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County Executive Race Focuses on Personalities

Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders speaks with a supporter at a fundraising event at his campaign headquarters. Sanders is running against State Senator Charles Wheeler in the Democratic primary for the post of Jackson County Executive.

Photo by Maria Carter
Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders speaks with a supporter at a fundraising event at his campaign headquarters. Sanders is running against State Senator Charles Wheeler in the Democratic primary for the post of Jackson County Executive.

By Maria Carter

Kansas City, MO – Jackson County Executive Katherine Shields will step down from her post at the end of the year after twelve years on the job. Four people are in the Democratic primary, but the main contest is between state Senator Charles Wheeler and Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders--a battle between an elder statesman and a relative newcomer to local politics. The two will square off on Tuesday in the primary, and the winner is a strong favorite to win the November election against Republican Bob Gough, who's running unopposed. KCUR's Maria Carter reports on how the race focuses more on personality than issues.

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Charles Wheeler knows how to work a room. A doctor, lawyer, and long-time political veteran, he circulates among supporters at a campaign event in a Brookside home handing out buttons emblazoned with his profile, signature bowtie, and the slogan Charlie's Angels.

Charles Wheelers served the past four years in the Missouri Senate and is now seeking Jackson County's top job.

Charles Wheeler: Here's your Angels button
Woman: You were sensational.
Woman 2: You were so good! [Laughter.]

Wheeler says he's relying on this type of support in the Democratic primary.

Chalres Wheeler: It's a privilege to serve the voters of Jackson County. I've done it for a long. They know me and I know them, and I'm counting on that to carry me through to victory.

Some say Wheeler, who turns 80 the week of the primary, is too old to meet the rigorous demands of being County Executive. Wheeler missed more than one out of every four votes cast in the 2006 legislative session more than any other Senator. Wheeler defends his record saying he was on some key committees and many of the Senate votes don't count.

Charles Wheeler: I obviously carried some experience into that decision of to vote or not to vote that involved constituent services that I wanted render when I could have been in the Senate chamber casting a vote that didn't really matter because every law gets voted on seven times under that system that exists down there.

While Wheeler hopes his long history in local politics will win over voters, his campaign platform focuses on the area's future. Wheeler says if elected, he'll work to with the state of Missouri to attract stem cell and life sciences research and work with other counties to build a light rail system. But Wheeler's opponent, Mike Sanders says Jackson County needs a more drastic change of course. Grasping a tall mocha in one hand, Sanders hops in a volunteer's SUV for a ride to speak to democratic forum being held at a downtown loft.

Mike Sanders: You know where we're going?
Driver: Yes.
Mike Sanders. Okay, good.
Driver: I just found out. [Car door closes.]

Sanders says as the county prosecutor he says he has perspective of both a political outsider and insider.

Mike Sanders: Without having been the county prosecutor, seen the way the county works or more importantly doesn't work, I don't think I'd really have an interest or a drive to be county executive. But sort of seeing what the county does and doesn't do from my position on the 11th floor as the prosecutor, really makes me want to, you know, get into that job and effectually change for Jackson County.

The 39-year-old Sanders has served four years as prosecutor, but his detractors say that's not enought experience to be county executive. His opponent, Charles Wheeler, has questioned the number of cases Sanders has personally tried while leading the office, but Sanders counters that's only part of the job of a county prosecutor, and points to his other experience

Mike Sanders: I've been a small business owner. I've been in the United State military. I've been an assistant prosecutor. I haven't been a 40 to 50 year professional politician and have that resume, therefore to fall back on. But, you know what? I think when you're picking a leader of Jackson County I don't know that the person the voters want is a professional politician.

If elected, Sanders says he'd focus on making the county more efficient, improving public safety by changing how the county jail is run, and taking another look at how the county assesses property taxes. But unlike previous races for County executive, issues have largely been absent from the race on both sides. That's according to Dale Neuman, political science professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-- Kansas City. He says the lack of an incumbent is fueling the focus on personality.

Dale Neuman: In years past generally, they were present because either there were challengers to strong incumbents or there were incumbents who had done something people took issue with.

Whether voters pick Sanders or Wheeler, in a sense, they'll be voting for more than one person. Both men will make a major appointment soon after taking office. Charles Wheeler says he will hire a county manager to handle day to day operations, and Sanders would have to choose his replacement as prosecutor. But, candidates have not said who they will pick. Wheeler says he has no one in mind for the manager position. Sanders also has not named who would take over the prosecutors. Instead, he has outlined a process, consisting of a blue-ribbon commission to interview and review potential candidates.

Related Links:
Mike Sanders Campaign
Charles Wheeler Campaign

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