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Former Councilwoman Carol Coe has had a seat from which to watch Tolbert in action for years, attending meetings for Freedom Inc. "He is a voice for the voiceless. These people have something to say. I don't think they have the right attitude, but it is a constituency."
Even Steve Mirakian, who was the attorney representing radio station 1340 when Tolbert sued the station for firing him in 1999, found some good words for Tolbert. "Richard is a bright guy," Mirakian told the Kansas City Business Journal at the time. "If only he could put his talents to good use."
Those who know Tolbert best have tried to talk him into cleaning up his act. Sonny Gibson, a local historian who has known Tolbert since the '70s, doesn't understand why Tolbert's properties remain in such disarray. "I'm a friend of his, and he doesn't make sense to me, and I'm on him all the time! Mark [Esping] is on him all the time. He's on his ass all the time, stronger than I am about everything, shit, not just about the properties."
Esping, a neighborhood leader, often offers Tolbert advice on how to avoid the city's wrath. He remembers offering Tolbert contact information for painters who work cheap and could at least spruce up the front facades of his houses just so they'd look better from the street. Tolbert declined.
When Tolbert's not focused on campaigning which involves showing up at forums and tooling around town in his maroon Buick Century with an "Elect Richard Tolbert" cardboard sign in the back window he's thinking up big ideas. Tolbert's newest dream involves creating a "Wal-Mart-like" store in the black community. Preferably, on Prospect.
He announces this plan recently to the group that meets every Friday morning at the McDonald's on 14th and Prospect. Tolbert can be found here most mornings, but Fridays are special. The group, called "Eggs and Enlightenment," is chaired by his friend Gibson, who holds a gavel and allows 15 minutes for presentations. The regulars include Esping; Marlon Hammons, an activist and president of the Washington-Wheatley Neighborhood Association; Archie Williams, a social worker; and Salahaddin Mausulah and Murad Karriem, both Muslim prayer leaders.
A typical meeting features plenty of impassioned yelling. Often, Gibson has to bang the gavel and remind the group to be respectful of one another's opinions.
Tolbert loves the Eggs and Enlightenment meetings. The discussions remind him of the time when he was happiest debating with peers at Yale. "It's the only place in town you can go to talk politics and religion. Those are my favorite topics. The topics your mother said it wasn't polite to talk about in public," Tolbert says with a laugh.
Williams puts it differently. "The more you talk to Richard, the more you will see, he enjoys the debate more than the solution."
Some of the regulars have had run-ins with Tolbert. The Washington-Wheatley Neighborhood Association encompasses a Tolbert property at 2012 Agnes. Since the little blue home has been in Tolbert's possession, termites have eaten through the back wall, and a tree in the front yard is wildly overgrown. Hammons says he has tried to work with Tolbert to clean up the problems with the house. Tolbert ignores Hammons' suggestions.
"We talk about how we want our neighborhood to look the same as the best neighborhoods in Kansas City," Hammons says. "We talk about what people do on Ward Parkway. Those people act. They don't play. So don't get mad at us when we want to act. This would never happen on Ward Parkway."