Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders will resign Dec. 31.
The 48-year-old Democrat revealed his decision in an interview Monday afternoon with The Star. His wife, Georgia, was at his side.
Sanders — who had been concerned for years about the toll his job was taking on his family — said he began thinking about leaving public office several months ago, but his feelings crystallized following the recent death of his 73-year-old father, Bruce.
“The last conversation we had was about this,” Sanders said, his eyes watering. “It causes you to sit back and reflect on the bigger picture of what it is you want to do.”
Sanders’ surprise decision opens one of the most important jobs in Kansas City-area politics. Sanders said he would appoint 3rd District Jackson County Legislator Dennis Waits as the interim county executive, but his permanent successor will be picked by voters next year.
Waits did not return phone calls seeking comment. He is the senior member of the county legislature, first elected to the job in 1986. He must resign his seatto become interim county executive.
Sanders has been a fixture in Jackson County and Missouri politics for more than a decade. He was elected Jackson County prosecutor in 2002, then ran for county executive in 2006 and won easily. He breezed to re-election in 2010 and 2014.
He served as chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party from 2011 until 2013. He often was rumored to become a candidate for higher office in Missouri — attorney general often was mentioned — but he never pursued those opportunities.
Sanders said Monday he never ran statewide because of the difficulty in campaigning across a large state, and because his family would have had to move to Jefferson City had he won.
Georgia Sanders confirmed that reasoning and her husband’s strong desire to be closer to his two sons, ages 9 and 12.
“I’m so thrilled,” Georgia Sanders said of her husband’s decision. “It’s time. It’s time for him to move on and do something different. I’m so happy for him, and for us.”
During his time as county executive, Sanders established a reputation for recommending lean budgets without major tax increases.
“We inherited a very difficult set of cards,” he said Monday, recalling a fear that the county could not meet its payroll early in his tenure in 2007. “Getting from there to here, where we’re giving out raises to employees … that’s remarkable for local government.”
He also pointed to renovations to the Jackson County Courthouse in Independence as another achievement.
Sanders took heat from taxpayers over errors in property owners’ 2013 assessment notices, but he went on to fix the mess and found someone new to run the assessor’s office.
He has been active for several years in pursuing rail transit in Jackson County, an effort that is beginning to bear fruit. The county recently announced an agreement to purchase a rail corridor from Lee’s Summit to near the Truman Sports Complex from the Union Pacific Railroad Co. The initial plan is to use the route as a bike trail.
“I’ve been working on that, very quietly, for six years,” Sanders said. “I would not have left had this deal still been out there and not finalized.”
But Sanders faced several political hurdles this year. In June, two Jackson County legislators confirmed the FBI was asking questions about a contract worth up to $75,000 that the county reached with a political consultant tied to former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl.
Sanders has been linked with that contract, which some have argued was issued improperly.
He also faced criticism this year for the operation of the Jackson County jail. The county and the FBI are now investigating four cases of inmates who allegedly were physically abused by guards at the jail. The investigations seek to determine whether the alleged abuses were isolated incidents or part of a broken system.
Sanders said Monday that neither controversy played a role in his decision to resign.
Sanders said he had few regrets about walking away from his time in public service — and he looks forward to returning to the private sector.
“This time frame feels very neat,” he said. “It’s a great job. It’s been a wonderful job. It’s opened up doors and opportunities for myself and my family.”
It isn’t immediately clear what doors may open for Sanders once he leaves office. He said he will pursue several possibilities, including resuming a legal career.
“I want to go back and practice law,” he said. “It’s my first love.”
Sanders appeared to rule out any position at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, despite his longtime interest in mass transit — and the agency’s involvement in the $52 million purchase of the rail corridor. The agency’s director, Joe Reardon, recently announced his decision to assume leadership of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
Sanders’ decision will touch off a political scramble that is likely to last for most of 2016.
Under the county’s charter, Sanders must appoint a Democrat as his temporary replacement. Sanders said Monday he offered the job to Waits after the legislator promised he would not be a candidate for the permanent job.
Waits’ legislative colleagues will then have 30 days to appoint a Democrat to replace Waits. They could pick Waits — a decision that some observers called unlikely — or someone else.
That person will hold the job for the rest of 2016, until voters can pick a permanent executive in the fall to serve the final two years of Sanders’ term in 2017 and 2018.
If the legislature fails to pick a replacement for 2016, the presiding judge of the 16th Circuit Court would make the choice.
Several county legislators are reportedly interested in replacing Waits as interim county executive. The replacement presumably would serve for more than six months before an August primary and probably would have an advantage over other candidates.
Sanders’ pay this year was $120,494.
Waits’ resignation also would kick off a lobbying campaign for his seat on the legislature. Waits’ colleagues will choose his successor.
Sanders on Monday did not rule out a future run for public office, but he strongly hinted it would be years before he’d consider politics again.
“I’m not terminal. I’m not dying,” he said. “For me, I want to make sure I have enough time with my family and my kids. That’s going to take some time.”
A Mike Sanders timeline
2002: Elected Jackson County prosecutor
2006: Elected Jackson County executive
2010: Re-elected Jackson County executive
2011: Appointed Missouri Democratic Party chairman
2013: Resigns as Missouri Democratic Party chairman
2014: Re-elected Jackson County executive
2014: Questions raised about lobbying contract, operation of jail