Now that the primary campaign is just about over, the story can be told.
The story of how former mayor Charles B. Wheeler, one of the seven mayoral candidates in Tuesday’s primary, came to suspend his campaign and endorse Mike Burke last Wednesday, along with former mayors Richard L. Berkley and Kay Barnes.
It’s a story of intrigue, cajoling, wheeling and dealing and most of all…muffins.
Yes, muffins. This could be the first political campaign in history where muffins turned the tide in a candidacy.
Here’s the story.
As most of you know, I support and have contributed to Burke. What some of you probably don’t know is that I have a long and close relationship with Wheeler. I’ve known him since the early 1970s, when he was mayor and I was Jackson County Courthouse reporter for The Star.
Two years ago, I contributed to and volunteered for Wheeler when he ran for the Democratic nomination for state treasurer. As you might suspect, that campaign didn’t turn out in our favor. One day near the end of the campaign, when we were in Springfield, Burke called our campaign manager to say he was thinking about running for mayor. I got on the phone and told him then and there that I would support him, if he ran.
Fast forward to late last year. Burke got in the race, and Wheeler told people he intended to run, too. One day at the Westport Flea Market Bar and Grill, where Wheeler holds court at 10 a.m. every weekday, I told him that I had committed to Burke. I also urged him not to run, saying it would be another lost cause.
He said he’d think about it and decide later. Naturally, like a moth drawn to flames, he decided to run.
As the mayoral campaign intensified in recent weeks, the value of every prospective vote, particularly in the Ward Parkway corridor, came into sharp focus. Burke, a Northland resident, needs all the help he can get in the vote-laden corridor, which is also where Wheeler, who lives near Loose Park, has the bulk of his support.
So we began thinking about trying to get Wheeler out of the race and behind Burke. At that time, Burke already had the support of Barnes (although she had not endorsed him at a news conference), and he was starting to work on Berkley, who had never endorsed a mayoral candidate.
Less than two weeks ago, Burke asked me to set up a meeting among me, him and Wheeler at the Flea Market. We met there at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, the 11th. Wheeler has a table with a bronze plaque in the front room, but we sat farther back to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. Only a handful of people were in the restaurant.
Burke told Wheeler how much he admired him and that he would like to have him play some role in his administration, if he (Burke) was successful. He told Wheeler that Barnes was on board, that he was working on Berkley and that his goal was to hold a news conference on Wednesday (the 16th), where the three former mayors would endorse him.
Wheeler said he’d think about it, and they shook hands. After Burke had left, Wheeler and I talked a little more, and we agreed to meet for lunch the next day at Jack Gage American Tavern on Main.
On Saturday, Wheeler gave me the bad news: He had some fund-raisers scheduled; he had a couple of people working on his campaign whom he didn’t want to disappoint; and, well, he just wasn’t going to drop out.
I was disappointed, of course, but told him I understood. When I called Burke to tell him the news, his first reaction was, “Oh, bullshit!”
He told me to redouble the effort, saying Wheeler could cancel his fund-raisers. Meanwhile, Burke continued to work on Berkley and said he was hopeful that Berkley would come around. The next day, Sunday, Burke called and said joyfully, “We’ve got three mayors!”
I said, “You mean Berkley?” He said yes, that Berkley had committed and that it was more important than ever that we pin down Wheeler. He proposed that the three of us meet for breakfast at 9 a.m. the next day (last Monday) at First Watch at the Old Westport Shopping Center.
Burke got there early and was finishing breakfast when I arrived. I ordered breakfast and was eating when Wheeler arrived. He ordered a cranberry muffin.
Burke appealed to Wheeler by telling him he could have a strong voice in choosing the next mayor. Burke also got a little tougher, telling Wheeler that his endorsement had its greatest value before the primary; that after the primary its value plummeted.
They continued talking, and when I returned to the table from a trip to the restroom, they were finalizing plans for Wheeler’s attendance at the Wednesday news conference.
Again, Burke left before Wheeler and I. Wheeler said he would talk to his two campaign workers and would see what he could do about canceling a fund-raiser that was scheduled for Wednesday night. Before we left, Wheeler said, “Let’s have a muffin tomorrow.”
Knowing that we were now at an extremely delicate phase, I called Wheeler later that day to see how things had gone with his staff. “I’ve got a palace rebellion on my hands,” he said. “They’re not quitters.”
Instead of, “Oh, bullshit,” my thought was, “Oh, shit.”
I reported Wheeler’s equivocation to Burke, who urged me to keep the pressure on. He was convinced that Wheeler would stick, and he was also bound and determined to have the three former mayors at that Wednesday press conference.
On Tuesday, I arrived at First Watch at 9 a.m. sharp and took a booth that offered a view of the front door. Five minutes went by, and no Wheeler. Ten minutes, 15 minutes, still no Wheeler. At 9:20, I got out my cell phone to call him, and as I put the phone to my ear, he walked into the restaurant. He apologized; he had overslept.
The kitchen was out of cranberry muffins, so he ordered blueberry. (A Burke campaign staff member had suggested that I order him an Omega-3 bran muffin.)
He began talking about the race and said in his inimitable, nasally tone, “There might be some benefit in letting the votes get counted on Tuesday.” My heart started to sink, but as he continued talking, it was clear he had resigned himself to folding his campaign (although it was too late to get his name off the ballot). We decided that his scheduled, Wednesday-evening fund-raiser could be converted to an endorsement celebration of sorts.
At 8:30 on Wednesday morning, I accompanied Wheeler to an appearance at the Kansas City Board of Trade, where he had been scheduled to talk to board members about his campaign and also about the April 5, earnings-tax election. About five board members showed up, and Wheeler told them right off the bat that in a couple of hours he would be announcing that he was suspending his campaign and supporting Burke.
A couple of people nodded; no one protested.
Slightly more than two hours later, Wheeler, Barnes and Berkley followed Burke to a podium at Burke campaign headquarters in the Broadway Valentine Shopping Center. A crowd of about 100 people erupted into long, loud applause and cheering. My legs shook with excitement, and my hands trembled slightly as I scratched furiously in my reporter’s notebook.