You Make The Call

Emanuel Cleaver insists that he has never, ever, in all his years of political involvement, participated in race baiting.

So check this out. On the day before the February 25 primary election, hundreds of Kansas City voters came home from work to find a phone message from the former mayor.

“I want to talk to you about a matter of long-lasting importance to our community,” Cleaver intoned. “It’s about Wesley Fields, our community’s choice for the City Council in the 5th District at-large race. This council seat was once held by Mark Bryant and Ken Bacchus. Now someone holds it who does not relate to this community. By voting tomorrow, and again on March 25, we can place someone in the 5th District at-large seat who understands the central city.”

The phone-bank ad’s reference to race was obvious: Like Fields, both Bryant and Bacchus are black; Fields’ opponent, incumbent Becky Nace, has a lily complexion and long, blond hair.

Nace is furious. “I grew up in the central city,” she tells us. She spent her childhood at 4230 Woodland, in the predominantly black Ivanhoe neighborhood. One of the leaders of Freedom Inc., the city’s long-standing black political organization, was her next-door neighbor.

“These kinds of racial remarks are destructive to a community that is trying to promote unity,” she says. “And Emanuel Cleaver, of all people, should understand that.”

Nace says lots of people have called her about Cleaver’s message. “And they were all from blacks saying, ‘How can he go on and make these kinds of racial statements?'”

Fields didn’t return our phone calls. But fortunately for readers who might be wondering what in God’s name Cleaver was thinking, we bumped into the reverend at Einstein’s Bagels in Westport one day.

Cleaver denied any racial component to his ad by sarcastically noting Nace’s “twenty years as a leader on civil rights in this city.” A few days later, Cleaver faxed us a flier that a Northland group sent out in 1999 in support of Nace. “Don’t let Jackson County decide this election,” the leaflet read. In an accompanying letter to us, Cleaver bragged that he wouldn’t raise a stink about the flier in this election even though “three African-American activists” had asked him to “condemn” Nace for the four-year-old “racist brochure.” (Nace has said she had nothing to do with the mailing.)

“In our world today, we would rather talk about talk than about major issues of race, like racially exclusive corporate boards or the lack of racial mixing on church pastoral staffs,” he told us. “Compare that to a leaflet or a political phone message that, at best, are shadowy signs of racial insensitivity. If we continue in this direction, we will surrender our reason to emotion.”

Besides, what he prefers to talk about are sidewalks.

Last summer, Cleaver vilified Nace for refusing to shift capital improvement funds to reimburse his church, St. James United Methodist, for new sidewalks installed around its expanded sanctuary (“Nace Baiting,” February 13). At Einstein’s, he admitted to us that he’d never officially applied for the funds. But he said that, during his City Council days, he had created the city’s funding process to allow council members to shift money at will.

“My project is ready to go right now,” he insisted, adding that “every member of the council” has told him they would have coughed up some tax money to pay for his cherished sidewalks.

Then he declared: “Everyone on the City Council hates Becky Nace.”

Which sort of surprised us, because we’d never witnessed any such venom during our many visits to City Hall. So we asked a few council members if Cleaver’s comments were true.

“Noooo,” Mary Williams-Neal said, shaking her head. “I love Becky. She’s like a daughter to me.”

Asked where Cleaver might have gotten this impression, Williams-Neal replied, “I don’t know, bless his heart. It sounds like he needs a little bit of prayer.”

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