Melinda Henneberger

Mayoral candidate Steve Miller: ‘I’m feeling this call, and it won’t leave me alone’

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Melinda Henneberger profiles all 11 of the candidates for mayor in Kansas City ahead of the April 2 primary.

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In high school, Kansas City mayoral candidate Steve Miller thought he might have been called to the Catholic priesthood. Now, at 60, he describes what he sees as his late-life political vocation in overtly spiritual terms, too.

“I’m feeling this call, and it won’t leave me alone,” he told local religious leaders at a campaign event he opened by inviting his guests to “immerse ourselves in the silence of this moment.” His whole personal history backs up his comment in an interview that “faith is the most important thing in life.”

Not even Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, the Kansas City mayor who really was a Methodist pastor, talked as readily or regularly about how the church informs his perspective and politics. But Miller’s focus on faith is both his authentic defining characteristic and a character reference offered in lieu of some of the specific policy positions that his six rivals who serve on the City Council have all had to weigh in on.

His story really begins five years before he was born, on the steps of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Redemptorist Church, where his parents met after a novena service in the summer of 1953. “Every Catholic endeavor in the city, he was involved in,” he says of his late father, Dick Miller. “That was life — front row every Sunday.”

It still is, and at Visitation Catholic Church, he’s been practically everything but the priest he once thought of becoming. He’s catechised, distributed Communion, helped prepare more than 100 couples for marriage and served on the parish council twice.

The oldest of nine, Miller also followed his father to Rockhurst High School, and later not only into the law but into his dad’s firm, where they practiced construction law together for 25 years before Miller started his own firm 11 years ago, with a fellow University of Notre Dame grad. (Miller’s father and the father of fellow mayoral candidate Phil Glynn, were partners, too, before a falling out that’s well known in the legal community, but that Miller describes as a routine professional parting of the ways that was in no way acrimonious: “I wouldn’t describe it that way. They continued to go to church together.”)

Dick Miller’s philanthropic interests also became his son’s, including the “Christmas in October” effort the father co-founded, and the Cristo Rey School he helped get built.

His son did take one major if not completely surprising detour, when at nearly 30 he went back to the University of Notre Dame, where he’d gotten both his undergraduate and law degrees, to study theology. “It was not the normal career trajectory,” particularly without any professional goal in mind. But “I’ve always been, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ This was a spiritual quest, and a quest for understanding.”

Not long after he moved home, his sister mentioned that “the nicest person” whose family had always known their family was back in town, too. Susan Henke had “had several marriage proposals and turned them all down and was coming back to Kansas City to be an old maid at 29.” Which was excellent timing since “I needed a date for a Mannheim Steamroller concert on Dec. 17, 1989, and everyone was married.” Less than a year later, so were they. “We had so much shared background already,” he said, that “it was a more calculated risk” than for some other couples just getting to know one another.

Then, when their girls were just 2 and 3, Susan was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer at age 37. “We knew we had cancer that first day” — yes, we — and after doctors found a tumor on her lung, too, the initial prognosis wasn’t what anyone wants to hear. Miller organized not just a prayer service, and weekly rosaries, but a team of the best doctors in the country, a controversially aggressive treatment plan — “I can still reel off the chemical cocktail” — and other therapies that included visualization, yoga, juicing, Chinese medicine, acupuncture for nausea, a hair-cutting party to which all of her friends wore bald caps, and a letterhead for “Susan’s recovery team” with their kids’ names and ages on it.

Leaving nothing to chance, he put a Post-it Note on the breast that was being operated on before they wheeled his wife into surgery. “I was treating her like an Olympic athlete where a tenth of a second can make the difference of whether you win or lose.” They won, and that was 20 years ago last month.

If Miller wins again this April and June — and he is leading the field in fundraising — there’s no question Kansas City would get a mayor who, as his high school friend U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine says, is a good man who sweats every detail. But first, we do need to hear the details on what he’d do.

On the current Kansas City mayor’s plan to expand pre-K, which will be on the April ballot, Miller says, “I have not decided yet on that issue because I’m passionate about early childhood development, and it’s something that’s incredibly important to this community, but I’m also trying to listen to everybody.”

On the proposed 15 percent set-aside for affordable housing in all new residential construction, “I have not finished studying that,’’ though it’s hardly a new issue.

He does come out and say he opposes the ballot measure that would cap tax incentives for developers at 50 percent. The city could miss out on some interesting opportunities as a result, he says, and “handcuff our ability to do things. It’s much more prudent to maintain the flexibility.”

At one recent mayoral forum, all eight candidates who came were asked to confirm their support for abortion rights, and seven did. Miller wouldn’t say he agreed, but also wouldn’t say he did not: “One thing my race is about is not finding ways to divide us but to bring us together, and I am not going to let those national agenda issues keep us from unifying.”

What abortion has to do with serving as mayor, I’m not sure. If Tip O’Neill were alive today, maybe he’d say that all politics is national.

Yet repeatedly declining to pick a side leaves the impression that Miller feels more strongly about wanting to be mayor than about what he would do if he got the job. And as a great appreciator of God talk, I’ll just say that it’s no substitute for policy specifics that we shouldn’t have to take on faith when choosing a civic leader.

This is one in a series of profiles of candidates for mayor of Kansas City.

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.