Pat Gray, Kansas City’s most notorious campaign guru, just landed his biggest job yet: saving the e-tax
Festering mounds of uncollected trash. Potholes big enough to swallow a Suburban. Broad-daylight purse snatchings with no cops in sight.
These are the scenes that Kansas City, Missouri, leaders want to have haunting the minds of voters come April 5, when an election will determine the fate of the city’s annual allowance: the earnings tax.
The “e-tax,” which collects 1 percent from the paycheck of anyone who lives or works in the city, accounts for about $200 million a year, money responsible for basic services such as snow removal, trash pickup and police work. But in November, Missouri voters approved Proposition A, a ballot issue dreamed up by St. Louis billionaire Rex Sinquefield that forces St. Louis and Kansas City to weigh the fate of their e-taxes every five years. The first weigh-in is in April.
If the tax is voted down, it will phase out over 10 years, meaning that a family making $60,000 a year would eventually save $600 every year — a nice flat-screen’s worth of cash. But to ward off those civically apocalyptic scenarios, the city would look for ways to replace the revenue: taxes on trash, quadrupling property-tax rates, new utility taxes. And with no help from suburban commuters, the whole $200 million tab would land in KCMO’s lap.
Kansas City voters signaled a willingness to let the tax expire when they joined the rural areas of Missouri in voting for Prop A in November. (St. Louis voters favored keeping the tax.) Three months later, many voters still relish the idea of starving Big Government until it can squeeze into its skinny jeans.
Which is precisely why, late last year, the city’s most moneyed movers and shakers started searching for a skilled spin surgeon to help save the tax. A panel of union heads and business leaders hunkered down at the offices of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce to screen the city’s best political strategists. They had a big pile of money to spend on the campaign, reportedly as much as $1.5 million. All they needed was someone to hand it to.
They called Kim Carlos, a City Hall veteran who worked under Emanuel Cleaver. Pat O’Neill, a likable, longtime campaign guru whose roots reach back to the Pendergast era, made a pitch. They even interviewed conservative strategist Jeff Roe, widely regarded by Democrats as the Darth Vader of state politics.
But in the end, they settled on Pat Gray, the city’s most infamous electoral puppeteer.
“He’s a master at keeping all the frogs in the wheelbarrow. He’s very good at managing relationships, personalities, egos — and his own is always in check,” concedes Roe. “I think if there’s a guy who can master that kind of campaign, he’s the one.”
But while Gray has 30 years of political campaigning under his belt, his early years were spent crafting arguments against taxes. And he comes with a reputation as a brass-knuckled fighter who leaves bruises that linger.
“One thing Pat Gray doesn’t do well is build friendships and build momentum,” says Michael Fletcher, a 3rd District City Council candidate who views Gray as a major liability. “He likes to exact revenge, so there are going to be people who are helpful, who have real constituencies, who are not going to be brought onboard because Pat Gray doesn’t like them.”
Gray’s famed win-loss record, once as brawny as a pair of Wranglers, has recently started to fray. Several of his clients were considered shoo-ins but instead
suffered stinging losses in November’s election. In his 60s, he also reportedly has retirement on his mind. But the e-tax job, whether he’s ready — or right — for it, is his. And, win or lose, it will be lucrative. Consultants typically pocket 10 percent of total campaign spending, sources say, so if businesses and union leaders pony up $1.5 million to save the e-tax, Gray’s take could be as much as $150,000.
Minus that pesky 1 percent, of course.
Ever the proper political wizard, Gray stays squarely behind the curtain, rarely granting interview requests. He ignored several from The Pitch, eventually declining with a short, goofy e-mail: “I would like to go on the record that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party. My wife has never stopped beating me, and I love this city, especially those brave souls who have the courage to enter the political arena.”
Those who know him are equally wary about speaking candidly, reluctant to attract Gray’s wrath. Publicly, the city’s political animals laud Gray’s deft navigation of Kansas City’s electoral landscape. But when offered the luxury of anonymity, they provide considerably dimmer takes on his antics.
One person eager to talk about Gray is the eccentric, purple-haired PR maven Tracy Thomas, who can trace Gray’s career nearly to its origins. Thomas founded Nexus Corporation, an advertising agency, in 1974. Her staff was a group of exiles from then-Mayor Charles Wheeler’s administration. Gray was among them.
One of the first campaigns Nexus scored was aimed at repealing Missouri’s archaic “blue laws,” which banned the Sunday sale of certain products. Thomas’ staff dreamed up a TV spot that showed a line of cars driving into Kansas to shop for things that Missouri retailers couldn’t sell. Then came the voice-over: “Sunday mornings at nine, the migration begins.”
The strategy worked, and it clearly made an impact on Gray. He has relied on border rivalries — KC vs. Johnson County, KC vs. St. Louis, Missouri vs. Kansas — to drum up votes ever since. “It was the first time, that I recall, that anyone based a campaign on the unspoken rivalry between Kansas City, Missouri, and Johnson County,” Thomas says.
But Gray’s ability to harness voters’ provincialism came with an inability to harness his own temptations, Thomas says.
Near the end of 1974, she says, the local ABC affiliate, KMBC Channel 9, ran a sales incentive that promised four Super Bowl tickets to advertisers who met a minimum spending requirement for airtime. Around the same time, Thomas says, she offered to take her whole staff on a trip to the Bahamas to celebrate New Year’s. Gray declined to go, Thomas says.
Upon her return, she asked Gray whether Nexus had won tickets. “Oh, Toots,” Thomas recalls Gray saying, using his nickname for her. “I’m sorry, we just missed it. We were under by 50 or 100 dollars and we didn’t get it.”
But, Thomas claims, she found out about a week later that Nexus had gotten it. “Pat stole it,” Thomas says. “Pat collected the tickets and sold them and kept the cash.” (In an e-mail, Gray called the allegations “totally untrue.”)
You don’t sue someone over $1,200, Thomas says. But she did fire him.
To preserve the e-tax, Gray will have to bore into the minds of its opponents. Considering his pedigree as a small-government crusader, it shouldn’t be a problem.
After leaving Thomas’ firm, Gray worked on the mayoral campaign of Councilman Richard Berkley, one of the few Republican mayors Kansas City has ever elected. Jim Nutter Sr., the wealthy mortgage banker, helped finance Berkley’s campaign. With Nutter’s loose purse strings and Gray’s merciless mailers against the opposition, Berkley beat Bruce R. Watkins, the city’s first black candidate for mayor.
“He’s got Republican genes somewhere,” former Mayor Wheeler, now 84, tells The Pitch. “He has been able to join the Democrats for many worthy causes. I was warned about his basically conservative makeup.”
In 1991, when then-Councilman Emanuel Cleaver ran for mayor, Gray partnered with business interests looking for an “anybody but Cleaver” candidate. He found Dick King, the founder of a political organization called Kansas City Progress. But King fired Gray two months before the primary. A week later, Gray was accused of relaying privileged, insider information from King’s campaign to another candidate for mayor.
“He has a pattern of disagreeing at some point with candidates he worked for and trying to use the knowledge he gained, when in their trust, to harm them,” Applebee CEO Ken Hill, a supporter of King’s, told reporters at the time. “If anyone’s stupid enough to hire him in the future, he’ll do it to them, too.”
That may be just what anti-tax activists are thinking as April’s election approaches. In the 1990s, Gray was the city’s premier tax destroyer, partnering with fellow politicos to form an anti-tax committee called Stop Taxing Our People Now! Described by The Kansas City Star as “brash, hated by rivals and almost always victorious,” the group defeated nine state and local tax initiatives in six years. One political veteran calls the group “the tea party of that period.”
Gray was so fearsome that groups hoping to pass tax initiatives started hiring him just so he couldn’t work against them. This was also Kay Barnes’ original strategy, many sources agree, when she hired Gray for her 1999 run for mayor.
But once Barnes came along, Gray’s inner tea partyer evaporated. With help from fellow strategist Steve Glorioso, Gray helped Barnes pass a sales-tax extension in 1999; airport bonds in 2000; a sales tax benefiting the fire department in 2001; and in 2002, a sales tax that raised funding for police and $35 million in bonds for Kansas City.
By this time, Gray’s consulting business had a name — North Star Marketing Group — and a staff. He had subsidiaries, too; when candidates hired Gray, they got a one-stop shop for polling research, TV and radio advertising, design, printing, direct mail and strategic advice. Unlike other strategists, Gray prefers not to subcontract work to other firms — that way, he keeps every dime in-house. After a particularly successful campaign season, he’s been known to take his entire staff to Nantucket for a celebratory getaway.
He rented an office in “Nutterville,” a patch of midtown properties that Nutter had bought up parcel by parcel, starting with his own office on Broadway. Nutter is considered the town’s kingmaker, thanks to his generous contributions to political hopefuls, including many of Gray’s clients. If real estate is about location, Nutterville is a political operative’s Park Place.
But as Gray’s star rose, so did the obligatory backlash. Star editorialists wagged newsprint-stained fingers at his mudslinging. The year after Gray opened North Star, the Missouri Ethics Commission fined him $3,700 for improper campaign-finance reporting.
“But,” says one Gray contemporary, “sometimes sleaze gets you where you want to be.”
In 2003, Gray helped Barnes score a second term as mayor, and he collected $283,000 in the process, records show. And with Glorioso’s help, he continued convincing voters to part with their income, passing a renewal of the COMBAT anti-drug tax, a public-transit sales tax, $280 million in bonds to fund the zoo and city infrastructure, and various water and sewer bonds.
Sometimes the sleaze backfired. In 2003, City Council candidate Colleen Hernandez paid at least $67,000 to Gray’s companies, records show. After Hernandez lost, she told The Pitch that without her permission, Gray had sent out mailers printed with a doctored photo of her opponent. In the mailer, her opponent’s features were skewed, like a guy who mashed a week’s worth of happy hours into one.
“I told him I was angry,” Hernandez told The Pitch at the time. “He didn’t defend it. He didn’t say he did it, but I think he did.”
Gray’s mailers for another council candidate, Wesley Fields, also included a doctored photo. In it, incumbent Becky Nace’s head was shrunk, and it was Photoshop, not L’Oréal, that pumped up the volume of her blond hair. The effect: total ditz. The election result: Nace by a mile.
Through it all, Gray also employed the old strategy that he had sharpened at Nexus and is likely to trot out for the e-tax campaign: pitting regional resentments against each other.
In August 2004, he was pushing Question 1, a proposed tax on tourists aimed at building what would become the Sprint Center. Early polling showed disinterest from voters. But Gray and Glorioso rallied Kansas City around a common enemy: the St. Louis-based Enterprise Rent-A-Car company, which opposed the tax. The KC vs. St. Louis story line gave the issue enough traction to pass with 57 percent of the vote.
Until the end of the 2007 city elections, Gray kept track of his win-loss record on his company website. That year, he racked up a string of check marks in the “win” column, orchestrating successful campaigns for almost the entire City Council. But the final check mark registered is under the “no” column, next to “Alvin Brooks (Mayor).”
Gray is known to risk copyright infringement to brand his candidates with memorable iconography. When Henry Rizzo ran for the Missouri Senate in 2002, the signs read, “O, Henry!” For Councilwoman Carol Coe, he borrowed Coke’s white script, red background and slogan: “Coe is it.” And where others see vacant lots, Gray sees political gain: He’s said to keep track of properties owned by absentee landlords because they make for prime sign-staking territory.
But in 2007, Brooks’ opponent, former city auditor Mark Funkhouser, splashed his signs with a bold orange and lifted “We Want the Funk” as his slogan. By contrast, even the most hard-core political junkies now have trouble conjuring Brooks’ 2007 campaign materials.
Gray lacked his trademark enthusiasm and fighting spirit, sources close to the Brooks campaign say, and in the last two weeks —when Brooks most needed a push — Gray took his foot off the gas entirely.
“There were things left undone. He did the work but made strategic errors,” one politico says. “He did most of his campaigning south of the river, and north of the river is where Funk cleaned Brooks’ clock. Had Pat decided to put in any effort at all north of the river, they could have collected the 350 votes they needed to win. But he withdrew as a person. He saw defeat and didn’t battle till the last dog died.”
More losses piled up in 2010. Karen Messerli, the former mayor of Lee’s Summit, enjoyed 16 years as one of the state’s most well-liked public officials. Last spring, she hired Gray to help her win re-election. She was beaten by Randy Rhoads, her mayor pro-tem, who ran under a “time for a change” banner.
Jackson County Legislator Henry Rizzo admits that he had reservations about hiring Gray last year to fight off opponent Crystal Williams. Rizzo, the incumbent, says Gray warned him that newbies would promote themselves as fresh blood. Turns out, Gray was in a position to know their strategy: He also was working for Terry Riley, one of those anti-incumbent newbies.
Sure enough, a mailer that appeared in voters’ mailboxes depicting the Legislature’s incumbents as the “Usual Suspects” included a caricature of Rizzo and other incumbents. It went out to voters on behalf of four challengers, including Rizzo’s opponent and Riley. The political group responsible for the mailer has no clear ties to Gray.
“I was shocked to find out that my consultant, who I paid to represent me, was also partly behind the negative mailer that hurt me in the last two weeks of the campaign,” Rizzo says. (Gray called the allegations
Gray is the go-to guy for mailed hit pieces, says John Carnes, a former Jackson County legislator who has worked with Gray. But, Carnes points out, “He doesn’t have the exclusive on that. That’s just part of the trade, part of the politics…. I can show you a piece we sent out here trashing him a few years back.”
Regardless, Carnes says, nasty mailers don’t have the same impact on voters that they used to have. He bemoans, somewhat nostalgically, the modern politician’s inability to get voters’ attention.
“Today, I don’t know,” Carnes sighs. “When you want to unravel somebody’s past or present, that deals with their credibility and their veracity to tell the truth and all that, I’m not sure that you’re not talking to an empty audience. Nobody seems to care.”
Should Gray fail to convince voters to preserve the e-tax, it could provide one more reason for people to flee across the state line. Without the revenue, services would dwindle. If the revenue is replaced by raising property taxes, homeowners could go packing. Hiking the sales tax — another option — could cause business owners to do the same.
Gray lives a safe distance from these bleak consequences. His home in Leawood is the only house on the block with Southwestern-style clay walls and a Spanish tiled roof. The street is dotted with basketball hoops and tire swings, hallmarks of placid, suburban life on the Kansas side.
The Leawood home now serves as Gray’s primary office, though he sometimes holds meetings in coffee shops and union headquarters. Gone are his digs in Nutterville and his energetic staff. State business filings for North Star Marketing and its subsidiaries ceased in 2006 and 2007.
But when it comes to issue-based campaigning, local power brokers maintain that Gray is the e-tax’s best hope.
“I can’t remember a citywide issue he hasn’t been in on,” says Pat “Duke” Dujakovich, president of the local chapter of the AFL-CIO. “And I think he’s got a hell of a winning record on ’em.”
The e-tax is not the only city campaign that Gray is in on this year. He’s also working for half a dozen City Council candidates and Jim Rowland, the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority executive director who’s running for mayor. Gray’s expertise and all that carefully calculated sleaze are spread thin.
“From my perspective, I wish he wasn’t working any campaigns and he had absolutely nothing to do but this earnings tax,” Dujakovich says. “That’s just not the case.”
Rowland’s critics argue that Gray could sneak questions about mayoral candidates into his e-tax polling, thereby giving Rowland free access to valuable campaign research. Gray has reportedly promised not to mix the e-tax with the mayor’s race in his polling. But regardless of who wins the mayoral race, some leftover bitterness could spill into the election for the e-tax.
“The idea that the guy who is potentially responsible for causing much of that harm is going to be able to encourage the city to coalesce around him within 20 days, after a hugely divisive election,” City Council candidate Fletcher says, pausing to laugh, “that ain’t going to happen.”
The alternative, though, is Gray sitting out the city’s biggest election in years. And that isn’t going to happen, either.
“Pat Gray is a creature of Kansas City politics,” strategist Roe says. “There’s no one who knows Kansas City better than he does. You would almost consider him a savant of where to go, where the bodies are buried.”