When Kansas City Royals great Frank White declared his candidacy for the Jackson County Legislature, some figured his opponent in the Democratic primary might as well hit the showers.
Although well-connected politically, Sherwood Smith was little known.
Yet Smith, veteran firefighter and union leader, refused to drop out of the race he’d entered months before White’s surprise announcement at the end of February. Smith ramped up his campaign, and if you only look at the score sheet, it would appear to have paid off.
Thanks to support from the political wing of Fire Fighters Local 42 and other local labor unions, Smith had raised 10 times more cash than White had as of the reporting period that ended April 15.
Endorsements have piled up, too, culminating this week with one from U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, joining Kansas City Mayor Sly James and a host of other local politicians.
“This goes to show that this race is close and competitive,” Smith’s campaign spokesman, Brian Noland, said of the McCaskill announcement.
But is it really all that competititve?
A closer look at the campaign expense filings shows that much of the money in Smith’s campaign coffers was received before White’s entering the race. And Smith also collected many of his endorsements early on, said campaign observers who once supported Smith but now think White is sure to win.
“In a race like this,” said veteran political consultant Steve Glorioso, “name ID is enormous.”
That’s because primary battles for the County Legislature rarely get the voters’ attention. Out of the four Democratic contests and one on the Republican side this year, the only one getting much of any discussion is the one between White and Smith in the 1st District at-large.
And even then, the chatter isn’t about the issues, as it’s unclear whether the candidates have any major differences.
So voters tend to go with the name they know in such down-ballot races rather than weigh each candidate’s views and credentials.
“You have 20 to 30 years of name recognition built into our campaign,” said Pat O’Neill, White’s consultant and spokesman.
Actually, it’s closer to 40 years since White, 63, burst on the scene, displacing Cookie Rojas at second base and then going on to win eight Gold Glove Awards during the Royals’ heyday.
The 58-year-old Smith is an all-star in his own right among the Democratic Party’s inner circle, serving first as the political director for Local 42 and later as the first African-American president of the Missouri State Council of Fire Fighters. Which is why Smith has far more endorsements from labor groups and politicians.
But White is not without endorsements of his own. Among supporters he lists: former Mayor Richard L. Berkley, barbecue baron Ollie Gates and county Legislators Dan Tarwater, Dennis Waits and Scott Burnett.
And like Smith, White scored a big endorsement in recent days. The African-American political club Freedom Inc. last week gave White its support, despite Smith’s long service to the group. That was due, in part, to the clear advantage White had over Smith in name recognition.
“Of course, I was disappointed,” Smith said, “but I’ll just have to work that much harder.”
Still up for grabs are key endorsements from the Committee for County Progress, LaRaza and The Kansas City Star, but were Smith to get all three, it might not be enough without Freedom, Glorioso said.
“It is a real blow to Sherwood, who needed to run the table of endorsements to challenge Frank,” he said.
The financial disparity between the two campaigns is wide. As of April 15, Smith had raised $41,795 to White’s $4,100, according to reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
However, should White need to counter Smith’s spending, his supporters include banker James Nutter Sr. and trial lawyer Ken McClain, both known to write fat checks for candidates they support. But O’Neill is hoping that won’t be necessary.
“I think we’ll wait to see what the fire guy throws up,” he said.
About the only negatives being raised are assertions that Smith has paid his dues in the trenches of party politics and White has not.
“Do we even know whether Frank White is a Democrat?” one top party official in Jackson County asked.
The answer, White said, is yes. All his life.
But as a ballplayer, he and his teammates were discouraged from expressing political views, he said. And in recent years, working three jobs (coaching for the T-Bones and semi-pro teams, as well as a marketer for a roofing company) he hasn’t had time for party politics.
That’s changing as he nears retirement age.
“I grew up in this city,” White said. “I’ve lived here all my life, and I just felt that this would be a great way to give back to the community.”
Smith said he has similar aims, but unlike White he has 16 years of involvement in local politics to build upon.
“Frank and I have both worn uniforms,” he said. “One to entertain and one to serve the public.”
The winner in August will face Republican Weldon Woodward of Levasy in November, but will almost certainly go on to replace Theresa Garza-Ruiz, who chose not to seek re-election. No Republican has won an at-large seat since the County Legislature was formed in 1973.
To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.