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The Northeast Candidate's forum takes place in late June at the Melrose United Methodist Church, which resembles a gray castle of solemn-looking stone blocks. About half of those who have showed up after work to hear candidates for the Democratic primary remain as the hour approaches 9 p.m. Only the contenders for county executive have yet to speak.
Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders speaks first. He arrived just in time for his chance behind the microphone, shaking hands and shooting enthusiastic finger-guns at members of the crowd before taking his seat. During his allotted three minutes, he leans on the crime lab's successes in solving cold cases with new DNA evidence.
For his turn, state Sen. Charles Wheeler grips the microphone with both hands and promises to bring more civility to government. He complains that political dialogue has become too "rancorous."
Then it's Tolbert's turn.
"I've been a practicing politician for 42 years," Tolbert begins. Sanders cracks a smile. Tolbert wears a gray suit and a red tie, his white-collared shirt clinging to his midsection.
"For the last 22 years, I've been practicing as an outsider," Tolbert continues. "If all I knew about Richard Tolbert was what I read in The Kansas City Star, I wouldn't vote for the S.O.B. either." The newspaper, he says, fails to give equal time to minor candidates for political office. "We have a Pendergast machine today, and it operates in much the same way as it did back then. It's called The Kansas City Star."
Despite his claims of a conspiracy, the media often quote Tolbert without mention of his blighted properties, his criminal record or his frivolous lawsuits. A search of the Star's electronic archives, which go back to 1995, reveals 201 articles that contain mention of Tolbert. There are many more on microfiche in the public library's files dating back to 1970.
Much of the attention Tolbert grabs for himself in the news comes from opposing tax increases. When the anti-drug tax COMBAT came up for renewal in 2003, Tolbert appeared on TV, unsuccessfully campaigning against it. When a tax increase for Truman Medical Center was up for a vote in the spring of 2005, right after Missouri's huge Medicaid cuts threatened the hospital's ability to serve the poorest members of the community, Tolbert spoke out against it. (That increase also passed.) And most recently, Tolbert landed in the Star and regularly on the nightly news, just before voters approved a tax to improve the Truman Sports Complex.
"I was active in the opposition to the stadium tax," Tolbert tells the forum crowd. "They had a $2 million war chest to bamboozle the public. We had $500 in our war chest, and we whipped 'em on one part of their proposal the rolling-roof tax. Maybe if we'd had another $500, we'd have whipped 'em on both of them."
Steve Glorioso, the veteran political consultant who worked for the Save Our Stadiums campaign, laughs when he hears Tolbert's claim of having single-handedly stopped the rolling roof proposition. "Nah, that failed for reasons [Tolbert] would never even understand," Glorioso tells the Pitch. "On one hand, Richard's articulate, but on the other hand, he brings so much baggage that he's pretty easy to marginalize in a campaign, an issue campaign, because you start by saying, You're not very credible because you're against everything."