Local Columnists

Steve Kraske: As Dutch Newman turns 95, she looks back at a life in politics

Dutch Newman has toiled in Kansas City’s political trenches since 1944. From her perch in Westport, she became a confidante to Democrats from City Hall to the White House.
Dutch Newman has toiled in Kansas City’s political trenches since 1944. From her perch in Westport, she became a confidante to Democrats from City Hall to the White House. skeyser@kcstar.com

How big a deal is Dutch Newman?

Al Gore once stopped his motorcade to give her a hug. Jimmy Carter called to check on her. So did George McGovern.

Bottom line: Any Democrat who is anybody in Missouri knows Dutch, who has toiled in Kansas City’s political trenches since 1944. She has been a trailblazer for women before the phrase “women’s lib” ever came along and a confidante for the mighty. She has received more honors from her party than maybe anyone in the country.

And war stories? Oh my gosh, there’s a million of ’em.

But self-impressed? No. That kid down the street in her Westport neighborhood will tell you about Dutch. His bike was stolen one night. By noon the next day, Dutch made sure a brand new one was on his front porch.

Well, the grande dame of Missouri Democratic politics and the longtime leader of the Westport Landing Democratic Club celebrates her 95th birthday on Tuesday, so today we’re turning the column over to her. Dutchie recalls and reflects and tells about the time she was seeking petition signatures when a man came to the door buck naked.

The president when you were born?

Woodrow Wilson.

Best president of your lifetime?

Franklin D. Roosevelt. He got the country through a devastating Depression, and he instituted a plethora of federal programs that continue to greatly benefit people today. You can’t underestimate the power of Harry Truman because he told it like it was.

What you said to the man who came to the door naked when you were gathering signatures.

I said, “Sir, please sign this petition and get back inside before you freeze your butt off.”

The biggest problem in American politics today?

Lack of respect for one another and the forgotten “art of compromise.” Some people don’t just want to win. They want to cause damage in the process.

Tell us about your encounters with big shots.

Last year my cellphone rang and to my surprise it was a call from Air Force One. It was Sen. Claire McCaskill’s birthday, and both she and President Obama were aboard the plane.

When George McGovern was running for president, he came to see me while I was in the hospital. The nun at the nurse’s station would not let him in until I confirmed who he was. During that same hospital stay, Sens. Tom Eagleton and Ted Kennedy and (former Jackson County executive) George Lehr all stopped by. You can politick anywhere!

The last time I saw Joe Biden, he stopped his speech and came over to give me a kiss.

All-time favorite Democrat?

Eagleton. He was one of the smartest, most charitable men I’ve ever known.

When you hear the name Sen. Claire McCaskill, you think what?

President … and someone I adore.

Republican you admire most?

On the local level, (former Kansas City mayor) Richard Berkley. On the national level, Colin Powell.

What do Republicans not understand?

That high tides should raise all ships, not just a select few.

Before you back a politician, you have to be convinced of what?

That they are for the people, not themselves.

The key to working with the men in the backroom politics in the ’60s and ’70s was what?

They knew that my word was good, I could deliver what I said I would and they couldn’t intimidate me.

Why you never ran for office yourself.

My husband had a progressive illness, and while sitting at the kitchen table one evening with Phil and my three girls, I just knew I couldn’t be away four days a week. They always came first.

The presidential candidate you were least excited about?

McGovern, especially after he dumped Eagleton as his VP.

The KC politician that you are most proud of helping get elected?

This is really tough because I’m proud of all of them or I wouldn’t have endorsed them. They all bring something to the table. For instance, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver is one of the most moving orators I have ever heard, and (Jackson County Executive) Mike Sanders is a true visionary.

Key to grass-roots organizing?

It’s really not a mystery. It’s about getting a group of people together for a worthy cause, going door to door, meeting your neighbors, having meetings that build relationships within the group, creating a sense of community for a cause or candidate. And it doesn’t hurt to have something to eat and drink.

The toughest advice you ever gave a politician?

Don’t run. You’re not ready yet.

The underdog candidate that you were instrumental in getting elected?

Gov. Warren E. Hearnes in 1964. It was like David and Goliath, and we won.

What you would say today to Al Gore about the 2000 election.

You got screwed.

Rank President Obama on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning he’s incredible.

I’d give him a 10 for effort and integrity and an 8 for implementation. He’s had to fight every step of the way.

Who you called when you got in a jam at the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York. (Newman’s sister, who worked for a prosecutor’s office, had forgotten she had a gun in her purse when she tried to enter the arena, and authorities had pounced.)

FBI director Clarence Kelley.

Scariest moment while campaigning?

In 1974, I was campaigning for George Lehr for state auditor. A group of us were going to Kirksville, his hometown, for a fundraiser. My husband and kids were having a fit because I was going to fly in a small plane. I wasn’t too happy about it either. So I boarded the plane, scared to death, rosary beads in hand. And I needed them because, midair, the door of the plane flew partially open and my hairpiece flew off.

Thankfully, the plane was able to turn around and land. I got out, kissed the ground and said, “Call me a cab!”

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.