Ghost of Pendergast Past Haunts KC Elections


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by Jack Cashill
Published in ingramsonline.com - November 2010


ansas City Democrat Will Royster is likely the only Missouri House candidate to have been featured on the TV classic "To Tell the Truth."

The “truth” that got him the gig was an unfortunate one: Royster was the last American fighter pilot shot down by the Japanese Navy. The incident took place in 1996 during a naval exercise, and the Japanese, in their defense, shot Royster’s plane down by accident.

In 2010, those who shot down Royster’s candidacy in the August Democratic primary in Northeast Kansas City, an election without a Republican candidate, had no such defense. Their old-school shenanigans to defeat Royster by a single vote had purpose written all over them.

The fellow who presumably beat Royster was John Joseph (J.J.) Rizzo, son of Henry Rizzo, the defeated chair of the Jackson County Legislature. Although one is tempted to compare the Rizzo/ Democratic machine to that of the legendary Tom Pendergast, “Boss Tom” would have been insulted by the comparison. Elections in his day were defiantly rougher.

On election day in March 1934, for instance, hoodlums cruised from polling place to polling place soliciting votes the old fashioned way—with bat and gun. The Associated Press captured the gist of the 1934 election thusly: “Big Tom Pendergast’s Democratic machine rode to overwhelming victory today after a blood-stained election marked by four killings, scores of sluggings and machine gun terrorism.”

One other difference between then and now is that in 1934 the media, specifically The Kansas City Star, had the good sense to be outraged by election fraud. The Star’s investigations led to the sensational vote fraud trials of 1938, trials that the still hog-tied “Senator from Pendergast,” Harry Truman, denounced on the Senate floor.

Kansas City’s business classes followed the lead of The Star and helped usher in an era of substantial reform once Pendergast was dispatched to the Big House. In 2010, however, concerned business people have no one to follow. The Star inexplicably endorsed Rizzo and has seemed less bothered by fraud than by Royster’s efforts to root out fraud post-election.

There has been much to root out. Within days of the Aug. 3 Democratic primary in the 40th District, Royster started hearing from election judges. He and his supporters gathered affidavits and secured a trial on Sept. 7 in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Lindee Hopkins, a Republican supervisory election judge, testified that a group of Somalis came to her polling station “unable to communicate on the most basic levels.” To help them along, the leader of the group “brought in a sign for Mr. Rizzo, held it up and pointed at it and said this one, this one, this one.”

It may just be a coincidence, but the executive director of the Somali Foundation, Farah Abdi, openly backed Rizzo.

Wendy Jones, an election judge at a separate polling place, was asked by Royster’s attorney whether she had seen any groups of Somali voters at her site. “Oh my gosh, all day long,” she answered. When asked how many voters she had seen, Jones answered, “To be honest, more than 50. That’s the truth, your honor, more than 50.”

The attorney for the Kansas City Election Board grilled Jones and Hopkins as though they were hostile witness, at one point asking Hopkins huffily, “Do you believe these voters should be disenfranchised?”

Hopkins knew the law better than the lawyer. “The biggest deterrent to them becoming citizens, because they all want to be American citizens when they come here,” she said speaking from her experience helping immigrants resettle, “is that they do not have a handle on the language to be able to pass the test.”

The citizenship test is in English. It is not easy, especially for those who speak no English. Those who don’t pass can’t vote. Except for a few of their “interpreters,” not a one of the voting Somalis could speak English well enough to ask where the bathroom was. How they got registered as citizens and voters is a question that no observer of consequence—election board, courts, or media—has chosen to ask.

The word “Somali,” for instance, has yet to appear in print in The Star in connection with this case, this despite of the fact Somalis made up nearly 5 percent of the electorate and all appear to have voted for Rizzo. Star reporters seem to be playing by NPR rules—question the motives of Muslims at your own risk.

Still, J.J. would not have prevailed had incompetence not aided and abetted fraud. According to the law, a citizen unable to read can be helped only by a family member, and only then if the voter swears an oath, witnessed by two election judges, confirming that relationship. Of the 50-plus Somalis needing help at Jones’ polling place, not a single one was aided by a known family member or asked to take that oath.

Said Wendy Jones, “I witnessed myself seeing [the interpreters] fill out the ballots, actually fill out the ballots and actually tell the people…where to fill it out at, what to sign.”

When Jones asked her supervisor to do something, he blew her off. “You know,” he reportedly told her, “we all just want to make a little money here and just get out, just make the best of it and just—let’s go home.”

At trial’s end, the judge ruled against Royster. No new election, no recount. As the judge saw it, these good Somali voters should not be “disenfranchised”—the progressive word du jour—because of multiple judges’ errors. Royster’s appeals have so far fallen on plugged ears.

In the Rizzos’ defense, they may have assumed that the Somalis were eligible to vote. They would have been hard-pressed to offer that same defense in the case of those relatives and donors from out of district who came back to the old neighborhood to vote. Like Rizzo, these voters are of Italian descent. In Kansas City as elsewhere, not all ethnics are created equal. No one, after all, receives “diversity” awards for ignoring the foibles of Italian-Americans. Even at NPR, they are considered fair game.

Happily, the FBI is now taking up the slack on this investigation, and Missouri House leadership can choose not to seat J.J. Rizzo, but neither effort secures Royster the election he should have won.

But beyond the significance of a single state House race, the city’s image suffers even more. Business people in Johnson County look across the state line and chuckle to themselves, “Thank God this kind of stuff doesn’t happen here.”

And for the most part, alas, they are right.


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