Clay Chastain hangs up the phone and looks briefly frustrated, but not surprised.
It’s a sunny morning in late September, and Chastain stands at the Union Station streetcar stop with his 10-year-old daughter, Claire, and a rat terrier named Sir Jackson. A television news staffer has just told him the station won’t be attending a press conference championing his latest light rail initiative, which Kansas Citians vote on next month.
He explains his dog’s regal name, unfazed, after the phone call.
“Sir Jackson holds himself up high even though he’s small,” says Chastain, who looks unassuming in gray slacks, black shoes and a blue plaid shirt.
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The metaphor is meant to be obvious.
A part-time home renovator and landscaper with a college engineering degree, Chastain has spent 25 years promoting his transit ideas — mainly self-designed light rail systems — for Kansas City. He fancies himself a crusader against the big guys — city government and other groups he believes have thwarted his many plans to change how people get around here.
But persistence has netted Chastain very little, and has done more to damage his relationship with friends, family and the city he says he loves than create lasting impact.
Look at the record: Nine times since 1997 Chastain has used the city’s lenient petition process to place his light rail plans and transit ideas on the ballot. Voters have rejected each effort, except for a 2006 plan that won at the ballot box but was repealed by the city for being impossible to implement. In every case, including the upcoming ballot question, city officials and transportation experts have called his transit plans unrealistic, under-budgeted and, in some cases, unconstitutional.
Since 1991, when Chastain first made a name for himself by promoting the idea of a volunteer force to rehab the iconic train station that looms behind him, what Chastain has become is Kansas City’s most irritating gadfly — a man who causes officials to roll their eyes, reporters to glance at their caller IDs and let the phone ring, Internet commenters to say things like, “Why doesn’t he just leave us alone? He is like that ex-girlfriend that is obsessed with you and refused to move on.”
City officials say he’s earned a 20-plus year reputation as an overly sensitive egomaniac who has sued, lambasted or ridiculed those who disagree with him and shown few signs of being collaborative.
“I don’t have any problems with vision, but vision needs to at some time contact reality,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who is opposing Chastain’s most recent plan to build a $2 billion, 40-mile light rail system from Kansas City International Airport to south Kansas City. “And if reality and vision don’t meet you don’t have anything as far as I’m concerned.”
Mark Funkhouser, a former mayor and current publisher of Governing magazine, allows that “the classic role of the gadfly” is to create change.
“But Kansas City has Clay and they don’t have a regional transit system. Every other major metropolitan area has a regional transit system, and they don’t have Clay.… I think it has drained energy and effort away from something that might eventually work.”
Chastain doesn’t believe that — he can’t. He’s devoted almost half of his life to the pursuit of being influential. Something changed in him after he began speaking publicly on transit issues in the wake of his father’s 1990 death. He found a role challenging “the establishment” on transit issues, and found he could not stop.
Is it the sense of purpose he discovered touting his own ideas for city issues that has motivated him all these years? The thrilling attention — both good and bad — he could generate from his efforts? A resentment for those he feels have unfairly opposed his ideas time and time again? His unrelenting conviction that his ideas for a “world-class transit system” are superior to other options pursued by the city?
Chastain acknowledges that both ego and passion have fueled him at different points in his life, even as his efforts in Kansas City contributed to the end of his second marriage and strained his relationship with family. He says he knows Kansas Citians call him crazy or narcissistic, and city officials wish for his permanent exit from politics. But time, ridicule, even a cross-country move away from Kansas City 15 years ago, have not stymied his efforts.
“This 25-year struggle has been over a collision of visions and collision of leadership styles,” Chastain said. “This election will be a culmination of this long protracted political battle between me and the elite and it’s going to determine the future of the city.”
And so Chastain has funneled his energy into another light rail vote, pushed a plan city officials once again say is impractical and half-baked, and returned for the umpteenth time to a city with little track record of listening to him. On this particular morning, no one besides a single citizen and a reporter shows for this press conference.
For now, Chastain must acknowledge the persona that distracts from his mission.
“Clay Chastain gets in the way and I can’t get my message out,” he says, standing on the sidewalk alone with his daughter and his dog, on this Wednesday morning. “They can’t get past my name.”
Lessons from a ‘great intimidator’
In the beginning, he was just a young man who fell in love with a city. In November 1978, he arrived in Kansas City for the first time to visit his sister, Karen, a nurse who had moved here for work, for Thanksgiving. He spotted the Country Club Plaza lit for the holidays.
“It was love at first sight,” he said.
Born Craig “Clay” Chastain in 1953 in Covina, Calif., Chastain grew up the son of Carlin and Doris Chastain, a naval officer and a homemaker. Carlin Chastain, a WWII veteran, would often bring his family back to a rural Arkansas area called Georgia Ridge, where he had grown up impoverished on the family’s 40-acre homestead. Clay Chastain moved to Kansas City after putting himself through the University of Arkansas in 1980 by working on a dairy farm, and then fixing cars for his friends. His parents later followed.
Growing up, Clay was close to his mother, who Chastain said kept him grounded. She had expressed an interest in going to work when he was young, but Chastain said he begged her not to because he didn’t want to be alone after school. She didn’t take a job.
Chastain both admired and feared his father, whom he once called the “great intimidator.” After rising out of the poverty he grew up in, Carlin Chastain expected his children to make something of themselves, and Chastain said he admired the compassion his father kept for the “little guy.” But Chastain struggled under his father’s steep expectations, and the dynamic led to a charged relationship with “tremendous highs and lows.”
He recalls helping his father wire circuits for a telemetering system that the elder Chastain would later patent and sell to a gas meter company. His father had no college education, but still found engineering work because he “knew how to sell himself,” Chastain said.
After graduation, Chastain said he felt immobilized by a fear of not living up to his father’s desire for him to be “extraordinary.” These issues were exacerbated when his father died abruptly of a brain hemorrhage in 1990. He was lost, Chastain said, and looking to ground himself in something.
The first time he really saw Union Station was at night in 1991. He says he sneaked into the abandoned structure, intrigued by the landmark in the news because a company the city had contracted with had failed to renovate the dilapidated station. The building was creepy, neglected and forlorn.
Chastain says he saw an opportunity to throw himself into a project that could give him the attention and purpose he craved.
“I wanted to show what I could do,” he said. “I had never even heard of Union Station. I had a desire to show what I could amount to.”
A letter to The Kansas City Star summoning a volunteer force to rehab the structure eventually led to more suggestions for the city: Union Station’s return as a transportation hub, an expanded plan to restore Liberty Memorial, a light rail plan, a gondola system downtown.
Karen Chastain, Clay Chastain’s sister, said their father’s death did seem to provoke a change in Chastain. He had always had an impressive willpower — he doesn’t drink, smoke and regularly exercises, she points out. But during this time, he seemed to singularly focus on his various initiatives and became enthralled with the attention he was getting. She said the city’s opposition created a defiance in Clay, a quiet high school jock who had previously kept to himself.
“When you tell him you can’t do something,” Karen Chastain said. “He wants to do that even more.”
As Kansas City media began to give him attention and he garnered a small following, Chastain continued to challenge city officials, including launching a petition to recall Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, and belittled the city staff he would encounter and meet with. He filed suits without legal standing, and felt rejections were personal attacks.
“I became a recurring nightmare for Kansas City’s stodgy, tight-fisted, good-old-boy network who shunned public input and insisted on doing this their way or no way,” Chastain wrote in his 1998 book, “Tilting at Windmills.” “I would leave many of their days, and some holidays, ruined. I would cost them tens of millions of dollars. I would call them arrogant and corrupt whenever I got the chance.”
In some ways, Chastain says now, his father was still influencing him. Growing up, he had observed how his father “intellectually manhandled” people, using his intelligence and attitude to put other people in their place. It was a hubris that Chastain adopted, a core flaw he just couldn’t and sometimes still can’t shake.
“It hurt me and it still hurts me,” he says, of what he calls his arrogance, the unflinching belief he is smarter and superior to those he is opposing. “It bubbles up and my fighting spirit comes out.”
Despite expressing disdain for elected officials throughout his advocacy, Chastain has also run unsuccessful campaigns for mayor in 1994, 1998 and 2015, as well as for the 5th District U.S. House seat in 2004. He continued his platform of representing the “everyday man,” but struggled to find real traction.
When he thinks of his early motivations he is reminded of the 1955 movie starring Henry Fonda and James Cagney called “Mister Roberts.” It’s the tale of military officer Douglas Roberts, played by Fonda, who is stuck serving on a ship stationed in the backwaters of the Pacific during World War II.
He longs to be part of the action, but his requests for transfer are continually thwarted by the tyrant Capt. Morton, played by Cagney, who resents the lowly crew’s admiration for Roberts.
“He just wanted to be in the thick of things,” Chastain says of the movie’s title character.
Finding the petition process
It was a tiff with Michael Hernandez, a former councilman who would go on to serve jail time for taking bribes, that directed Chastain to the process he would use so well to put his ideas on the ballot.
“You bring me real signed petitions and I’ll do something about what you want,” Chastain maintains that Hernandez said after a testy exchange in the councilman’s office some time in the early 1990s.
The city’s petition process, which allows citizens to place an issue on the ballot by collecting signatures totaling five percent of the last mayoral election, allowed Chastain to keep his light rail initiatives in the public eye, even when voters rejected his 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003 plans. (He began focusing on light rail initiatives starting in 1998.) His only election victory during a large turnout in 2006 was deemed unworkable by city officials and repealed. A 2011 initiative was pulled from the ballot for similar reasons, city officials have said.
“I think it’s given him more of a motivation,” says Phillip Kline, a professional magician who is one of few friends and supporters Chastain has here. “It’s like when you have a mountain and the first time you try to climb it, you don’t do it. You try to climb it again.”
In 1997, news broke that Chastain, as he solicited signatures outside grocery stores, had taken notes — “blond bomb,” “short cute,” “beautiful hair,” — on women he was interested in. A few said he had called them, and the incident caused outrage from many who felt the integrity of the petition process was compromised.
For the first time, Chastain said he felt shame for violating the “moral structure” he had built his life around. He fled from the public eye, and spent time at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan. There, he says, he poured his heart out, and the men were gentle and kind to him.
Later, after meeting Kansas City lawyer Valerie Szopa in a bookshop, things looked up.
Chastain said his future-wife saw how light rail consumed him and suggested an exit from the city. The couple moved to Athens, Tenn., in 2001 and married in 2002. They later moved to Bedford, Va., where they had a child, Claire. (Chastain has an older daughter, Lene, from a first marriage.) But Chastain couldn’t curb a desire to inject himself into the politics of where he lived, and challenged officials in both Tennessee and Virginia. He also couldn’t forget Kansas City, and launched five of his light rail plans through the petition process while living out-of-state.
Chastain says his then-wife thought his activism superseded the family. He thought he could do both and drained their bank account on lawsuits and Kansas City petition drives. The couple divorced in 2012 and share custody of their daughter. Their custody agreement prevents Chastain from moving his daughter out of Virginia, though he has suggested he will return to Kansas City when she turns 18.
Valerie Chastain did not wish to be interviewed for this article.
Richard Tolbert, a former Kansas City council member who is on Chastain’s petitioning committee, believes that the more outrageous aspects of Chastain’s persona — dating scandals, his “prickly personality,” his “obsession” with Kansas City — have been conveniently used by some to avoid talking about legitimate weaknesses in Kansas City’s transit system.
“It’s not about Clay Chastain and his dating habits — it’s about getting light rail to help people get to jobs,” Tolbert said about Chastain’s 2016 initiative. “Yes, it’s his baby, he’s sacrificed to make it happen, but if the people once again vote yes on this then it’s the city’s baby and they’ll have to make it happen.”
The Clay Chastain cycle
Chastain remembers the fleeting feeling of victory after he learned that voters had passed his 2006 initiative — a light rail system funded solely by bus funds and federal grants. Valerie was still there, happy and supportive, and the couple celebrated in their Bedford, Va., home. She took a video camera, Chastain says, hit record and turned to him: How does it feel?
Within a year, the city repealed his plan for being unworkable, and Chastain saw its removal as another “dirty trick” by the government to quash the will of the people. “Everything turned black,” he said.
To understand Chastain’s motivations, and the resentment he admits plays a role in his determination to succeed here, you must understand that in 2006 Chastain believed he had earned something and it was robbed from him.
It’s not the first time he’s felt this way. In 1995, the Kansas City Council blocked his first official petition drive, another redevelopment idea for Union Station. Chastain sued and a court eventually ruled his initiative back on the ballot, but the city passed a different solution while Chastain’s plan was tied up in litigation.
It’s not the last time he would feel this way. In 2011, the city removed another light rail plan from the ballot, again because it was unfeasible. Chastain levied a lawsuit and the Missouri Supreme Court sent his initiative back to voters. But because of mistakes in how he had written his initiative, only Chastain’s request for tax increases — not how the funds would be used — was required to be put on the ballot. Voters had no desire to pass a tax increase when the measure finally made it on the ballot in 2014.
Chastain admits freely that he carries anger for the impact that his losses have had on his psyche, his marriage, his vision. City officials reiterate that Chastain’s right to petition is protected by city code, even if unworkable plans make it on the ballot.
“Democracy has been fine to him,” James said. “I’ve never seen anyone use the initiative petition rules more than him. He’s had access. … He’s taken advantage of his democratic options.”
Critics also say one of Chastain’s biggest flaws is his inability to see that their opposition lies in the integrity of his plans, not a personal vendetta against his efforts.
“Promoting something even as big as a $100 or $200 million project is a very serious expenditure of public funds that needs to be vetted by all kinds of traps,” says Kite Singleton, a longtime transit advocate and architect who has opposed Chastain’s plans in part because they are vetted solely by Chastain and circumvent the many parties involved in approving city projects. “If you don’t have the buy-in … you are just wasting everybody’s time.”
‘They will love my concepts’
When Chastain designed this year’s light rail plan — one he wanted to be beautiful, useful and innovative enough for “Kansas City to be proud of” — he followed his usual routine.
He waited for his daughter to go to bed, sat in a wingback chair under a floor lamp in the living room and conjured up his latest plan. He designs with a pencil on a clipboard in his lap — there is no internet in his 1932, white Bedford bungalow with the bright yellow door. He conducts research and checks his email at the library.
This go-round he created a light rail and electric bus system that cuts through the low-density Northland and by the proposed Twin Creeks development, running from KCI to 63rd Street with eastward legs to the Truman Sports Complex, the Kansas City Zoo and the new Cerner campus. For more information about his plan, people can visit his new website, kclightrail.org.
Once he collected the necessary signatures to send his plan to voters, a familiar cycle began.
City officials said he’s committing the same old mistakes: He grossly underestimates the cost of construction, ignores state and federal guidelines about how revenue is used for transit projects, and is counting on up to $1 billion in federal support that is unlikely and unprecedented. His plan calls for a 25-year sales tax increase and would also take money from the city’s bus system, a diversion that city officials say might make the city ineligible for federal funding.
Chastain, as he has before, bristled at the criticisms. He’s designed his plan to encompass existing city infrastructure that he says will make his plan cheaper. He believes a bus system that only a small percentage of the population uses is worth replacing and his plan can lead to a more inclusive and accessible system. He’s dead sure his design will win over federal regulators, and says if he’s sent to Washington, D.C, he will secure $1 billion.
Outside the Brookside Price Chopper where Chastain often collects signatures, many voters relate to Chastain’s windmill-tilting fight against the city, and the big-picture ideas of helping the working poor, boosting sustainability and creating jobs. Chastain hopes they will rally behind him and propel Kansas City out of a “time warp full of diesel buses.”
“Every time it comes up, I vote for it,” one shopper says.
But the congenial Clay Chastain that many of these voters meet is not the man who has cursed, argued and verbally attacked journalists, politicians and advocates here who have the same goal, many told The Star. Some officials don’t interact with Chastain for fear of being sued. Others have said he is too combative to reason with. Just this fall, Chastain had a falling out with his petitioning committee’s former lawyer and blasted his criticisms of the lawyer in an email he sent out to the public.
“You are making it difficult for me to be nice and not sue you for not contacting me, the ‘spokesperson for the Committee of Petitioners for light rail’ before you sent out this letter in behalf of that committee,” Chastain wrote to attorney Jeff Carey, who had already resigned from the committee.
James said he gives Chastain credit for refusing to let rail transit escape the public’s attention, but light rail must grow slowly and in stages, with both demand and funding in place. The city, he said, does not see meeting with him as productive.
“I think that when you’ve burned your bridges, you’ve burned your bridges.” James said. “You can’t constantly attack people and get in their face and threaten them and be all sorts of hostile and then come back and say, ‘Gee, I was just kidding; work with me.’”
Waiting for an ending
For the past 20 years Kline, Chastain’s supporter, has been filming a documentary that he says will be about the “journey of one man’s crusade against the city.” Two cameras later, he’s waiting for an ending to his movie and has updated to digital film.
He’s filmed Chastain’s political stunts, when he delivered signatures for a 1997 plan by horse to City Hall. He’s filmed election watch parties and Chastain’s devastating mayoral loss in 1994. Kline can’t quite bring himself to end his movie without a win, and feels like he’s seen a calmer version of Chastain in recent years.
“He’s not as sarcastic, and he’s not doing as many stupid stunts as he did before,” Kline said. “I think that kind of hurt him, but it also made him a legend.”
Sitting in a Union Station coffee shop after his lonely press conference, Chastain also thinks of endings. He knows he won’t be able to return to Kansas City before the November election. If he loses again, he wonders “if the realistic part of me is going to give up the dreamer.”
It’s a claim he’s made before. He is a man who has been driven by emotion for much of life, and says he knows he can’t quite predict how he’ll feel after the election.
Before he goes he tells one more story with an ending he likes — the finale of the “Mister Roberts” film. Roberts eventually gets his wish to go to war but is killed shortly after being granted the opportunity to join the front lines.
When the mean old captain thinks he is safe, a low-ranking officer played by Jack Lemmon, marches into his office, and assumes the role of challenging the captain’s authority that Roberts once occupied.
The credits roll as the captain realizes that his troubles are not over: Mister Roberts lives on.