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Broad support gives Wheat 5th District win

DATE OF EVENT: Tuesday, Nov. 2, 1982

DATE PUBLISHED: Wednesday, Nov. 3, 1982, in The Kansas City Times

Editor’s note: Rep. Alan Wheat’s election to the House of Representatives made him the area’s first black congressman. As predicted, he carried the largely black-majority urban wards by a solid margin. However, the key to his victory was his unexpected strength in suburban areas, where he received 46.5 percent of the vote. Wheat’s election proved wrong skeptics who said that the suburban white population would not vote for a black candidate. The district, overwhelmingly white, would elect him six times. Wheat served in the House of Representatives until 1995.

Whites and blacks united Tuesday to boost Alan Wheat into the Jackson County congressional seat held the last 34 years by retiring Rep. Dick Bolling.

Mr. Wheat, a 31-year-old Democrat, rolled up an overwhelming 57.9 percent to 40.2 percent win over Republican John A. Sharp to become Kansas City’s first black congressman. He is only the second black congressman in Missouri history.

Trailing far behind in the 5th District race were the two other candidates, independent Alan H. Deright and Kathie A. Fitzgerald of the Socialist Workers Party.

The Wheat victory in the district — in which whites make up more than 75 percent of the population — puts to rest arguments that many white voters wouldn’t support a black candidate. Buoyed by a strong turnout, Mr. Wheat won a lopsided majority in the Kansas City portion of the district and ran relatively close behind Mr. Sharp in the suburban part of the district.

The win presumably cheered Mr. Bolling, who has been in a Kansas City hospital this week with a circulatory condition.

In fact, at a happy victory celebration at the Hilton Plaza Inn, Mr. Wheat gave some of the credit for his win to Mr. Bolling, who had raised money for the campaign and appeared in television commercials for Mr. Wheat.

“If any one person was more important than the others, it’s been a person that served the district for 34 years,” said Mr. Wheat, who was interrupted by loud cheers.

Mr. Wheat put together the classic combination of white and black Democrats, including strong labor support, in his winning race. …

In terms of percentage, Mr. Wheat carried the city wards, 63.5 percent to 34.5 percent, and Mr. Sharp carried the suburban townships, 51.2 percent to 46.8 percent. …

Mr. Wheat, in a late-night interview, said he believed his victory showed that Kansas City voters’ rejection of the late Bruce Watkins in the 1979 mayoral race may have been misinterpreted.

“Maybe this indicates some of the people that interpreted the results might have done Kansas City a disservice,” Mr. Wheat said. Mr. Watkins, a black Democrat, was defeated by Mayor Richard L. Berkley, a white Republican, in the non-partisan city election that year. In that contest Mr. Berkley carried the white-majority wards and Mr. Watkins’ only solid support was in black-majority wards. …

The Wheat-Sharp contest differed from most confrontations between Democrats and Republicans across the country because both opposed many of President Reagan’s policies.

It also was unusual in that neither candidate initially had a strong financial base. Each had won his Aug. 3 primary race largely with volunteer and grass-roots work — not television and radio advertising.

And there was the irony of two relatively liberal nominees running in an era of presumed conservative dominance. …

Mr. Wheat’s basic theme was party solidarity — the argument that the district still needed a Democrat in Congress to oppose Reaganomics and represent working people. Continue the Bolling tradition, he said early and often.

Mr. Sharp, meanwhile, put a substantial distance between himself and the president’s policies. Like Mr. Wheat, he complained that Reagan budget cuts for social programs had gone too far, and he called for closer scrutiny of defense spending.