August 2’s Rizzo-Podhola showdown is running in some familiar shadows

If
you’re looking for a statehouse race with Kansas-like intensity on the
Missouri side of the border, eastern Jackson County is your destination.

There
you’ll find Democratic state Rep. John Rizzo raking in five-figure
donations and introducing himself and his family to the entire
metropolitan area through TV ads — a rare luxury in a race for a state
Senate seat.

You’ll find Jessica Podhola, a union official and former
executive director of the Jackson County Democratic Party, on her third
round of doorknocking. “I’m averaging 17,000 steps a day,” she tells
me. “I will not be outworked.”

And, in their opposition, you’ll find a
race that has divided the loyalties of Missouri’s unions and
spotlighted the state’s pockmarked ethical complexion. Throw in the
suggestion of some dirty dealings in this part of the county, and you’ll
see plenty of drama.

The 11th District Senate seat has been vacant
since last summer, when former Democratic Sen. Paul LeVota resigned
under duress, after being accused of boorish behavior toward interns.

Podhola,
the governmental affairs director for the International Union of
Painters and Allied Trades, put out the word early that she was
interested. Her prospective candidacy was embraced by those eager for
the chance to seat a politically engaged woman with a spotless
reputation in a Legislature that looked increasingly like Bluto
Blutarsky’s Delta House.

Rizzo, an ambitious House member in the
middle of his third term, also sensed an opportunity. After a rocky
political start — he won his 2010 primary election by one vote, and two
of his relatives later admitted to illegally claiming a false address in
order to vote for him — Rizzo had become a hardworking and well-liked
legislator. Democratic House members chose him as their minority whip.
With term limits on his House seat approaching in 2018, Rizzo viewed the
open Senate seat as a way to extend his legislative career.

One
problem: He lived in the wrong district. The most recent redrawing of
legislative districts placed Rizzo’s residence in Missouri’s 9th Senate
District, now represented by Democrat Kiki Curls and traditionally the
province of black politicians.

So Rizzo and his family moved to a
new home about a mile from their former residence. He and Podhola
formally announced their candidacies around Thanksgiving of last year
(two other Democrats are also on the ballot; more about that in a bit),
and their camps have since become steadily more annoyed with each other.

After
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon endorsed Rizzo last week — an unexpected move
for a governor who has previously declined to get involved in
legislative races — Jackson County Legislature chairwoman Crystal
Williams let loose in a Facebook post: “How many phone calls from the
boy’s network did it take to bully Nixon into endorsing against a
beloved former Jackson County Democratic executive director?”

Rizzo
points out that much of his legislative district overlaps with the 11th
Senate district, and he says he’s the logical fit for the open seat.
We’re
going to spend probably $450,000 on a primary that could easily have
been resolved,” he tells me, pointing out that Podhola could wait and
run for a House seat that is expected to be open in two years. Rizzo
touts his experience as well: “You don’t go to learn in the state
Senate.”

The usually sanguine Podhola takes offense. “I almost resent
the implication that I’m not intelligent enough to navigate the
Senate,” she says. “I’ve been in politics my entire career.”

Meanwhile,
the Democratic primary is costing a whopping amount of money, with
Rizzo raising and spending the most. He has spent nearly half of a
$300,000 war chest. First-timer Podhola has managed to raise more than
$100,000 of her own, with substantial support coming from her own
painter’s union. She’s also been endorsed by the Kansas City Building
and Trades union. Rizzo is being backed by the statewide carpenter’s
union as well as by local and state chapters of the firefighter’s union. 

One intriguing name on
Rizzo’s donor list is Victor Callahan, who has given $10,000. Callahan, a
fixture in eastern Jackson County politics, formerly held the Senate
seat in contention. He now enjoys a lucrative appointment on the
Missouri State Tax Commission, where he decides taxpayer appeals.

A
state with reasonable ethics controls might bar someone who sits as a de
facto judge on a state board from making political contributions. But
this is Missouri, where limitless campaign donations are viewed as an
inalienable right.

Reached by telephone, Callahan says he has the OK
from the state attorney general’s office to maintain his campaign
committee and donate to candidates. “John has done an exceptional job,”
he says. “He has been an effective leader. He’s also my friend.”

It
would be to Callahan’s advantage, having a friendly senator in his old
seat. You never know when you might need someone to sign off on a future
appointment or some other perk. Podhola, running as a reformer, may not
be inclined to boost Callahan.

Podhola already has raised the issue
of Rizzo’s cozy relationship with lobbyists. He accepted $3,340 in gifts
in 2015, and an additional $238 in gifts for his family and staff. That
ranks him as the 15th-most prolific recipient of lobbyist gifts in a
body of more than 200 members.

Podhola says ethics is the No. 1 topic
she hears about from citizens. “There’s a perception that our state is
for sale,” she says.

Rizzo says he has voted for every ethics-reform
measure to come before the House, including some that would ban
lobbyist gifts altogether. He says that Podhola, in her job as
governmental affairs director, acts as an unofficial lobbyist.

The
simmering resentments in the race boiled to the surface last weekend,
when Michael Lewis, president of the supposedly neutral Missouri
AFL-CIO, reacted to a Podhola campaign message that criticized Rizzo’s
acceptance of lobbyist gifts.

“What a bitch,” Lewis wrote in a Facebook post. “Thought there was no negative campaigning.”

Later,
Lewis backed off — sort of. “It was not my intent to call anyone a
name,” he wrote in another post, raising the question of exactly what he
had intended.

Apart from the union infighting, Jackson County has
always been home to a political underbelly, with factions connected to
LeVota’s family, Callahan, and others vying for control. And so people
who are watching the race are bracing for last-minute attacks from
mysterious or anonymous sources. Then there is the matter of the other
two candidates.

Anthony Banks, a restaurant consultant, appears to
be a citizen who is genuinely offended by the tawdry dealings in
Jefferson City. Although bereft of campaign funds, he is reportedly
knocking on doors, and he appeared at the lone candidates’ forum that
has taken place.

Mary Catherine DiCarlo is a different story. She
hasn’t formed a campaign committee, has raised no money and has been
invisible as a candidate. Her presence looks suspiciously like a ploy to
place a second woman on the ballot to draw votes away from Podhola.

Operatives
in eastern Jackson County have done this before. The most outrageous
instance occurred in 2010 when supporters of Henry Rizzo, John’s father,
recruited a woman named Diane K. Williams to file as “D. Crystal
Williams” in a Jackson County Legislature race pitting Henry Rizzo
against the legitimately named Crystal Williams, who ended up winning
the seat.

There is no indication that John Rizzo, the candidate, was
involved in recruiting DiCarlo or has done anything except fundraise and
campaign aggressively. In some ways he will always be shadowed by his
family name and his father’s long and checkered political career as a
Missouri representative and Jackson County legislator.

Then again,
eastern Jackson County’s old guard suffers from a sunshine allergy.
Podhola’s campaign platform of wholesale change might be too bright for
its own good. 

Categories: News, Politics