Cleaver and Metzl start to make this August’s primary look like a real fight.

The Preach and the Prep 

Cleaver and Metzl start to make this August’s primary look like a real fight.

Last week's hottest social event was the debate between Emanuel Cleaver and Jamie Metzl, and that's not just because the audience overflowed a Penn Valley Community College auditorium on a humid summer night.

The race is a bizarre one. Metzl and Cleaver are in a scrap for the seat held by Congresswoman Karen McCarthy, who has famously lorded over Missouri's 5th District in vapid fashion for nearly 10 years. When Cleaver entered the race in February, he seemed preordained to succeed her. Even folks around town who grumbled about Cleaver's tenure as mayor couldn't deny that the prospect of sending him to Washington was exciting. And the Democrats needed a strong candidate because Republicans were salivating over the idea that, for the first time in recent memory, they might have a shot at the seat.

But heading into the August 3 primary, newcomer Metzl wasn't scared. The hometown boy who'd gone on to earn a Harvard law degree and a Ph.D. in history from Oxford, and who'd been working in various foreign policy positions in Washington, had announced his challenge to McCarthy three months before she decided not to seek re-election. Loaded with cash from early fund-raising, Metzl started turning up everywhere: shaking hands at the annual NAACP awards in November; breaking into Broadway show tunes for gay political house-partiers in late winter; importing his former boss, book-touring former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, for an endorsement session at Union Station; and autographing copies of his own novel at Unity Temple in May.

By June 22, he'd corralled enough support that the Penn Valley auditorium was almost equally divided between Metzl and Cleaver partisans, even though the see-and-be-seen Democrats otherwise would have been cocktailing it up together at John Kerry fund-raisers.

Cleaver devotees booed and hissed -- booed and hissed! -- when Metzl threw punches during his opening statement, in which he said he believed the point of going to Congress was "to serve the people who elected you, not yourself." Up in the nosebleeds, people griped about bad sportsmanship. But Metzl kept going. "If you operate around the law in Kansas City, why would it be any different in D.C.?" he asked, referring to that morning's Kansas City Star stories rehashing how Cleaver had obtained an urban redevelopment loan to buy a car wash in suburban Grandview (two years after the Pitch reported that news in Joe Miller's "Clever Cleaver," April 4, 2002) and reporting new revelations that he hadn't provided workers' compensation insurance to cover his employees there.

In Hallmarky Kansas City, it was almost shocking the way the clean-cut white kid stayed in attack mode for the next 90 minutes.

Cleaver delivered answers slowly, faux haltingly, to give the impression of deep thoughtfulness, and he went straight for the heart of his audience. He fell in love with Kansas City, he told this congregation of Kansas Citians. This is a fabulous community, he said. All night, whenever Cleaver spoke, his worshippers called out their "amens" and "mm hmms."

The former mayor took credit for big projects -- the Bartle Hall expansion over I-70, restoring Union Station, reconstruction at 18th and Vine. But it was hard to forget that city leaders have already begun saying that Bartle Hall is outmoded and needs to be expanded again. Or that, except for its grand shell, Union Station needs serious help. Or that, despite massive public investment, 18th and Vine is a long, long way from glory.

As KCTV Channel 5's Dave Helling, KMBC Channel 9's Micheal Mahoney and the Star's Steve Kraske lobbed wonkish questions (was U.S. foreign policy tilted too favorably to Israel? Did they support the White House appropriations bill on missile defense? Where did they stand on reinstating the draft?), the contenders demonstrated big differences in style and approach.

Whereas Metzl quoted the Patriot Act chapter and verse, specifically the evil Section 215 (the part that gives the U.S. government extraordinary license to spy on its citizens), Cleaver ducked with stirring hyperbole: "America is great because America is good. When America is no longer good, it will no longer be great. One of the things that makes us great is our liberty. I'm not willing to sacrifice one freedom for security. The Patriot Act must be challenged."

When Metzl emphasized that he was the only candidate with specific plans, which were detailed in position papers posted on his Web site, Cleaver countered with rhetorical populism: "My Web site is in Belton, Independence, Raytown, Sugar Creek," he said. "I know the people who live there -- I have lived with them."

The two may share similar views on most of the issues. But even if it's just a question of style, 5th District voters have something real at stake in this election.

The day before their debate, Cleaver held a press conference in front of an old folks' home at the south end of the Prospect bridge. The bridge is closed for reconstruction, and a crane worked off to the west. Cleaver was there to brag about his Brush Creek flood-control projects; now people won't be dying at this spot, he said. And by stretching the Brush Creek beautification east of Troost, he said, the city was "washing away another artificial dividing line" between the races. That was a nice metaphor, but the bridge could have symbolized something else as well: that the city's infrastructure continued its long crumble during the years Cleaver served as councilman and mayor.

Cleaver said something else at that press conference, though. In response to questioning from Mahoney, he suggested that Metzl had engaged in the "politics of personal destruction."

"I don't call the news media every day to tell them to check on things," Cleaver said.

Mahoney pressed for an example, but Cleaver dodged. He had to. If he'd clarified, he would have brought up damaging information that the assembled reporters already knew: that Cleaver hadn't paid for workers' compensation insurance at his car wash. The Metzl campaign had been circulating those documents for weeks, trying to get some newspaper to cover the story. It showed up in the Star the next morning.

That day at the Prospect bridge, I asked Cleaver about the workers' comp problem. All I wanted was a straight answer -- yes, he'd screwed up, and he'd make it right, or no, the Metzl campaign was wrong, and here was the proof.

Instead, I got mush.

"Our employees are covered from injury at the car wash now, and they have been," he said cryptically. Did he mean there was some sort of alternative arrangement? I imagined a collection plate going around at St. James United Methodist Church to cover some windshield washer's smashed big toe. And hell, I might have bought it. But Cleaver simply repeated that "the people who work at the car wash are covered if they're injured." Then he added this bizarre assertion: "He [Metzl] hasn't lived here, so he doesn't understand."

Metzl's tactics might have been unseemly, but pushing damaging information about an opponent is just standard politics. It's not the "politics of personal destruction." He hadn't been questioning Cleaver's private life, his choice of thrift-store ties or the fact that he's endearingly pigeon-toed.

Metzl had been raising legitimate questions about ethics. And the fact that Cleaver hadn't paid for workers' comp made him sound awfully hypocritical on the night of the debate, when he talked about the importance of access to good health care.

Listening to the Rev that night, though, it was easy to feel inspired. His sweet sermonizing was meant to lead his people to a higher ground. He said he wasn't going to Washington to fight with anyone, that he would return civility to government.

But the days of civility in Washington seem to be over; the nation's capital is a vicious battleground for the country's soul. And saving it might take more than a preacher with a Reagan-like ability to make people feel good about themselves regardless of reality. It might require an aggressive, ambitious and freakishly educated youngster who isn't afraid of a fight.


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