Television cameras and newspaper photographers crowd the front row for a packed mid-September meeting of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board of Commissioners. But they aren't aiming their lenses at Frances Semler. Today, the controversy is over a proposed dog park in Waldo.
Outside, reporters interview supporters of the off-leash play space and opponents who don't want dogs overrunning the park. Inside, plastic fans labor to stir the air in a cramped conference room where every chair is taken and the walls are lined with anxious dog owners.
The biggest controversy surrounding the board isn't on today's agenda.
In June, Mayor Mark Funkhouser announced that he intended to root out "community divisiveness" with a new slate of commissioners for the board. But by appointing Northland resident Frances Semler, Funkhouser got more than a skilled gardener and well-regarded neighborhood president: Semler, a 73-year-old bookkeeper, is also a member of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, an anti-illegal-immigration group that patrols the U.S. border, pickets construction sites and favors militaristic rhetoric to warn against an "invasion" of unlawful immigrants. Instead of inspiring community inclusiveness, Funkhouser's appointment alienated the Hispanic community and many allied organizations that call the Minutemen a vigilante group.
Three months later, Semler is still a hot topic among attendees at the September 18 meeting. An elderly woman in the back row elbows her companion and whispers, "That's Frances Semler," as if she's just spotted a celebrity.
The Midwest's most famous parks commissioner isn't much to watch, though.
Her gaze is steady, and she barely glances down when she jots notes on a small pad with a purple pen. After the dog-park crowd clears out, the board considers a request to name a stretch of the Paseo after a prominent African-American pastor, gets an update on a construction project that's falling short of minority-hiring guidelines, and hears a presentation on the Ronald McDonald House's expansion plans.
Semler is quick with a sympathetic nod or smile, but she says little. When she does chime in, she speaks quietly, shifts awkwardly and ends her comments with an uncomfortable laugh.
When a parks department employee asks if she and fellow commissioner Aggie Stackhaus will ride on a city float in the American Royal Parade, Semler grimaces.
Stackhaus feigns discomfort but quickly agrees — "Pencil me in," she tells the employee. Semler shifts her eyes around the room and lets the question hang unanswered.
When the cameras are gone, though, the inconspicuous commissioner is still center-stage.
Stackhaus, Semler and parks department director Mark McHenry linger behind a table at the front of the room. As Semler gathers her notebook and purse, Stackhaus excitedly informs McHenry that their celebrity commissioner has earned another accolade: an award from conservative radio personality Laura Ingraham. McHenry looks at Stackhaus blankly. Stackhaus explains that Ingraham is the Ann Coulter of talk radio, and Semler is heading to the Uptown Theater in a few hours to receive her "Power to the People" award.
"She's the poster girl for conservatism," Stackhaus says of Semler.
Semler bats away the comment, starts digging in her purse for her keys.
"Oh, I call her modest Millie," Stackhaus says, chuckling.
Semler's opponents call her racist.
Her supporters call her a champion for the rule of law.
For now, let's just call her Kansas City's most infamous gardener.
Growing up in De Soto, Kansas, Frances Caldwell and her two sisters, Marion and Billie, and her brother, James, helped her parents tend Caldwell Farms, a family operation that won county-fair ribbons for its watermelons. Local schoolchildren who toured the fields knew Semler's mother, Nina, as "the Pumpkin Lady."
Semler says helping her folks inspired an early love of the outdoors. She also picked up a fondness for flowers from her grandmother, a first-generation German immigrant who lived on the farm.
Classes were taught in a two-room schoolhouse, recalls Semler's youngest sister, Billie Wells. Frances was one of the brightest students in town, Wells says with pride, noting that her sister tested for Mensa, the genius society. (Semler says she never got the results of that test and has never been a member.)
When she wasn't helping on the farm, Frances worked at the local bank. Though she never had a high school sweetheart, Wells says, she had plenty of friends. The Caldwells were parishioners at the United Methodist Church, but were certainly not, Wells says, "a religious-right family." But neither were they reserved about airing their opinions on the issues of the day.
"Our parents worked in the field, and one was a Democrat and one was Republican, so we always talked politics," Wells says.
After high school, everyone expected Frances to leave the rural Kansas community. "She always wanted to go to college and could have gone," Wells says, "but then we had the '51 flood, and there was no way. It devastated all of Kansas. At our house, there was sand all over the ground. The government brought in big bulldozers, big plows to plow the land. It was very traumatic."
Frances stayed at home, operating the farm with her mother. In fact, she settled down in De Soto for more than 20 years, marrying Richard Semler and raising their only daughter in the small town. She worked as an accountant and a sales representative for companies hawking farm machinery and concrete-cutting equipment. Over time, she earned some college credits at Wichita State University and Johnson County Community College.
In recent years, she has helped Richard with his home-remodeling business in Kansas City, running errands and sometimes pitching in with a paintbrush.
But, Wells says, Semler always put her work on hold if a family member needed help. When their aunt was sick, Semler took care of her. For the final six years of her life, Semler's mother moved from De Soto to live with her oldest daughter in Kansas City.
Semler is also known as a caretaker on the blocks west of North Kansas City Hospital. There, the River Forest neighborhood of modest, 1960s-era homes is blanketed with mature trees. Since the early 1980s, the Semlers have lived in a small three-bedroom house fronted by a knee-high forest of roses and shrubs. Semler says that as she got to know many of her neighbors through her husband's business, it seemed natural to help organize a block watch and get the area designated as a neighborhood association. Semler is still the president of the River Forest Neighborhood Association and the point person for regular block parties, such as one in September that included a visit from the fire department with a fire engine for the kids.
"It gives you a purpose," Semler says of her organizing efforts.
She still has time for her garden, though. Her front yard features nearly 200 varieties of roses. Out back, where her property dives down to meet the road, she has landscaped the slope with small trees and flowers that creep up trellises.
In 2002, the yard was home to two scarecrows — "Franny" and "Ricky" — that, as the summer progressed, moved from the edge of the garden closer and closer together until they walked hand-in-hand up the hill. This year, Semler has incorporated a school theme: A handful of mannequins surround a blackboard chalked with "Students + Teachers + Parents = Education."
She emphasizes that she's not a master gardener, a title reserved for those who have finished a distinct set of classes. She doesn't like her sister bragging about how bright she is, either. So when Funkhouser asked her to serve on the Parks and Recreation Board of Commissioners, she says she was shocked.
"I'm just an ordinary person," she says. "It's usually society people, somebody who's probably got a lot more money than I did. At first, my thought was, I just couldn't see myself there."
After a personal meeting with Funkhouser, she sent the mayor an e-mail on June 4.
"You can not know how honored I felt to know that you considered me to be on the Parks Commission," she wrote.
"As I often [do]," she continued, "I have listed the pro's and con's [sic]."
Semler told Funkhouser that she'd printed out a list of the parks and was amazed at the number of green spaces in Kansas City. The problem, she noted, was that people didn't even know about some of the parks — even when they lived right next to them. She suggested that the parks needed to be categorized and assessed by an independent group such as the Kessler Society (a private organization that raises funds and promotes preservation of the city's parks and boulevards) or an ad hoc committee of community stakeholders.
"Parks such as the one near us that people do not know about and can not find should be sold or at least 'found.'... One good park is better than three inferior and rundown or unused parks," she wrote.
Once the numbers are whittled down or the resources better understood, she suggested, the city could do a better job of engaging children. In many schools, she explained, students are required to complete community service — a perfect opportunity to get them into the parks. Perhaps the department could even create "Kansas City's Young Park Rangers," she suggested. She knew from working with Northland students during a planting event that kids get a kick out of getting their hands dirty.
"Although they teased me about being Martha Stewart when we braided the old daffodils and grilled me about what wild thing I would be doing that night, we both had a good time," she wrote.
Semler says she was always active in the Parent Teacher Association when her daughter was in school, and she still has a keen interest in helping kids grow up to be "good citizens." One of her ideas for the parks board, for instance, is to create more interaction between children and senior citizens at local community centers.
Despite her excitement at the idea of engaging kids in the city's green spaces, she told the mayor that she had plenty on her plate already.
"The other projects that I am involved in deserve my attention," she wrote. "And Richard and I are sort of the go-to people in the neighborhood when people need help."
She also noted that her husband had been ill. He needed her support, she wrote. "Family trumps everything else," she wrote in closing.
Semler says her first thought was to decline Funkhouser's offer.
"But then I thought, I can help some kids in this town," she says. "In this position, the parks and city work together, and parts of the city need a little leg up, too."
When Semler accepted the title of commissioner, local gardeners were happy. After all, Semler had earned more than a few ribbons at the Missouri State Fair. She's a past member of the Northland Garden Club and the current president of the Clay County Rose Society.
Joan Taylor, the president of the Kansas City Rose Society, says Semler has stepped up for projects far outside her own neighborhood. Last spring, the rose garden at Loose Park suffered significant damage from a late frost. "It looked terrible, and Fran called me and said she was so saddened by this and was there anything that Clay County group could do to help us out," Taylor says.
Semler picked up a bundle of donation envelopes, took them back to her members in the Clay County Rose Society and returned with a chunk of change to help the recovery effort. Then she volunteered to help strip the plants of the dead foliage.
"I was delighted when I heard she was on the parks board because she understands what's happening with parks. She has that background," Taylor says. "I honestly have not talked to anyone in the horticulture world that is anything but extremely pleased that she's there."
John Palmisano, president of the Northland Garden Club, says he sat on a garden-tour committee with Semler and recently saw her at a wake. "I said we supported her in every way and to keep her head up," he tells The Pitch.
Her garden backers know that Semler has strong views on immigration, but Taylor says she keeps her political rhetoric and love of roses separate.
"When she's a volunteer in the garden, she's not out there espousing anything but, 'Isn't this a beautiful place?'" she says.
But there is another side of Semler.
She inherited more than her parents' gardening skills. She'd also picked up their interest in politics.
She volunteered for George W. Bush's first presidential campaign in 2000, though she says he's been a disappointment; the president didn't earn her help during the 2004 race. More recently, she has volunteered for U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, who made illegal immigration one of his top issues during the 2006 campaign.
Semler says she threw her support behind Mark Funkhouser because she had read his reports as auditor and thought he would instill some fiscal sense into a city addicted to costly tax breaks.
On the political spectrum, she describes herself as an independent.
"I'm mostly right down the middle," she tells The Pitch. "I think we should take care of people, but more than take care of them, I think we should help them take care of themselves."
Her views on immigration policy, though, are strictly conservative.
Her interest in the issue goes back two decades. Semler says she reads the newspaper cover to cover every day and carefully studies issues that catch her civic attention. In 1986, the federal government overhauled immigration laws and, she says, "proceeded to not do a thing" to enforce them.
"First of all, I was concerned about jobs being taken from citizens here and the downward spiral in wages," she says. "And the fact that it was just illegal. When you see people breaking the law, when you see corruption around the country, you think, What's going on?"
She says her concern extends to migrant laborers, too, who may be mistreated and financially exploited.
But Semler's husband is a contractor — and anti-illegal-immigration groups say that's one of the industries in which undocumented workers are most undermining American employment and wages.
"I suppose it has impacted him," Semler says of immigration's effect on her husband's business. "Though, that was not my first thought. My first thought was, people needed a leg up. With construction jobs, you used to be able to live on it. Now you can't."
She says she spent years writing letters to the editor and to her congressional representatives, urging the federal government to enforce immigration laws. Then, in late 2003, she spotted an "As I See It" commentary in The Kansas City Star written by Joyce Mucci, who was then the organizer for a group called Mid-America Immigration Reform Coalition.
"Everywhere in America illegal aliens are enjoying the fruit of the taxpayer largesse," Mucci wrote. "Nowhere more so than right here in Kansas City."
Semler found Mucci's number and called her.
"Frances is like the rest of us," Mucci says. "She's involved because you shouldn't cheat your way into the country."
Mucci says the two quickly became friends, and Semler helped Mucci expand her collection of antiques. In 2005, Semler was among a handful of locals who gathered at Mucci's south Kansas City home to tape an interview with CNN — one in which Semler said, "I think we need to take a look at overall [immigration] policy and get a handle on it, maybe even stop it for a while until we can count everybody."
At least once during the 2006 legislative session, Semler traveled with Mucci to Jefferson City to lobby lawmakers. Mucci testified before the Missouri House Special Committee on Immigration Reform, but Semler stayed on the sidelines. "Mostly, when we're together, she's the person who listens a lot," Mucci says.
But she's not always the quiet one. "I chased Sam Graves up to, I think, a beef farm one time to talk about it [immigration] because I knew he'd be there," Semler said in a recent radio interview.
During the spring of 2006, as thousands of immigrants' rights activists took to the streets in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, Semler was among the organizers of a counter-protest that drew hundreds to Mill Creek Park.
"Her husband built the stage [for the rally]," Mucci says. "The guy's 70-some years old, and he built this stage for us and made it so we could put flags on either end. It was awesome. And she helped us get the state of Missouri flag and U.S. flag for us to put up there."
City Hall veterans, meanwhile, knew Semler for her efforts to uncover details about a local trade facility called SmartPort. The private project, to which the city has contributed more than $2 million, would ease trade with Mexico by turning a West Bottoms warehouse into an inland port where truckers could clear customs in Kansas City to avoid the bottleneck at the border.
Former Kansas City Councilwoman Bonnie Sue Cooper was a leading proponent of SmartPort and a booster for expanding trade with Mexico.
She was also Semler's councilwoman — and the recipient of Semler's requests for information filed through the state Sunshine Law. Semler and Mucci wanted copies of any documents related to SmartPort. Cooper says Semler seemed deaf to her explanations that SmartPort was a one-way warehouse sending American goods to Mexico, not the other way around.
"We could not make Frances understand that this is all southbound," Cooper says. "She kept talking about bringing all these Mexicans in. And I kept saying, 'We're not bringing any in.'"
Cooper says Semler also raised concerns about a supposed "superhighway" that right-wing immigration activists fear the federal government is already planning, which would drastically expand the Interstate 35 corridor.
"She kept talking about this highway being built from Mexico to Canada that would be eight football fields wide, and I said, 'Frances, we don't even have the money to fix I-70. What are you talking about?" Cooper recalls.
The Sunshine requests did turn up information that earned national attention, Mucci says. "One document that Frances got said that it had to be sovereign territory of Mexico," Mucci says. "Frances never really went public on any of this. I took the lead on that and shot my mouth off."
Now, SmartPort and the superhighway are common rallying points for fringe organizations and pundits who believe that the U.S. government is plotting a North American Union that would dissolve borders across the continent.
Semler's worries about Mexican trade were known in the Northland as well. Jim Rice, executive director of Northland Neighborhoods Inc., says Semler often attended the monthly "Meet Your Councilperson" sessions. Whenever Cooper broached the issue of trade, Rice says, Semler would respond with concerns about illegal immigration.
"All the traditional stereotypes and arguments were out on the table," Rice says. "There probably were people on both sides of the issue, saying their concerns were just confined to illegal immigration. But some of us know there's a lot of code involved in that kind of language."
It never got to the point where he had to cut off discussion or ask Semler to leave. "But it was uncomfortable," Rice says.
"She is a pretty reserved woman, who doesn't rant and rave and jump up and down," he says. "But I would say there was an edge on it."
That edge ripped open a seam in Kansas City.
Semler acknowledges that she wasn't exactly forthright with Funkhouser when, before he appointed her to the parks board, he asked whether she was a member of other organizations. She says she thought Funkhouser was interested in groups like the Clay County Rose Society and the neighborhood association, where she held a leadership position. Her membership in the Minutemen, she says, just didn't seem relevant.
"It wasn't something I had any power in other than being a member," she tells The Pitch. "I honestly didn't even think it was important."
To her, the civilian border patrol group offered a chance to add her voice to a growing movement opposing illegal immigration. She tells The Pitch she was impressed by the fact that the leader of the local Heart of America chapter, Ed Hayes, was a former police officer. She joined in 2006.
"I did some studying and thought they were decent people, and I still believe they are," she says.
But on June 12, after Funkhouser named his slate of parks commissioners and the Star asked Semler about her involvement in the Minutemen, she said she was "not active" in the local group.
That wasn't exactly forthright, either.
Semler had been at the August 30, 2006, inaugural meeting of what would become the Heart of America Chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. The Pitch was at that meeting, too; Hayes opened it with introductory remarks about the "illegal invasion" and how undocumented immigrants were taking American jobs, draining social services and committing crimes (To the Rescue, November 16, 2006). He called the Minutemen a nonviolent neighborhood watch intent on helping the proper authorities deal with a "terminal illness." During the meeting, Mucci gave a presentation on SmartPort, outlining the information that she and Semler had obtained from the city. When Mucci couldn't remember specifics, she asked Semler to fill in the details.
Two weeks later, Semler drove 60 miles to a sports-themed restaurant in Topeka for another Minuteman recruiting meeting with nearly identical rhetoric. During a question-and-answer period at the end of the presentation, Semler gave the crowd some reading recommendations. With her own hardbound copy in her lap, she suggested that any potential Minutemen who wanted the straight story on immigration should read State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America by conservative pundit Pat Buchanan.
By the end of September 2006, the local Minutemen had organized their first large gathering — and Semler was there. The daylong "Operation U-Turn" drew more than 100 people to the Clarion Hotel near the Truman Sports Complex for an event billed as a "Neighborhood Watch and National Defense Conference." One of the most enthusiastically received speakers outlined ways that Minutemen could prod their state and city officials to root out illegal immigrants. During one of the breaks, Semler helped Mucci pass out fliers for an upcoming learn-how-to-lobby day in Jefferson City.
The day before Halloween, Semler helped organize a "Vigil to Save the American Worker" — complete with white candles and the backdrop of a war memorial — on her home turf in the Northland. With local talk-show host Chris Stigall broadcasting live from Anita B. Gorman Park, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves and Missouri state Rep. Jerry Nolte suggested that illegal immigrants were undercutting U.S. wages and threatening local citizens' livelihoods. A modest crowd of supporters applauded and hoisted homemade signs ordering illegals off American soil.
Earlier this year, anti-illegal-immigration groups around the country planned a mass gathering in Washington, D.C., to oppose bills that included any measure of amnesty and to call for the installation of a border fence. At home, Semler helped plan a simultaneous demonstration in Topeka. Roger Thompson, another local Minuteman, says he took over the organizing after Semler had to deal with family issues.
Semler didn't attend that rally. By June 16, she was nearly a week deep in what would become months of outrage and controversy regarding her involvement in the organization.
After her appointment to the parks board, a coalition of Hispanic, minority and faith-based groups held multiple press conferences denouncing Semler as a vigilante by association. Nine City Council members voted in favor of a resolution asking Funkhouser to oust Semler. The National Council of La Raza and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People threatened to pull upcoming convention business if Semler stayed on the board.
Rice, the Northland Neighborhoods director, says his interactions with Semler had always been "professional." But he foresaw the messy fallout from Semler's appointment, which he says reflects poorly on the metro and unfairly brands the Northland.
"Frances probably does represent a certain point of view that people up here hold, but I think there are a number of other folks who don't hold that view," he says. "I'm just always concerned that the Northland try to present itself realistically, and it is more diverse than people think."
On September 5, a handful of immigrants' rights advocates, clergy members and local Latino leaders delivered a letter to Semler's home, asserting that she did not embrace cultural diversity and that only her resignation would allow the city to "heal."
The neighborhood president took it as an assault on her privacy and filed a police report. The incident left her "shaky for a day or two." She has since posted a "No Trespassing" sign on her garage.
Helen Richmond, a fellow River Forest resident who visits with Semler frequently, says the parks commissioner has her neighbors' support.
"She's a nice lady, and why the Mexicans are picking on her, I do not understand," Richmond says.
Semler says she's uncomfortable seeing her name in the paper every day. She thinks citizens should stand up for their beliefs but doesn't want to be the activist earning the headlines. She gets a weary tone in her voice when she says this issue has taken up all her time and energy — time and energy taken from her husband, who spent part of the summer in the hospital.
Mucci says Semler is a private person who has been overwhelmed by the tenor and length of the controversy. Wells says she teases her sister about all the attention; Semler has told her that she's frustrated with how nasty politics have become.
Days after her appointment, Semler reportedly told the Star, "I wish you wouldn't make a big deal out of this." She reportedly told a writer with the conservative Web site World Net Daily that she didn't want to engage in an interview, saying, "Let's let it cool down for a while."
Over the past month, though, the grandmother has been less shy.
On September 16, Semler called The Kris Kobach Show, a program on KMBZ 980 hosted by the University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who is chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. Kobach had opened that day's program with a commentary criticizing La Raza for its issues with Semler, but he seemed surprised when Semler dialed in. She agreed with Kobach that the whole affair was "lunacy" and that the Hispanic organizations were overreacting.
"You know, the people who are complaining are the people that I will be doing things for," she said with a hint of indignation.
She defended the Minutemen, saying she didn't believe opponents' claims that the anti-illegal-immigration group had engaged in violence. "Show me a police report," she said.
Two days later, Semler shared her views with Laura Ingraham's national audience. She told the conservative radio host that she believes in following the law. "So if that doesn't agree with some people, then I guess that's their problem," she said. She added that La Raza pulling its convention from Kansas City "only hurts their own people."
Not that she believed the national organization would abandon its original plans. "I think it's extortion, and I don't think that will happen," she told Nick Haines, on a segment for KCPT Channel 19's Week in Review.
Semler doesn't rule out a trip to the border, either. In some ways, the fallout has been worth it if it helps make her point about illegal immigration.
"You have to say this is wrong and stand up to it," she says. "I've had a lot of support, and maybe people will stand up, maybe they'll research [the issue] a little bit and pay more attention. So many people are so busy making a living, they don't know what's going on."
Besides, she has an outlet for when she gets fed up with all the politics.
"I just go out there [in the garden] and yank a bunch of weeds out."
This year on September 11, Frances Semler was hailed as a hero.
To commemorate the victims of the 2001 attacks, the Heart of America Minuteman Civil Defense Corps gathered in a small room adjacent to the driver's license office in Mission. Semler sat attentively in the second row, wearing a relaxed gaze and a white T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag.
Much of the meeting was the typical recruitment pitch: Join the Minutemen to help immigration officials identify illegals and demand that politicians enforce the law.
Hayes told the group to study up on La Raza, learn its "agenda." They're the type of folks who "knock on the doors of 73-year-old grandmothers," Hayes said. "They got six to eight guys in a car, barreling out like the DEA on a drug raid. We don't do that. They do."
Hayes cited an early September poll on the Star's Web site in which nearly 80 percent (of more than 650 people who chose to participate) said Semler should not resign from the parks board.
When Hayes finished, he introduced Richard Fatherly, a retired broadcaster who is the group's media liaison. In his authoritative radio voice, Fatherly urged the group to write letters of support to the mayor, lauding his appointment and retention of Semler.
Fatherly read from his own letter to Funkhouser. "Mrs. Semler is an asset to your administration in bringing back the luster to Kansas City's quality of life," he boomed. "I get the feeling that you've seen through the ruse of the La Rrrrrrrraza" — he paused, moving his arm with a salsa dancer's flourish and waiting for the group's laughter to subside — "attempt to muscle in on Kansas City's tourism and convention business."
From the back row, local Minuteman Rod Will, who runs a small trucking business, had another idea for dealing with City Hall. Though Funkhouser might deserve praise, he said, City Council members such as Beth Gottstein, who pushed for Semler's removal, should be reprimanded.
"Why don't we take it to the next level? Let's do this recall," Will suggested. "I don't want anyone to represent me who believes in open borders, who believes in standing with people that say they want to take my jobs, my homes and so forth."
The idea drew little enthusiasm. The group was getting ready to picket a construction site in southern Overland Park where, demonstration organizer Thompson said, contractors had hired undocumented workers. Will volunteered that he operates his own personal picket every day. The sides of his trucks are plastered with messages such as: "Attention Illegal Aliens. America Doesn't Need or Want You. Leave My Country."
Minutes before the end of the meeting, with the group buzzing over shared stories of harassment from passers-by who disliked their anti-illegal-immigration bumper stickers, Semler stood up. She thanked everyone for their support. The man in the back row piped up again.
"You plan on standing tall for us, right?" Will asked. "You don't plan on stepping down, do you?"
"No," Semler said. "Absolutely not."