Democrats face off for Missouri Senate seat in Jackson County vacated by Paul LeVota

It’s been almost a year since residents of Independence, Sugar Creek and northeast Jackson County have been represented in the Missouri Senate.

The 11th District Senate seat has been vacant since Democrat Paul LeVota was forced to resign last summer over sexual harassment allegations by former interns.

Now four Democrats — John Rizzo, Jessica Podhola, Anthony Banks and Mary Catherine DiCarlo — are vying for their party’s nomination Aug. 2 in a district that hasn’t sent a Republican to Jefferson City in decades.

Of the four, two have emerged as the front-runners: Rizzo, a three-term member of the Missouri House from Kansas City, and Podhola, a union leader and longtime Democratic activist from Independence.

Podhola, who has never run for elected office, paints Rizzo as a career politician who isn’t capable of changing a culture in Jefferson City that she believes is out of control.

“I’m running against someone who has basically been a politician his entire life,” she said. “The Capitol is full of professional politicians, and look where it got us.”

Rizzo says he’s spent his six years in the House “fighting the good fight” against Republican supermajorities and working for his constituents.

“We need to change things in Jefferson City,” he said, “but you don’t get rid of the people who have been fighting for that change.”

Rizzo, 35, grew up in Missouri politics.

His father, Henry, represented Kansas City in the Missouri House for 19 years, rising to the position of chairman of the influential Commerce and Economic Development Committee when Democrats still held a legislative majority. He ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat, and he ended his political career serving on the Jackson County Legislature.

John Rizzo was elected to the Missouri House in 2010.

So far Rizzo’s campaign has raised $295,000, with $147,000 cash on hand.

That total includes $10,000 from Victor Callahan, an Independence Democrat and an appointed member of the state tax commission who held the Senate seat for eight years before term limits forced him from office.

Rizzo also won the surprise endorsement of Gov. Jay Nixon, who won’t be on the ballot this fall because of term limits.

Podhola, 43, is a longtime community organizer and political activist, previously serving as executive director of the Jackson County Democratic Party. She currently works as the governmental affairs director for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

Podhola has raised $83,000 and has nearly $40,000 cash on hand. A large chunk of her fundraising total came from the painters union, which gave her $25,000 back in December.

She got an additional $20,000 from the union last week, although that donation won’t show up in her most recent disclosure report because it came after the reporting period ended.

The Kansas City Building and Trades union endorsed her earlier this year, along with NARAL Pro Choice Missouri and the Committee for County Progress.

Banks, 35, is a restaurant consultant from Independence who grew up in Raytown. He reports $128 cash on hand.

While he acknowledges that he’s a long-shot candidate in the race, Banks still believes he stands a chance to emerge victorious.

“I’m just a normal guy who is tired of the bought-and-paid-for politicians who live in a bubble and forget how the bills they are writing is actually affecting us here in Jackson County,” he said.

DiCarlo hasn’t created a campaign committee and hasn’t raised any money. She didn’t respond to an interview request.

Podhola says she never thought she would be running for office, but the more she worked around politics, “the angrier I got.”

That culminated, she said, when LeVota was forced to resign last fall after two former interns stepped forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and retaliation. Just two months earlier, House Speaker John Diehl was forced to resign after The Star revealed his relationship with a House intern.

Her life story makes her a good fit to represent the people of the 11th District, Podhola said. Her family struggled to make ends meet for years before her husband finally was able to land a good-paying union job with benefits.

“I know what it’s like to struggle and raise a family, living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I know what it’s like to make hard decisions.”

Rizzo points to his legislative experience over six years in the Missouri House as his greatest asset. Republicans are in no danger of losing control of either legislative chamber, so Rizzo said it’s important that Democrats build a strong team in the Senate, where procedural tactics like the filibuster can help put the brakes on the GOP’s legislative agenda.

“I’m ready on day one,” he said. “The biggest difference is knowledge and experience about how to get things done or, just as important, how to stop bad things from getting done.”

The pair doesn’t differ much when it comes to the issues. But that doesn’t mean the race hasn’t been contentious.

Podhola paints Rizzo as someone driven as much by political ambitions as a desire to serve his constituents. The fact that he had to move into the district to run for the seat “illustrates the culture of people in the political class that just want to continue to move up.”

“This district is a steppingstone to him,” she said. “Rep. Rizzo looked at the district he lived in and assessed that he wouldn’t be able to win there. So he moved to the 11th District.”

She slammed Rizzo for accepting gifts from lobbyists during his time in the statehouse, something she vows she won’t do if elected. But her most pointed critique of Rizzo centers on his first election to the House in 2010.

Rizzo’s aunt and uncle pleaded guilty in Jackson County court to illegally claiming a Kansas City address so they could vote in their nephew’s 40th District Democratic primary in August 2010 — a razor-close election that saw Rizzo win by a single vote.

“If he’s on the ballot, he will hurt our party,” Podhola said.

Rizzo says he only had to move a mile into his new home to establish residency in the district. And his House seat encompassed a big swath of the 11th District already. As for the issue of voter fraud, “you’d have to ask the people who were involved. I had absolutely nothing to do with anything regarding that.”

“(Podhola’s campaign) wants to talk about me,” he said. “I want to talk about the voters. They can’t talk about their candidate because she hasn’t done anything. So they are just going to try to beat me up from start to finish.”

If Podhola’s argument is that having any political experience is bad, “she’ll probably be voting for Donald Trump,” Rizzo said. “She’s got no political experience and seems to be focusing on running a totally negative campaign against what she deems a ‘career politician.’ That’s just what Donald Trump has been doing.”

Voters will decide who will be the Democratic nominee on Aug. 2. The winner will take on Republican Brent Lasater, a former state representative from Independence.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock