The Buzz

Democratic leader helps an independent in Missouri Senate race, and accusations fly

Three candidates are running to fill the Missouri Senate vacated by Republican Will Kraus: (from left) Mike Cierpiot, a Republican; Jacob Turk, an independent; and Democrat Hillary Shields. All are from Lee’s Summit.
Three candidates are running to fill the Missouri Senate vacated by Republican Will Kraus: (from left) Mike Cierpiot, a Republican; Jacob Turk, an independent; and Democrat Hillary Shields. All are from Lee’s Summit.

The head of the Jackson County Democratic Party helped Jacob Turk collect enough signatures to appear on the November ballot as an independent candidate for the Missouri Senate.

Rep. Mike Cierpiot, a 64-year-old lawmaker chosen by local Republican officials to run for a vacant Senate seat in eastern Jackson County, is crying foul and calling Turk a “plant by liberal interests to elect a liberal to the state Senate.”

Turk, 60, who ran as a Republican for Congress six times against Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, called the accusation ridiculous and proof that Cierpiot is “willing to play fast and loose with the truth to win this race.”

The back-and-forth comes as Cierpiot’s campaign is set to spend more than $130,000 on TV ads over the next three weeks before voters go to the polls on Nov. 7. The Missouri Senate Campaign Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the state Senate, is expected to spend hundreds of thousands on TV ads in the district as well on Cierpiot’s behalf.

At stake is a seat in the legislature left vacant after Gov. Eric Greitens appointed Republican Sen. Will Kraus to a state job.

Democrat Hillary Shields, a 33-year-old paralegal and co-founder of the grassroots group Indivisible Kansas City, was considered a long shot in a district, which has been held by Republicans every year but once since 1979.

But Turk’s candidacy has put the seat up for grabs and set off panic among Republicans who fear he’ll split the GOP vote and hand the race to Shields.

The latest development in the race centers on Geoff Gerling, the executive director of the Jackson County Democratic Party. Gerling circulated petitions to get Turk on the ballot, collecting 44 signatures.

Turk ended up with 629 signatures — the exact number he needed to qualify for the ballot.

“This troubling discovery proves that there has been a clear and coordinated collaboration between Jacob Turk and the Democrat Party,” Cierpiot said in a written statement to The Star.

Turk said his signature-gathering operation was a volunteer effort. He asked longtime supporters to pitch in and to spread the word that he needed help. He said he doesn’t know Gerling personally, he doesn’t think getting help from Gerling calls his conservative bona fides into question.

“They are attempting to make the case that I’m something different than who I am,” Turk said. “They feel the only way they can win this race is to tear down my relationship with my supporters.”

In an interview with The Star, Gerling said he decided to get involved because he heard the Republican Party was leaning on Turk to keep him out of the race.

“When I heard top-level Republicans in Missouri were going out of their way to dissuade him, I thought that was unfair,” Gerling said. “So I decided to give him some extra help.”

Turk said both Missouri GOP Chairman Todd Graves and the party’s political director, Ray Bozarth, met with him separately to tell him that “if I didn’t file my petitions there would be a place for me in the party.”

“For 12 years I’ve worked to grow the Republican Party in Jackson County and the (congressional) Fifth District,” he said. “I would hope that however this turned out I’d always have a place for me in the party.”

Graves said in a written statement to The Star that anyone “like Jacob Turk who colludes with Democrat operatives — or anyone else — to manipulate people in exchange for a senate seat has no future with the Republican Party of Missouri.”

“Turk seems to think a chance at being elected is worth joining forces with the left to mislead voters, and that is a level of desperation that is very sad to witness,” Graves said. “Turk should immediately terminate his campaign, put an end to his partnership with the Democrats, and come clean to the people of Missouri before he and the Left do anything further to undermine the integrity of our election process.”

Cody Atkinson, Shield’s campaign manager, said that while Cierpiot slings mud, the Democrats will focus on the issues.

“He expected a coronation,” Atkinson said of Cierpiot. “But we’re going to give him a race.”

Turk said the accusations reveal Cierpiot’s character.

“There’s just been one deception after another after another,” he said. “It’s foolish to think someone who does play fast and loose with the truth during a campaign will suddenly turn into an upright man once they are elected.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock