Remembering Dutch Newman: How she guided Kansas City’s Democrats after a devastating loss

Dutch Newman developed her sharp intuition while pouring beer at the Westport tavern owned by her father. She was behind the bar at the Christmas party there in 1951.
Dutch Newman developed her sharp intuition while pouring beer at the Westport tavern owned by her father. She was behind the bar at the Christmas party there in 1951. The Kansas City Star

The room was stiff with grief and tension.

Mel Carnahan — the Missouri governor, a candidate for the U.S. Senate — had been killed in a plane crash.

The general election was looming, less than a month away. The back area of a now-defunct Country Club Plaza restaurant was packed with movers and shakers from Kansas City’s Democratic circles. No one knew what to do. Their beloved candidate was dead. The devastating news was less than 24 hours old.

As the minutes ticked by, the energy of the crowd began to focus on a petite woman at the center: Dutch Newman.

Sometimes you just know. The gravity of a person’s presence, leadership and fortitude become apparent before any words are spoken.

Carnahan’s death in October 2000 was such a moment for Newman. At the time, I was a reporter acting as the fly on the wall — listening, watching, hanging tight to gather the outcome. It was among my first real introductions to Newman, who died Wednesday at 95.

And as she began to speak that night, the mood of the room shifted. Decisions needed to be made. The mourning would have to wait. There was work to be done.

Others soon chimed in, and a plan began to formulate. It was too near the election to take Carnahan’s name off the ballot. They’d elect a dead man. Missouri Democrats were unwilling to cede the chance at a U.S. Senate seat.

No one could fathom that night what came to pass. Missourians did elect Carnahan, and his widow, Jean, filled the seat. And Carnahan’s opponent, Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, would go on to become U.S. attorney general.

Maybe Newman’s gender played a role in steeling the crowd. The people clearly wanted to be consoled. And initially she offered almost a maternal sense of despair.

But the immensity of the evening can’t be understated. Not only did Mel Carnahan die in the crash, but so did his son Randy Carnahan, who was the pilot. Also killed was senior adviser Chris Sifford, a staffer deeply valued throughout the state.

Amid such tragedy, people in Kansas City seemed to turn to Newman. Elsewhere in the state, similar Democratic circles were coming to the same conclusion about the looming election. There was a need to keep voters engaged. After all, there were other races to consider.

Newman dedicated her political career to getting many candidates elected. She engaged within national, state and local politics. She was not among the glory seekers, those who want the rush of power for themselves.

She was one among the many who make our system of politics work. She is representative of the dedicated people who make the phone calls, build the coalitions and stick with complicated issues for the long haul. The Dutch Newmans within any political party are essential to good governance.

Further, there is the aspect of gender. Women like Newman deserve respect. She came first. When it was harder. When the mere suggestion that a woman could seek office, or be an integral part of a political campaign, would probably draw quips about who should serve the coffee.

Some might say that it is a shame that Newman died before the 2016 general election concludes. She was a strident backer of Hillary Clinton and in 2014 had reveled at the chance to drum up support for Clinton’s campaign, the prospect of the nation’s first female president.

A soothing thought is that Newman will watch the November outcome from above, in the heavens.

But it’s equally fitting to note that Newman’s political career was not only about the pomp of winning a campaign, of inaugurations. Newman was about the ground game of politics. And for that, we should all be grateful.