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Archive for January, 2019

I’ve read several stories and columns about the dust-up last Friday involving the Catholic high school students from Kentucky, the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Native American drum beater, Nathan Phillips.

One reason this story caught my attention is it revolved around students from Covington Catholic High School, a college prep school in northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

(Substitute Rockhurst High School students for these boys and you get the picture.)

My first newspaper job was in Covington, working for The Kentucky Post, which was bundled inside The Cincinnati Post. (Both papers went out of existence in 2007, giving way to The Cincinnati Enquirer.) In the short time I covered sports for The Post, I occasionally wrote about Covington Catholic, although I have never been to the school and know nothing more about it than I wrote above.

At any rate, the students were in Washington, accompanied by chaperones (remember that), for the March for Life. They were at or near the Lincoln Memorial, waiting for their buses, when the confrontation took place.

The searing image that hit the pages of newspapers and websites all around the country was that of Phillips standing eye to eye with a smugly smiling student named Nick Sandmann. Like some of his fellow students, Sandmann was wearing a red Make America Great Again cap.

It took a couple of days for all the facts to come out regarding the episode, partly because Phillips told different versions, none of them altogether accurate. Although no violence took place, some of the boys mocked Phillips, with some doing the “tomahawk chop,” others doing fake Indian dances and some hooting along with him when he played his drum and chanted.

All the blame for this incident — 100 percent of it — lands at the feet of the parents and teachers who accompanied the boys (some of whom were very young, looking like freshmen and sophomores) and were supposed to be in charge of them.

First of all, allowing the boys to wear Make America Great Again caps was downright stupid. It was asking for trouble. Yes, the March for Life was political, and if you’re marching for life, you’re probably a Trump supporter. Fine. But once the caps go on, you’re going far beyond making a statement of personal belief on one major issue. Instead, you’re signaling your embrace of everything the most divisive President in U.S. history stands for.

In a sense, the parents and teachers were goading these kids by allowing them to wear those caps.

But the biggest failing of the chaperones was failing to pull the boys back at the first hint of confrontation. Shamefully, what the parents and teachers did was allow the scene to unfold and play out before their eyes.

When the Black Hebrew Israelites approached the boys, the chaperones should have barked orders, getting them to converge and back up. It would not have been difficult; the boys were completely under control and would have heeded the orders of their authority figures.

Not only did the “adults in the room” not do that, one teacher allowed the students to gather steps away from the Black Hebrew Israelites to do school chants and sing school songs “to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group,” according to one student.

The failure of the chaperones to rein in the students led directly to the face-off between the Native American and the kid in the cap.

…My strong suspicion is that the chaperones were more deeply invested in the politics of the situation than the students. That is, I think they wanted to let it be known theirs was a Trump-supporting group. As for the students, I feel sure many of them viewed the outing as a chance to go to Washington instead of going to school, and when tensions rose, they merely acted out, like kids do.

In this instance, the parents and teachers who were on the scene are the ones who should be disciplined. Each of them should be grounded for two weeks and their driving privileges pulled. In addition, they should never again be allowed to act as chaperones…Put out the call for new chaperones at Covington Catholic High School. Only clear-headed adults need apply.

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I light stepped it onto the snow and ice in my crocs this morning to see two things:

:: What headline The Star had come up with for yesterday’s crushing loss at Arrowhead Stadium

:: What lead sports columnist Sam Mellinger had to say

I was not disappointed on either front.

The headline was a fitting “BURNT ENDING.”

And Mellinger? He rose to the occasion of the biggest game ever played at Arrowhead with perhaps the most insightful and expressive column of his still-young, sportswriting career.

…Before getting into the column itself, I want to say how lucky Kansas City is to have a sports columnist of Mellinger’s ability. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say “of his stature,” either, even though he’s only 39 or 40.

He’s been the lead columnist nine years now, since succeeding not one but two heavyweight columnists: Joe Posnanski, who elevated sportswriting at The Star into poetry, and Jason Whitlock, who wielded his fearless pencil like a cudgel.

We lost those two great columnists a year apart — Posnanski to Sports Illustrated (which didn’t last) in 2009 and Whitlock to TV, talking-head status (what a waste) a year later.

(As an aside, do you remember the personnel game that played out, with The Star saying for weeks Whitlock was “on vacation” when he was on his way out the door?)

Into the breach stepped young Mellinger, a Lawrence, KS, native who was about 30 at the time. He had started at The Star in 2000, fresh out of KU, covering high school sports. When he was tapped to be a sports columnist in March 2010, he had been the Royals beat writer for four years.

Mellinger wasn’t exactly ready for prime time, but this was when The Star was spiraling downward and many staff members were either fleeing or being laid off and management was plugging key positions as best it could.

It was clear from the outset, though, that Mellinger had a ton of talent, and he quickly grew into the job. Now, it’s not an exaggeration to say The Star probably owes many thousands of online and print subscriptions to Mellinger. If he left tomorrow, the call takers at 16th and McGee (or India or wherever their call center is) would have their hands full processing cancellations.

What we must brace ourselves for, though, is that some day Mellinger almost surely will leave. Better-paying, wider-profile opportunities abound for even journeymen sportswriters and columnists. In recent years, The Star lost longtime Chiefs’ beat writer Adam Teicher to ESPN and short-term beat writer Terez Paylor to Yahoo Sports. And those two, while very capable, aren’t close to being in Mellinger’s class.

So, we must embrace and enjoy Mellinger while we’ve got him.

**

From the start of today’s column, Mellinger captured the pain and frustration Chiefs’s fans experienced yesterday.

“The image that sticks about the Chiefs who almost changed it all is Patrick Mahomes, handcuffed to the sideline by the toss of a coin, watching his first season as a starting quarterback dissolve into one more Tom Brady comeback.”

Dwell on some of those words: “almost changed it all”…”handcuffed to the sideline”…”watching his first season dissolve.”

What all great columnists do, in sports or otherwise, is put into words the way readers feel about a game, a development or a situation. They take our confusion, frustration, anger, joy — whatever — and wrap it up in words that confirm our feelings and amplify or clarify them for us. Often, we go away from great columns feeling comforted or more encouraged.

Mellinger, again…

“Patriots players laid on the field and screamed. Chiefs players kneeled and stared, stunned…There is so much to digest. So much pain, so many could’ves, so many unpredictable and unstoppable moments that kept Kansas City from having one of the greatest parties in her history.”

Ah, yes, the party that would have been. The party that will have to wait. The party that seemingly might never come?

Mellinger wrote about the lost coin flip heading into overtime, the flip that put the ball back in Patriots’ Quarterback Tom Brady’s remarkable hands at a time when the Chiefs’ defenders were exhausted.

And then he turned to what surely was the hardest thing to swallow about Sunday’s game — linebacker Dee Ford being flagged for lining up offsides on a play that would have turned the ball over to the Chiefs and allowed them to run out the clock for the victory.

It was a terrible mistake, a knife in the gut. But through Ford’s eyes, Mellinger helped us put the mistake in perspective. Quoting Ford…

“I gotta see the ball. I gotta see the ball. Especially the time of that game, and what was at stake, you just have to see the ball.”

That doesn’t make it much easier to take, but it shows the urgency of Ford’s thinking and why he risked taking a chance.

Mellinger closed by swapping places with Chiefs’ fans and musing about the vexing question that will nag for years to come:

“Remember that time the Chiefs lost in the playoffs because a guy lined up offsides, and they lost the dang coin flip?

The answer, always: Yes.

**

Something else I’ll remember for a long time: This beautiful column and the years we’ve been lucky enough to have Sam Mellinger talking us through the peaks and valleys of Kansas City’s vibrant sports scene.

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Homebound by freezing wind, a dusting of snow and a bit of ice, I was looking forward to sitting around and reading The Star and The New York Times this morning. The print versions, to be precise.

But, darn it, I was quickly confronted with a problem.

When I walked outside and down the front sidewalk, I saw the blue wrapper, which usually contains both The New York Times and The Star. When I got back inside, however, I found that only The Times was in the plastic bag. I quickly concluded production or delivery problems related to the weather were the reason The Star was missing.

So, I started reading The Times. Got through some of it and then decided I should go clear off and warm up the car, which was in the driveway. When I went outside — this time out the garage door — I saw a thin, orange wrapper with a paper inside, lying on the neighbor’s yard. Voila! There was my Saturday Star — all 18 pages of it — which had blown about 50 feet from the front of my house, across my yard and driveway and onto the neighbor’s side yard.

That was one slight newspaper.

**

The problems didn’t end with locating it, however. Hate to say it but I quickly found a couple of significant content problems.

Remember, now, we’re talking about the print edition, which is primarily taken by older readers, those who have been long wedded to the print edition and many of whom are not comfortable reading the paper online.

The centerpiece story was about — who else? — Patrick Mahomes. The headline was “Mahomes, new-age phenom, tackles old-school marketing.”

The first two sentences of this 100-column-inch story (yes, 100 inches, consuming almost a full inside page) were very confusing…

“Hunt’s courtship of Patrick Mahomes began the way so many other relationships originated in 2018. The brand slid into his DMs.”

At first, I thought reporter Brooke Pryor might be referring to Clark Hunt, Chiefs’ owner and chairman. But, no, she was talking about the ketchup company.

Then there was the “DMs” business.

DMs?

I went to Google and found that DM is lingo for Direct Message on Twitter.

Does anyone share my curiosity at how many print-edition readers would have any idea with “DM” stands for?

…Oddest of all, I couldn’t find the same story anywhere on The Star’s website, where KC Star owner McClatchy Co. is desperately trying to make headway with the younger set — the group, presumably, that would be familiar with Twitter terminology.

How strrrrr-ange!

**

Then I landed on a story by longtime reporter Judy Thomas about a victim advocacy group’s effort to convince the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph to change the name of the Bishop Sullivan Center.

David Clohessy, former director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the name was an inappropriate honor for a bishop who oversaw the diocese during a period when most priest sex abuse cases occurred.

My problem with this story had nothing to do with Clohessy’s beef; it had to do with the fact that nowhere in the story did Thomas say what the Sullivan Center is or where it’s located.

A former Catholic, I’m familiar with the name of the center but I really don’t know much about it and have never had any reason to find out. And that’s probably the case with the vast majority of Star readers.

So, to Google I went. For those with the same lack of familiarity as me, the Sullivan Center is a social service organization that helps disadvantaged people with things like food and job-search assistance.

It operates out of three locations: 6435 Truman Road, 3936 Troost and 2200 Central Avenue, KCK.

…Really, wouldn’t you think Thomas — or an editor — would have taken the blinders off for a minute and thought to provide readers with the “what” and the “where” of this story, in addition to the “who” and why”?

Sadly, not much thought is being put into a lot of stories being shoveled into the paper these days.

**

On the plus side, today’s paper gave me fodder, on a cold and snowy morning, for yet another brilliant post.

Thank you, hometown paper!

Try to stay warm, everybody…

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I thought Councilwoman Jolie Justus would become the favorite in the Kansas City mayor’s race, and a story in today’s KC Star confirms that’s the case.

Jolie

For the most recent quarterly campaign report — covering October through December — Justus raised more than three times as much the next-closest candidate, Steve Miller.

According to Allison Kite’s story, Justus now has $250,000 in the bank, trailing only Miller, who has about $252,300. She has pushed well past Councilman Scott Taylor, the early fund-raising leader, who has $177,000 on hand.

It was heartening to see a fleshed-out campaign-finance story in The Star. Those have been in short supply under the two previous City Hall reporters. I hope Kite, who recently moved to the City Hall beat, continues giving readers substantive reports on all facets of the mayor’s race.

But now the cudgel: Kite exhibited her lack of knowledge about local political donors when she wrote, “LJ Kissick, of Kissick Construction, gave (Scott) Wagner $1,000.

From the way that was written, I can tell she had no idea she was writing about Lloyd James “Jim” Kissick III, a high-profile contractor, or knows ( or knew) who he was.

Kissick

This is the second time within six weeks The Star slighted Kissick, longtime president of Kissick Construction Co. First, Star editors didn’t see fit to write a news story about him after he died suddenly Dec. 8. And now this…just another abbreviated name on a campaign finance report.

Of course, this isn’t all Kite’s fault. Very few, if any, editors left at 1601 McGee would know who Jim Kissick was.

**

While we’re talking about slights and The Star, how about the paper’s failure to report (as far as I can tell) the Kemper Museum’s hiring of a new executive director?

KCUR reported on Jan. 11 that Sean O’Harrow, who has been director at the Honolulu Museum of Art the last two years, will begin his new job Feb. 11.

Sean O’Harrow

KCUR’s Laura Spencer reported that O’Harrow was born in Paris and raised in Honolulu and that one of his parents is from the Midwest, the other from Vietnam.

In all fairness, Spencer also deserves a cudgel: She failed to report O’Harrow’s age. An October 2016 story in the Honolulu Star Advertiser said he was 48 then. By my keen mathematical calculations, that would make him about 50.

(Editor’s note: As a matter of full disclosure, our daughter Brooks Fitzpatrick is the “visitor services associate” at the Kemper. When you enter the lobby, she’s at the front desk, a.k.a., “the donut.”)

**

Now that the bell ending today’s Journalism 101 class has rung, we can move on to a final note…

I heard from a friend that Joe Popper, a former KC Star reporter, died recently, apparently of lung cancer.

Popper, who specialized in “long-form” journalism, was with the paper’s Sunday magazine from 1985 to 1990, and he was on the news side for a while after that.

In 1991, when I was City Hall reporter, Popper and I collaborated on two huge stories. One, dubbed “The Monday Morning Club,” recounted how a handful of civic leaders, including Irvine O. Hockaday Jr. of Hallmark Cards, quietly hand picked a community college executive, Brice Harris, to run for mayor.

Brice Harris

The executives, members of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, were convinced Harris — with their financial backing and his good looks and apolitical background — would win. But the executives’ political naivete was soon exposed in a down-and-dirty campaign involving several candidates, including Councilman Emanuel Cleaver, Councilman Bob Lewellen and former Independence Mayor Dick King.

Dick King

As things developed, Harris and King destroyed each other with vicious TV ads, and neither made it past the primary election. Cleaver finished first in the primary, ahead of Lewellen. Cleaver then went on to thump Lewellen in the general election.

The primary campaign was one of the most riveting political races Kansas City has ever seen, and Popper and I were fortunate enough to help make it extremely memorable. I will always remember sitting beside Joe as we fashioned that compelling tale about The Monday Morning Club. I provided the bulk of the facts, and he weaved them into gold. The story started on the front page and “jumped” inside, taking up another two full pages. We used to call those “double trucks.” Stories of such length were few and far between.

Joe was about 74. I believe he lived in Weston. Survivors include his wife Judith. (An obit has not yet appeared in The Star…Sorry, I couldn’t find a photo.)

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I remember my horror and chagrin when my hometown paper, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, KY, passed in 1986 from ownership by the esteemed Bingham family to the newspaper chain Gannett.

I couldn’t imagine that paper, which had been one of the best in the country, becoming part of a cookie-cutter operation known for cutting staff and paring back local autonomy.

But, sure enough, that beloved paper got chewed up in the maw of the newspaper giant and passed from being a driving force to a bit player on the local scene.

But now, it appears, things are about to get even worse for the approximately 100 daily papers Gannett owns.

Sunday night (and in yesterday’s print edition) the Wall Street Journal broke the story that a hedge-fund backed media group called Digital First Media was planning to make an unsolicited offer for Gannett — all of Gannett. And that’s what happened yesterday morning, when Digital First made a $12-per-share offer for Gannett, whose stock closed at $9.75 last Friday.

Indicative of what’s been going on elsewhere — including with Kansas City Star owner McClatchy Co. — Gannett had lost sufficient market value that it will have a hard time fending off what is probably an unwelcome bid.

Despite the overall anemic state of the newspaper industry, daily newspapers continue to generate a lot of revenue, which makes them appealing to the hedge-fund operators.

Like catfish after minnows, the hedge funds have been moving into the newspaper waters with the idea of “harvesting marketing position,” or, more colorfully, gorging themselves on the revenue and then swimming away from the detritus.

That’s what Digital First has done in Denver at the Denver Post. Last year, Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that controls Digital First, sent shock waves through the newsroom when it announced it was laying off an additional 30 Post employees, after having decimated the staff over the preceding years. One report said Alden’s announcement of the layoffs was greeted with “sobs, gasps, expletives.”

“Sobs, gasps, expletives” greeted the announcement of a new round of layoffs at the Denver Post last year.

It’s not clear how Gannett will respond to Digital First’s offer, but it issued a statement yesterday, saying its board would “carefully review the proposal…to determine the course of action that it believes is in the best interest of the company and Gannett shareholders.”

What could develop now is a merger between Gannett and Tribune Publishing, the Chicago-based chain that owns The Chicago Tribune and several other large newspapers, including the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Gannett made a big push to buy Tribune two years ago but backed away at the last minute. With Digital First lurking outside the door, it could push Gannett to renew its courtship with Tribune.

Ken Doctor

In a blog post yesterday, Ken Doctor, the nation’s foremost newspaper industry analyst, predicted merger and acquisitions would be the big newspaper-industry stories this year.

He wrote:

“Consolidation (and the cost-cutting that comes with it) remains the dominant strategy in the daily newspaper industry. If revenue continues to drop at or even near double-digit levels, the consensus thinking is that radically reducing expenses through consolidation is about as good a card as anyone has to play. Eliminate or reduce corporate staffs, centralize everything that can be centralized, and maybe in some cases continue to make small investments in newer revenue streams.”

**

You will recall (yes, you will) that McClatchy made a run at Tribune late last year, but Tribune rejected its offer.

I doubt McClatchy is in a position to renew its pursuit of Tribune. McClatchy’s largest single investor and creditor is another hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management, but McClatchy and Chatham are boxed in by an $800-million debt, a remnant of McClatchy’s 2006 purchase of the Knight Ridder chain.

…With the hedge funds now striking out more aggressively at the newspaper industry, it is clearer than ever that the best hope for newspapers trapped in the netting of the big chains is to be purchased by wealthy local individuals who believe in the viability and importance of locally owned newspapers.

Patrick Soon-Shiong

That has happened, among other places, in Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and, last year, Los Angeles, where a surgeon and entrepreneur named Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased The Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union Tribune from Tribune Publishing for $500 million.

Soon-Shiong didn’t buy the papers as gifts to those cities; he bought them because he believes he can invest in them and inject them with new life.

I share Soon-Shiong’s belief in local newspapers. The Star, too, could be resurgent. Yes, it will continue to fade as a print product, but with a debt-free restart, wise management and good marketing, I believe it could be developed into a first-rate, online product.

The hardest part would be prying it loose from the grubby hands of Chatham and McClatchy. That would be the case even in bankruptcy because the catfish would be circling, eyeing the whole 29-part chain. With The Star being the most profitable paper in the McClatchy chain, it would go for a hefty premium, whether bought straight from McClatchy or from whatever outfit succeeds McClatchy.

But have no illusions: It’s the last, best chance for The Star to regain its former status as an outstanding information provider and a critical part of the Kansas City fabric. Somebody needs to Save our Star.

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Winning headlines

Since the 1990s, when Dinn Mann became sports editor (he went on to run Major League Baseball’s website), The Star has been known for its witty, double-entendre sports headlines.

During the last dozen years of the newspaper industry’s (and The Star’s) downward spiral, that has been one aspect of the paper that has not ebbed.

After yesterday’s huge Chiefs’ win, I was looking forward to seeing today’s print edition (that’s the only way you get the full effect) to see what sports editor Jeff Rosen and his team would come up with.

They did not disappoint.

For those of you who don’t get the print edition, or are out of town, or couldn’t fish the paper out of the snow drifts, here are the headlines from yesterday’s memorable win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Congratulations to The Star and especially the sports department. These headlines were among the best ever…

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It’s been a long time since a local politician stood up to Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and I wasn’t surprised, reading this morning’s KC Star, to see the person standing up to them now is Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

Peters Baker is one of the few Kansas City or Jackson County elected officials with a spine stiff enough to challenge the firefighters.

The issue is a new contract between the county and Local 42, which represents the assistant prosecutors working under Baker. The assistant prosecutors are one of a dozen bargaining units represented by Local 42, whose largest constituency, of course, is the 1,000-plus staff of the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department.

Two main issues are on the table. First, Local 42 wants to raise starting prosecuting attorneys pay to more than $61,000 — up from the current $50,000.

Second, Local 42 wants the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to handle disputes that go to arbitration, while Peters Baker wants to continue with retired judges doing the job.

Local 42 officials don’t think retired judges can be impartial because of their connection with the county, and Peters Baker, on the other hand, said the federal mediation service would be too costly.

I don’t think Local 42 is off base in asking for salaries of $61,000 or more for prosecutors — assuming, that is, we’re talking about full-time prosecutors. But her position that using the mediation service would be much more expensive than retired judges strikes me as very logical, and I hope she prevails on that point.

As usual, however, Local 42 officials are making outrageous statements and figuratively frothing at the mouth.

Tim Dupin

For example, Local 42 president Tim Dupin alleges Peters Baker is trying to “bust the union.”

What balderdash. (And how irresponsible for The Star to put such hyperventilation in its headline).

Overall, Local 42 might represent a couple of thousand union workers. The prosecutor’s office probably doesn’t have more than 30 assistant prosecutors. So, how in the world could a contract involving a few dozen workers “bust” a union the size of Local 42?

In its skirmish with Peters Baker, Local 42 is getting help from its umbrella organization, the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO, which has about 50 affiliated unions. In support of Local 42, the AFL-CIO has taken the step of voting to stop contributing money to the Missouri Democratic Party, which Peters Baker has headed since last month.

According to The Star, nearly 14 percent of the state party’s contributions last year came from unions, so if the labor stalemate continues very long, it could set the party’s fund-raising back significantly.

This could also have political ramifications for Peters Baker, who probably has statewide political aspirations. The fact that she appears to be putting the county’s interests before her own is another reason to applaud her pluck in this matter.

**

Louie Wright

Local 42 has long been used to getting its way.

Going back to Local 42 president Louie Wright, who served as union president for about 30 years before retiring in 2012, the firefighters have always played hardball, holding in their back pocket the ultimate threat of a firefighter strike in Kansas City. They went on strike in 1975 and four years later engaged in a work slowdown, and both events threw residents into a state of anxiety.

Here’s why Local 42 almost invariably prevails:

:: Their leaders are relentless. Every benefit they can extract and every dollar in pay they can get for their members benefits all current firefighters and the legions of firefighter “brothers” who come after them. One big benefit of pay raises is higher pensions, which are tied to salary levels.

:: They are a powerful political force. They vote, and they campaign hard for their candidates. More than 25 years ago the union filed and won a lawsuit that gave it and its members the right to be active politically, including contributing to candidates. (Before that, firefighters hid behind the skirts of an organization called Taxpayers Unlimited, which they contended was populated by their wives and other relatives.)

:: Most elected officials don’t want to tangle with them because…well, see above…Candidates who have the backing of Local 42 generally have better chances of winning than those who don’t. As a result, when push comes to shove, elected officials — primarily City Council members — usually back down quickly, sometimes after initially declaring they will fight tooth and nail to defend taxpayers’ interests.

:: Finally, the vast majority of bureaucrats charged with negotiating with Local 42 (such as personnel directors) don’t have much incentive to engage in a protracted fight. In most cases, the bureaucrats aren’t going to get pay or pension increases regardless of how disputes are resolved. Most bureaucrats are putting in their time and trying to keep their powder dry until they can retire and start drawing their own pensions.

**

Thus, it’s rare to see a prominent elected official go to the mat with Local 42.

But it sure is refreshing, and it warms my heart.

We Jackson County taxpayers can be grateful for Jean Peters Baker’s display of guts. She is the kind of politician who deserves our unconditional support now and going forward. I hope some day she’ll carry the title of governor or U.S. Senator.

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