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In 1964, Jordan was elected to the Missouri House. Tolbert likes to say that the plan was that he would be Jordan's successor when Jordan was ready to retire.
The following July, Jordan was locking up for the night at the Green Duck tavern he owned on 26th Street and Prospect when he was gunned down. Tolbert says that if Jordan hadn't been assassinated, "I'd be a former president of the United States right now ... at least a sitting United States senator."
In 1971, Tolbert ran for City Council against an incumbent. He won by nearly 46,000 votes.
Tolbert thrived in the book-smart world of academia, but when it came to working with fellow members of the Council, Tolbert came off like a crybaby. He was shushed by then-Mayor Charles Wheeler for initiating long, fruitless debates in the council chambers. He responded by calling the mayor "out of order."
Then came Tolbert's demands. He wanted a personal aide. He insisted on an office. When he didn't get it, he commandeered a meeting room in City Hall as his own.
When Tolbert's car broke down, he seized a city-owned car that was supposed to be shared by all Council members. Tolbert refused to give the car back when pressed by other Council members and dared them to repossess it. The issue played out in the press, right up until a City Works employee towed the car from a store that Tolbert owned on Swope Parkway called Bargain Boutiques. Tolbert accused the Council of racism.
The Bargain Boutiques store led to another public embarrassment. When Tolbert wrote a bad check to buy $400 in store fixtures from a Wichita company, police charged him with a felony. The case was dismissed, but subsequent newspaper articles reported that Tolbert also hadn't been paying rent for his storefront.
Tolbert began missing Council meetings without explanation. After the 12th consecutive absence, the Star reported that he was "seen entering City Hall late this morning and was found clearing papers from the drawers of his desk in the Council offices on the 24th floor of the building." Tolbert resigned in late 1974, telling reporters that his future plans included "working out personal problems."
Tolbert fled to Los Angeles for 10 years of what he likes to call "exile." It was familiar territory; he had spent half a year in the 8th grade there with his mother, until she suffered a nervous breakdown. He worked as a textbook salesman and as a personnel manager for a security guard company.
Tolbert flirted with the idea of buying a house, but found the Los Angeles housing market too expensive. So he returned to Kansas City, where he was pleased to find plenty of cheap houses for sale east of Troost. He bought up 20-some "fixer-uppers." If he had good intentions with the properties, his plans never materialized.
Debra Higgs bought her home near Woodland Avenue on East 36th Street two years ago. She was thrilled after years of saving to finally be able to call herself a homeowner. One of the first things she did to fix up her new place was to pull out the old, "pissy smelling" carpet and take it to the curb.
The carpet didn't disappear with the trash. Instead, it ended up draped over the weed-filled lawn of the property next door. Tolbert had incorporated her trash as part of the patchwork quilt of carpet scraps that lead up to the front steps of a property he owns at 1806 East 36th Street.