Friends and foes of longtime political adviser Pat Gray remembered him Friday as a brilliant strategist, a fierce competitor — and a man devoted to his family and community.
“Pat had an amazing political mind,” said former Kansas City mayor Kay Barnes, who credited Gray for her election to the city’s highest office in 1999.
Gray, 69, died Thursday after a short illness.
For more than a quarter century, the colorful and controversial adviser pulled the levers in dozens of campaigns in Kansas City and Jackson County. He combined an intricate knowledge of the city’s special-interest hierarchies with strategy gleaned from polling that he often kept secret, even from his clients.
And he won. A lot.
“One just needs to look around to see Pat’s handiwork,” said longtime friend Steve Glorioso. “Sprint Center, the Truman Sports Complex, increased funding for indigent care, first female mayor of Kansas City, just to name a few things.”
Gray won those races with an often bare-knuckle approach to politics, never shying away from a controversial mailer or provocative ad.
“Pat slid into second base with his spikes in the air,” said consultant Jim Bergfalk, who often found himself on the other side of Gray’s campaigns. “You knew you had to either throw the ball or get out of the way.”
Gray never apologized.
“My job is to get my candidates elected,” he said in a 1999 profile in The Star. “I’m going to do what I have to do to win. If the public wants me to trash my opponent with negative advertising, if that’s what they’re going to respond to, I do it. If they don’t, I won’t.”
Gray was a familiar figure to politicians but less familiar to the public. He often kept a low profile during campaigns, avoiding reporters’ questions while quietly plotting a new press release or news conference.
That often led opponents and writers to refer to Gray in ominous terms. He understood that reputation — some said he used it to his advantage — but friends say it disguised the man they knew.
“He was a big marshmallow in the middle,” said former Kansas City Council member and current candidate Teresa Loar.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, in a tweet: “Pat Gray’s biggest secret? He was an idealist. Funny, smart, loyal, kind. Gosh I will miss him.”
He grew up in Tulsa, Okla. A 1970s advertising career morphed into political consulting in the 1980s, where he helped Bill Waris and Richard Berkley win high-profile local campaigns.
By 1991, he was the most sought-after political mastermind in the area. But his role in what many still consider the nastiest mayoral race in modern city history, involving Brice Harris and Dick King among others, convinced Gray to step outside the arena for a time.
Health issues played a role too. His heart failed in 1998, and he underwent triple bypass surgery and had on-and-off health issue in the years that followed.
But his self-imposed retirement didn’t last. He eventually provided strategy for dozens of candidates and issue campaigns, from city bond issues and the Truman Sports Complex sales tax to the early version of a downtown renewal project and the tax increases for the Sprint Center.
He also worked against tax increases on occasion, efforts that frustrated the city’s leadership so much they began to hire him just to keep him away from their projects.
“For a long time,” Glorioso said Friday, “there just wasn’t anyone his equal.”
Others on Friday were equally effusive.
“Kansas City has lost a true political mastermind,” said a statement from Jim Heeter, a one-time mayoral candidate and head of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. “Pat was as generous as he was aggressive, and his outstanding legacy can be seen all around us.”
Jeff Roe, who briefly fell out with Gray during last year’s contentious campaign for a health research sales tax in Jackson County, said it was hard to stay angry at Gray for long.
“You could growl at him during the day, and you could settle it with a steak and a beer at the end of the night,” he said.
In a statement, Mayor Sly James offered condolences to Gray’s family.
Glorioso — as prominent in the public’s eye as Gray was often obscure — said he would miss his friend and campaign partner.
“Lord, we had great times together,” he said. “In both wins and losses.”