonnaise and Skippy peanut butter to restaurant owners, now owns a small fabric-importing business and lives with her Scottish terrier. A friendly, outgoing woman, Dice travels a lot and has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. She got her start in politics marching in a 1989 prochoice rally in Washington, D.C. She worked with the National Abortion Rights Action League during Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, then volunteered in Alan Wheat's unsuccessful 1994 U.S. Senate campaign and the successful gubernatorial campaigns of Mel Carnahan and Bob Holden.
As for the issues, Wheeler, Dice and Rizzo agree on many things.
Wheeler is an outspoken prochoice and family-planning advocate and says his priorities are health care, highways and education. Dice often visits family in Denmark and says she has been inspired by the country's "social safety net," liberal healthcare and family-friendly policies she'd like to see in Missouri. "I like to say I'm the social-justice candidate," Dice says.
Rizzo can point to his House career to define his political views. He has supported historic-preservation tax credits, neighborhood revitalization, affordable housing, and tougher criminal penalties. He has tried to repeal an old antisodomy law and opposes the death penalty. He has been endorsed by Missourians for Life in the past but now does not support further restrictions on abortion and has voted for family-planning funding.
In the last legislative session, he carried Mayor Kay Barnes' request for money to revitalize downtown Kansas City.
Marilyn Shapiro, president of the CCP, says Rizzo's experience and commitment to Kansas City gave him the edge over Wheeler -- the group's first choice all those years ago -- for the CCP's endorsement.
"We were looking at city issues and strength in being able to handle issues related to Kansas City. [Rizzo] had that strength," Shapiro says.
Wheeler insists his legacy means more.
"When I was county judge, I sat in the same seat as Harry Truman over in the Independence Courthouse, because they never changed the seats," Wheeler remembers. "I could say I was following in his footsteps."