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Dave Helling | All that matters is who has the votes

Dave Helling
Dave Helling

Last Thursday, more than 100 Kansas City firefighters stormed out of City Hall after watching the Kansas City Council slice their budget. Fire union leader Mike Cambiano called the decision among the “sickest” things he’s seen in local politics.

Well, maybe — lots of Kansas City politicians have runny noses. But the budget cuts also remind us of the oldest fact of politics, here or anywhere else: The only thing that really matters is

who has the votes

.

The firefighters’ union — Local 42 and its political arm, Taxpayers Unlimited — used to strike fear into the hearts of Kansas City politicos because it could deliver votes. An endorsement from the union usually guaranteed money and support, and in many races equaled election.

Not so today. Firefighters supported incumbent mayor Mark Funkhouser a year ago and couldn’t even get him past the primary. Several firefighter-backed council candidates lost their primary races. A former fire captain lost a council race in 2003.

Certainly, Taxpayers Unlimited has had some recent successes and promoted current Mayor Sly James in the general election. But the firefighters’ union lost the budget vote by a wide margin because council members no longer fear the union’s impact at the ballot box.

Let’s not just pick on firefighters. Twenty years ago, the political club Freedom Inc. could reliably promise 15,000 votes for a citywide candidate or ballot issue. Now, a Freedom endorsement brings a few thousand votes at most. Donations have dried up, and the organization is near death. It doesn’t have the votes.

Of course, votes matter in races and issues beyond Kansas City.

On March 17, roughly one-third of Republican caucusgoers in Clay County backed presidential candidate Ron Paul, and they exploded with rage when the Texas congressman suffered a delegate-selection shutout there.

A week later, however, Paulites — still just one-third of caucusgoers — were all smiles when their man won a good chunk of Jackson County’s convention delegates.

The difference? Paul supporters combined with Mitt Romney’s forces in Jackson County, giving them the votes to carry the caucus. All the Paulite yak about parliamentary foul-ups and procedural missteps magically disappeared because — unlike in Clay County —

t hey had the votes

.

Which brings us to the biggest political story of the past two weeks: the health care reform act arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal pundits want you to think the fate of the massive law will be determined by the lawyers’ dexterity before the high court.

But if you read the argument transcripts, you sense justices are more interested in politics than precedent. Like Kansas City’s budget, it seems, the future of American health care will be decided by the side that

has the votes

.

As it turns out, the judges’ noses are pretty runny, too.

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