Vahe Gregorian

What former Mizzou star Martin Rucker learned from his bid for state senate

Former Mizzou star and senate hopeful Martin Rucker on election day

Former Mizzou football star Martin Rucker addresses supporters after losing in a bid for the Missouri state senate.
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Former Mizzou football star Martin Rucker addresses supporters after losing in a bid for the Missouri state senate.

In the final hours Tuesday of a tight and tense campaign for Missouri state senate that fell short, Martin T. Rucker II stood clad in a University of Missouri stocking cap and Royals jacket as he courted voters in the chill outside the polling precinct at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Among the dozen or so stops the radiant former Chief and Missouri All-American tight end made that day, maybe none presented more of a kaleidoscope of his life, illuminated his sense of purpose in running and spoke to the peculiarities of politics as we know them.

Appearing between shifts here by his forever community-devoted parents, Rucker found affirmation and encouragement from former coaches, teachers, a band leader, parents of schoolmates, a man who reminded him he had once fished in his back yard and inquisitive voters he seemed to charm not just with style but with substance.

He also encountered numerous friends upset about deceitful attack advertisements against him.

Which brings us to the fascinating chunk of time he spent with a distinct non-supporter: Republican Tony Luetkemeyer, who was on his way to victory (38,648 votes to 35,015) in District 34 over Rucker, a Democrat.

Spotting Rucker from across the parking lot, Luetkemeyer approached to greet the opponent with whom he was friendly when they were University of Missouri students. Next thing you know, they’re chatting about the weather and other races. And Luetkemeyer is asking Rucker for his phone number so he can call to congratulate him if “the outcome is in your favor” even as Rucker tells him he’ll do the same.

They stood together greeting voters and talking for so long, in fact, that it was suggested they either ought to debate again or jointly tell passersby “please vote for one of us.”

“Or a write-in,” Luetkemeyer said.

“Patrick Mahomes,” Rucker chimed in.

Oh, no, Luetkemeyer said, laughing: “Don’t start spreading that around. That could flip the election right now. Fortunately, I don’t think he lives in the district. Otherwise, we’d be in huge trouble.”

The MU grads (Luetkemeyer went to law school there) bantered about Kansas Jayhawks basketball and found plenty of other common ground — literally, anyway: Each was careful to honor the 25-foot buffer zone for campaigners, joking about the chalk line resembling the crease in hockey. Truth be told, Rucker spent about 8-10 minutes within as he helped a family get a wheelchair into a van, but Luetkemeyer was speaking with someone at the time and didn’t object to the gesture.

If this cordiality had been the prevailing spirit all along, perhaps Rucker and his family might have felt different about the process than they do now. “Perplexed” was the word Rucker used Friday as he noted many “Democratic ideas” won in the state election.

“Missourians loves Democratic ideas,” he said, laughing, “but they just hate Democrats.”

More discouraging to Rucker and his family, though, is the climate of inflammatory, phony attacks that define politics today and, frankly, make you wonder why anyone would want to be involved.

That’s a big part of why he’ll put any inclination to stay in politics on hold for now as he considers other ways to give back.

Politics “moves slowly, it moves weirdly,” he said after thanking supporters late Tuesday farther south in the district at a Minsky’s on Northwest Barry Road. “And sometimes you can get things done better outside politics.”

Not that they have any regrets about trying again after he lost by 979 votes in the 2016 District 14 race for the Missouri House of Representatives. Not after all the inspired work of so many on their behalves and countless hours knocking on doors and time spent both with people who became supporters and others who didn’t.

Rucker, left, meets with supporters on election day. Vahe Gregorian

Perhaps most of all, they believe they can stand tall in their conviction that they fought fair in contrast to the outrageous and baseless mailer the the Missouri Republican Party sent out about Rucker.

“As an athlete, when you know you have done everything you can possibly do, the outcome matters but at the same time you have the peace and comfort of knowing you did your part,” said Rucker’s wife, Geony, a former Mizzou volleyball player and sexual violence educator and advocate who says there is not a “human being on Planet Earth who works harder” than her husband. “At some point, it’s, ‘I can only blame myself for so much here.’ ”

To be sure, there are many reasons the race went the way it did, including an evident voter preference for Luetkemeyer’s policies and his approximately 3-1 financial advantage, with a boost from political insiders around the state going back to a contentious primary victory over Harry Roberts.

Rucker, who was not recruited to run, knows that’s the nature of the terrain.

Less palatable to him and his campaign was the wild attempt to link him to the “Scandal-Plagued St. Joseph School District,” as the sensational mailer paid for by the Missouri GOP was headlined. “Tax & Spend Martin Rucker is TOO RECKLESS on Education to be our senator.” As reported by KCUR, on the reverse side Rucker is referred to as “Tax-raising Martin Rucker.”

Never mind that “tax-raising Martin Rucker” never has even held an office and had no association with the St. Joseph school board.

One of the ads run against Martin Rucker during the campaigns leading up to the election. KCUR

His father, Martin, a former state representative who now serves on the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, was on the board during a five-year-old FBI investigation that sent a superintendent to prison for a year. But there was never a whiff of impropriety on his part.

“Trying to blame him for the school board? Are you serious?” Geony Rucker said, later adding, “Really? Really? Does he love raising taxes? … Where is your character? If you cannot win being honest, you shouldn’t be in politics (and) preying on people (who don’t know) that in the state of Missouri they get to vote on taxes.”

(As for his thoughts on taxes, Rucker said: “Everyone wants to pay the least amount of taxes possible, me included, but we have to have taxes to pay for things like roads and bridges, which spurs economic development. We have to have taxes to pay for good schools, which spurs economic development.”)

Asked Tuesday about the mailer, Luetkemeyer didn’t disavow what the younger Rucker called a “nasty, deceitful ad.” He said simply that the St. Joseph school district had had “major financial issues in the recent past,” and that when his opponent was playing professional football he had advocated a property tax increase for a St. Joe school district that was in need of funding.

“I think there was a misperception (the ad) was trying to say that (he) was his dad; I don’t think that was what the ad did,” he said. “But it wasn’t from (Luetkemeyer’s) campaign itself.”

In a recent interview with the St. Joseph News-Press, Luetkemeyer called Rucker “hypocritical” for complaining about it because of ads and mailers that were untrue and mischaracterized him. Rucker said in the same story that “good Republicans” had reached out to him to convey their disgust.

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Asked Friday about specific false attacks against him, Luetkemeyer pointed to ads from two PACs that he said misstated his stance on ethics reform and cited a Rucker ad in which he said Rucker “looked at the camera and called me corrupt.”

In response, Rucker said that ad was a reaction to Luetkmeyer suggesting “dark money” was involved in the formation of Northland Progress, a non-profit, non-partisan group with which Rucker has been affiliated. Despite Luetkemeyer’s contention in a debate that the IRS was investigating the corporation, there was no public evidence of that and a complaint to the Missouri Ethics Commission was dismissed. In the ad Luetkemeyer mentioned, Rucker said he was citing outgoing office holder Rob Schaaf, a Republican who filed a complaint about Luetkemeyer with the Missouri Ethics Commission, when he said “even members of their own party called Luetkmeyer corrupt and untruthful.”

“The notion that they ran an entirely positive campaign is completely false,” Luetkemeyer said, adding in general that it’s an unfortunate reality that campaigns and third-party groups will “say things that are untrue to try to score political points. ... So I never took any of those things personally.”

Attacks range in degree of being personal and baseless, of course, and eye of the beholder is part of that and this path in some ways is a rabbit hole.

Regardless of party affiliation, though, it’s a shame that a thoughtful, charismatic young man who is ready to sacrifice and clearly wants to serve others is left questioning whether this realm is for him.

To be clear, Rucker hardly is thin-skinned. His football career, which ended because of a series of injuries, helped him learn “endurance,” said his mother, Lavell, a school social worker.

“People have been talking good and bad about me on Twitter since its inception,” Rucker said, laughing. “I’ve had success and failed in fronts of hundreds of thousands of people over my lifetime.”

At least for now, this phase of his life is behind him. So the project engineer at Kissick Construction likely will look for further engagement with Northland Progress and spend more time with family that now includes infant daughter Claire as he considers other ways to make a difference.

“If you don’t,” he was taught as a child, “who will?”

Meanwhile, his wife wonders if the election might have turned out differently without the falsehoods and warped exaggerations that both major parties traffic in. They didn’t want to win a race like that, she said, and she remains puzzled about why it’s acceptable.

“It should absolutely be illegal,” she said. “I’ll put it in perspective: I work for a bank, doing mortgages. With our mortgage mailers, if we send out anything that even seems misleading, we will get fined thousands of dollars. It can not even seem misleading. You have to be blatantly clear about everything.”

At a time when obfuscation of the truth is the coin of the realm in politics, though, alas, there is faint hope for the sort of campaign reform people might welcome most.

So she turns to her Christian faith.

“We know God’s plan is better for you than what you have,” she said. “If anything, we should be encouraged: You think this is good? Just wait until you see how much bigger his plan is for you. It’s exciting. It’s empowering.”

Just not necessarily in the political arena as it currently functions.

Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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