How Ann Murguia came to rule Wyandotte County’s Argentine neighborhood

Ann Murguia places her left hand on a Bible that’s held by her eldest son and raises her right hand in the air.

Murguia, wearing a white dress and white necklace and an iridescent corsage, is taking her oath as a Unified Government of Wyandotte County/KCK commissioner. She stands opposite her husband, Carlos Murguia, who is also dressed for the occasion in a black robe, which he wears as a federal judge in Kansas City, Kansas. Their two other children look on.

An awkward moment follows the oath as Carlos Murguia eschews a hug and returns to his seat.

“He’s a judge,” Ann Murguia tells a chuckling crowd of about 200 packed into commission chambers to witness her swearing-in. “He’s very formal.”

During the ceremony, Murguia exudes the excitement of someone reaching office for the first time. But this is not a new scene to her. She is starting her third term as a commissioner in Wyandotte County’s 3rd District.

“Some might say this is the time to kick back,” Murguia says during a brief speech. “I disagree. This is the time to kick in.”

Murguia is arguably the most dynamic politician in the metro. She combines the charisma of Claire McCaskill, the coerciveness of Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James, the folksy aw-shucks demeanor of Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland, and a frenetic energy and persistence that are otherwise unmatched locally.

She’s quick to remind people that she isn’t a politician, that she does not follow or understand the tug of war of diplomatic dealmaking that is often part of serving in local government. It’s a maxim that even some of her supporters find suspect.

“That’s a little disingenuous on her part,” says Unified Government Commissioner Hal Walker, who counts himself among Murguia’s admirers. “What I think she means is, Wyandotte County is a small village when you get right down to it. For many, many years, if you didn’t go to Ward High School or, secondarily, Wyandotte High School, you were left out of the political process.”

Murguia’s political life has been a study in contrasts and contradictions. She casts herself as a WyCo outsider, born in the small town of Charles City in Iowa, but she has married into one of the city’s most prominent, politically connected and monied families. She’s a registered Democrat in one of Kansas’ few blue territories, but she has ensconced herself with Republican leaders, including Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder.

Despite her family’s access to wealth, the Murguias have held on to their roots in Argentine, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in south KCK that has for years been one of the city’s most economically depressed enclaves.

By nearly all accounts, Argentine has been on the upswing since Murguia became a commissioner in 2007. But it’s her day job, running the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association, that has been her most visible achievement in public life.

She has left her mark all over the community. She helped raise $2 million for a new South Branch Library. She has helped the neighborhood get fresh sidewalks and curbs. She has helped bring two grocery stores to Argentine. And a planned senior-housing complex is in the works.

But Murguia has maintained an uneasy balance between her role with ANDA and its intersection with the UG. That tension reached a peak in 2009 when the county changed its ethics code to bar ANDA from receiving public money.

Since then, Murguia has continued to work to leave an imprint on Argentine, with an unclear demarcation between her roles as a public officer and a neighborhood leader.

Argentine wasn’t where Murguia had envisioned living. In fact, she didn’t want to be there at first. About 19 years ago, she married Carlos Murguia while she was working as a probation officer.

Carlos Murguia broached the idea of returning to the neighborhood where he had grown up. He made her a deal, she says: Give Argentine a year and see how it goes.

At the time, Argentine, which runs south along the BNSF Railway lines between the 18th Street Expressway and Interstate 635, was a community on the decline. Many businesses had long since vanished, leaving behind Mickey’s Surplus store, a few bars and not much else.

Mario Escobar, who has lived in Argentine since 1979, says the neighborhood was a charming place when he moved there, but it eroded not long afterward.

“It got to be looking kind of bad, like a ghost town,” he says.

Ann Murguia says that, despite the decay, she liked the sense of fellowship among the families that stuck around.

“There was always a major, strong sense of community,” she tells The Pitch.

The yearlong deal of living in Argentine turned into another and another. Along the way, former El Centro Inc. president Richard Ruiz approached Murguia about joining him as a community organizer. Murguia describes the work as erasing graffiti and cleaning up vacant lots that dotted Argentine.

“Very early on, I learned that I could get stuff done,” Murguia says. “Small stuff.”

Small stuff turned into bigger stuff with the formation of ANDA in 2004. ANDA started as a shoestring operation for the first three years. Its first yearly budget was $36,500, according to IRS records. Murguia, along with her siblings-in-law Ramon and Sally Murguia, were three of ANDA’s five original directors. Records say Murguia worked 20 hours a week as ANDA’s acting executive director and didn’t take a salary.

In the early days, before Murguia ran for public office, ANDA had trouble getting much done. It developed two houses, but Murguia wanted to do more.

At the time, Argentine was represented on the Unified Government by John Mendez, a longtime county employee. Murguia says she became frustrated with Argentine’s lack of traction at City Hall.

“He [Mendez] was a nice guy, sincerely a nice guy, but he just wasn’t going to get stuff done,” Murguia says. So she ran against Mendez in the spring 2007 election and won, unseating an incumbent who had served Wyandotte County’s 3rd District since 2001.

Before taking office, Murguia sought an opinion from the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission about whether she could continue to take home a salary as ANDA’s executive director if also serving as a commissioner.

In an opinion issued a week before Murguia’s swearing-in, the ethics commission said she could serve in both roles, but she had to abstain from voting on any contract between the Unified Government and ANDA. The commission also cautioned that although it wasn’t against the rules for her to vote on other UG matters that would affect ANDA, “such actions may foster an appearance of impropriety.”

George Frederickson, UG ethics administrator at the time, tells The Pitch that he told Murguia that she should abstain from voting on any matters pertaining to ANDA.

“Whether or not she adhered to that ruling was not known to me,” Frederickson says. “I understood it became a continuing issue.”

ANDA’s profile grew during Murguia’s first year in office. The organization’s revenue jumped to $272,059, up from $7,371 the year before. That same year, Murguia went from being an unpaid volunteer to an executive director, with a $60,000 annual salary that grew by $10,000 in each of the next four years.

On July 19, 2007, ANDA applied to become a neighborhood revitalization organization, a designation that would give it access to UG dollars.

The following year, Murguia received the results of a survey she had commissioned to find out what the residents of Argentine and Rosedale (also in her district) wanted. New curbs and sidewalks topped the list.

Murguia knew of a UG program that offered matching grants for organizations that raised money privately for new sidewalks. Murguia proved herself to be a prolific fundraiser. She convinced the Sunderland Foundation in Overland Park and the Hall Family Foundation to make private contributions. Before long, she had raised about $150,000 and took it to City Hall, whereupon the UG approved $150,000 of its own for new sidewalks, largely in east Argentine. That blew out all of the UG budget for the sidewalk matching program.

Murguia now believes that put her at odds with other commissioners early in her tenure.

“I was very dumb about politics — very,” she says.

She was right to suspect annoyance from at least a few commissioners.

“I was against that,” says Nathan Barnes, a longtime commissioner from northeast Wyandotte County. “We have this $150,000 and we give it all to one person who wants it if they can get the matching funds. That’s not a fair process at all.”

Murguia says UG administrators had given other commissioners a shot at the pot of money, but no one could match the money that she raised.

“Administration made me wait until the end of the year to tap into the thing, even though nobody else had raised any money,” Murguia says.

The hard feelings apparently weren’t overwhelming. The UG commission voted to give ANDA the sidewalk matching funds during an August 21, 2008, vote in which Murguia participated.

By 2009, questions had surfaced about whether Murguia should be allowed to vote on any UG money for ANDA. Earlier that year, she had sought funding for ANDA from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program under the federal stimulus package. She had also sought UG assistance with demolition and infrastructure repairs at dilapidated lots acquired by ANDA.

The tension from Murguia’s directing UG money to ANDA came to a head in October 2009, when the UG Ethics Commission proposed changes to the ethics code. Among the changes: Nonprofits were included in the definition of business entities that cannot receive UG funding. By then, ANDA had already cashed $55,000 of UG checks through the neighborhood-revitalization program.

Several people, many from Argentine, spoke out against the changes during that meeting.

“I oppose this ordinance because I’ve seen the work that Commissioner Murguia has done for the Argentine area,” said Walter Holmes, an Argentine resident. “I don’t believe she has shown a conflict of interest. If the funding becomes available for sidewalks, curbs and housing, then it should be used that way.”

Still, the measure passed by a 6-4 vote.

“I was devastated. I still get choked up about it,” Murguia says. “I was very naïve about people getting mad at me for doing such a good thing.”

Barnes, who was on the commission when the ordinance passed, says he agreed with the spirit of the changes, although he voted against them because he didn’t like how they were presented.

“I don’t think a person should have a not-for-profit and vote on issues at City Hall that’s going to involve funding for that particular organization,” Barnes says. “I think there were some conflict issues there. To me, just because you don’t vote on the particular issue, that doesn’t give you enough shield.”

Murguia views the ethics code as a selectively used hammer on commissioners. She says she rejects free tickets for commissioners to attend NASCAR events at the Kansas Speedway. She also wonders why the UG Ethics Commission didn’t take action against former UG administrator Dennis Hays, who struck a backroom deal to subsidize the Kansas City T-Bones ahead of UG’s purchase of its stadium at Village West.

“I agree that anything can look bad,” Murguia says. “It’s all in how it’s presented. That’s what I agree with. I can think of a million things that go on currently at UG that, if any one of us wanted to make a big deal about it, can make it look horrible. It’s just the nature of politics.”

Some of Murguia’s supporters felt that she was singled out, particularly because Wyandotte County has a long history of elected officials making money off the government through flagrant conflicts of interest.

“We had a history of people who were commissioners or councilmen that had done business with their particular concern within the Unified Government,” says Walker, who prior to being elected to the commission was a longtime attorney for the UG. “I’m not going to name names. They would put in a bid and get a contract and ultimately reap the benefit. It did not occur to anyone on the commission, including people who are still there, who did not think this was a problem until Ann got there.”

The ethics change may have slowed Murguia some, but it hasn’t stopped her work in Argentine.

Even though ANDA was cut off from UG funding, the organization received a $1 million earmark from the federal government in the 2010 appropriations bill. The money was pledged for property acquisition, infrastructure improvements and housing construction. The sponsor was Sam Brownback, who was winding down his term as a senator and preparing to run for Kansas governor. (Later that year, Murguia’s brother-in-law Alfred Murguia formed Democrats for Brownback, a political action committee to support the Republican.)

Murguia says she got in Brownback’s ear after persistent phone calls and lobbying. Brownback has appointed Murguia to the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s six public universities. The relationship has raised eyebrows in predominantly Democratic Wyandotte County, which arguably suffers from some of Brownback’s policies.

“It’s obvious he’s fucked up the state of Kansas,” says Butch Ellison, a former UG commissioner who supports Murguia but questions her affiliation with Brownback. “For you to come out and back the guy with ties to the Koch brothers, talking about taxing cigarettes, that doesn’t make any sense. For someone to back that kind of thing, I have some questions.”

For her part, Murguia views her earmark from Brownback with a measure of pragmatism.

“Is there a Democratic senator [in Kansas]?” Murguia asks. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Murguia has a complicated relationship with Kansas Democrats. After The Pitch published a critique of the Kansas Democratic Party [“Pity Party,” March 19, 2015] following its dismal showing in the 2014 elections, Murguia reposted the story to her Facebook page along with some commentary about her strained dealings with Wyandotte County Democratic leaders.

“They imply that because I work with Republican office holders to get things done for the benefit of my constituents and all of Wyandotte County that I am some evil bad person,” Murguia wrote in a March 19 post. “I work with both Democrats and Republicans to get things accomplished. The reality in Kansas is that at the present time, we ONLY have Republican state and federal elected office holders.”

In a subsequent interview, Murguia was unapologetic for her work with Republican leaders.

“If being a Democrat requires hating Republicans,” Murguia says, “then I’m not a Democrat.”

One of Murguia’s crowning achievements for Argentine was bringing two grocery stores to a neighborhood that previously had none.

Developing a grocery store solved Argentine residents’ second-highest priority, according to a 2008 survey.

Murguia says she took a list of the top 50 grocery-store chains and started calling each of them to solicit interest.

Grocery-store operators run on paper-thin margins and are highly selective about where they build stores, often avoiding low-income enclaves.

“Everyone is telling me, ‘You have too much crime [in Argentine],'” Murguia recalls. “To the point where people would be rude about it.”

Toward the bottom of her list was SuperValu. The Minneapolis-based grocery retailer expressed interest in launching one of its discount brands, Save-A-Lot, in Argentine.

Concurrently, Murguia had met Wal-Mart executives when she attended the National Council of La Raza conference in Las Vegas in 2012. (Janet Murguia, Murguia’s sister-in-law and a former White House deputy assistant under Bill Clinton, is La Raza’s president.) Murguia tried to convince Wal-Mart to build a supercenter in Argentine, but the retailer refused. The company did agree to build a smaller “neighborhood market” there.

ANDA had originally worked to bring the grocers to Argentine, but the UG ethics commissioner balked at Murguia’s involvement because the project was seeking tax-funded assistance to cover more than half its cost.

During an April 2, 2012, UG committee meeting, economic development director George Brajkovic said a new company, Argentine Commercial Inc., would replace ANDA as the developer.

ANDA, according to that meeting’s minutes, could use its money to contribute to the project but couldn’t have tax-increment financing (TIF) or community improvement district (CID) revenue go back to the organization.

“At the end of the day, we know that this is about a $4 million to $4.5 million project,” Brajkovic said, according to meeting minutes. “Generating revenues, even though it would be TIF or CID to repay or reimburse for the cost of the project, the determination was it wouldn’t be appropriate.”

Mayor Mark Holland, then a UG commissioner, wasn’t familiar with Argentine Commercial.

“When we have an organization that we’ve never done business with before and doesn’t have a track record, this would be Argentine Commercial’s first project, is that right?” Holland asked at the meeting. “What instruments do we have in place to protect the public interest should this project not go forward?”

Argentine Commercial was not terribly different from ANDA. The corporation was a for-profit entity formed April 6, 2012, with the Kansas Secretary of State’s office. When it dissolved in October 2013, it listed five stockholders: Enrique Sandate, Harold “Hal” Walker, Jan Thomas, John Peterson and Jim King.

Each person was also an ANDA board member at the time.

Walker says he didn’t make any money off the Save-A-Lot deal and that Argentine Commercial was structured before he was elected to the UG Commission in 2013.

“I think this thing was vetted as the means to accomplish the Save-A-Lot without violating that ethics ordinance,” Walker says. “It took Ann out of the process.”

UG ethics codes apply only to UG representatives, says commissioner Ruth Benien.

“When they create a third-party private corporation, I don’t have any authority or jurisdiction,” she tells The Pitch.

Argentine Commercial “was just a legal mechanism to protect ANDA from liability,” Murguia says.

Last year, on the same day that IKEA made its grand opening in Merriam, Wal-Mart opened. Save-A-Lot opened December 5, 2013. Both stores sit on previously contaminated ground at the former Structural Steel site that was unusable until now.

Dilapidated, vacant and abandoned homes litter Wyandotte County’s landscape. Argentine has its share of such structures.

One of ANDA’s programs has been to buy some of these properties and redevelop them into new houses. County records show that ANDA owns 18 properties. Many were bought at sheriff’s sales resulting from tax delinquencies. Others came from foreclosures and outright sales.

Murguia has opened several new houses whose mortgages were obtained with ANDA’s credit. The houses resell for around $150,000-$160,000, which is about three times the median household value in Argentine.

“We just believe it’s more sustainable,” Murguia tells The Pitch.

Buyers of ANDA properties make monthly mortgage payments to the neighborhood development organization. Meanwhile, ANDA keeps title to each property in its name. This arrangement lasts for five years, after which buyers can take ownership for themselves.

Murguia says none of her residents have opted to take the title themselves, partly because all but two residents have eclipsed that five-year mark. If residents move out before the five years, they lose their equity in the house.

Murguia says ANDA’s housing program has never used a subsidy, but that’s not entirely true. Over the years, ANDA has requested that the UG hire out to demolish the old houses that it buys.

On October 5, 2012, ANDA operations manager Therese Gardner wrote to the UG director of community development, Wilba Miller, to ask for Community Development Block Grant funds to demolish the ramshackle house it had acquired at 1448 South 29th Street.

CDBG funds pass through the UG from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Elected officials aren’t supposed to make use of CDBG funds.

UG spokesman Mike Taylor says ANDA didn’t receive the requested CDBG money, but the UG did demolish the property anyway. The UG paid its own contractor, which means that ANDA didn’t receive money directly. But it’s a cost that ANDA didn’t have to bear itself.

Rumors persist in Wyandotte County that Murguia is eyeing Pat Pettey’s state Senate seat. For a time, Pettey was an ANDA board member. She also served as a commissioner, voting in favor of the changes to the ethics code that affected Murguia.

Murguia says she has no interest in higher office. State-level offices deal more in policy; Murguia says she would rather work on the local level, as she has done in Argentine. She adds that she hopes ANDA one day becomes obsolete.

“ANDA is a temporary thing,” she tells The Pitch. “I want it to go away. I want the fair market to take over.”

Until then, ANDA continues its development work. It acquired the old Simmons Funeral Home in 2012 and has plans for a retirement-housing development.

The ANDA board, once populated mostly by Argentine residents, has grown in stature, now boasting Sporting Kansas City CEO Robb Heineman, University of Kansas Medical Center executive vice chancellor Doug Girod, and Kansas City, Missouri, lawyer and civic leader David Oliver. Those additions may well help its fundraising ability.

Murguia has also drawn fire from detractors, many of whom remain publicly silent but grumble about her privately.

“I’m sure there are some commissioners and others who are envious to a degree or jealous that she has that ability,” Walker says. “She’s personable. She’s obviously attractive. She’s smart, and you quickly learn that she’s smart. You can’t bullshit her to make her go away.”

But Murguia isn’t going anywhere. She has the instincts to survive politically, even though she maintains that she’s not a political person.

“People say I’m this political animal scratching and clawing my way to the top,” Murguia tells The Pitch. “I guess I’ll have to be 60 and retired before they realize they’re wrong.”

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