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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.