Elections in Lee’s Summit can be a noisy affair, both visually and in rhetoric.
The yellow firefighter union signs. The Foundations for our Future banners. The endorsements. Sometimes a little fear-mongering. Oftentimes, hyperbole galore.
In this year’s Lee’s Summit R7 Board of Education race, you can add to the noise a little partisanship too.
But you’ll have to listen carefully, because it might be pretty quiet.
On top of those Political Action Committees that we’ve come to be familiar with each election cycle, the Lee’s Summit Democrats and Jackson County Republicans are more than dipping their collective toes in the nonpartisan school board and city council races, it seems.
When candidate Monte Helm dropped out of the race for school board last week, the timing seemed odd to me. Although we have seen this movie before, it is highly unusual for a candidate to back out once their name is solidified on the ballot.
I began to deduce that perhaps one of our local PACs had a hand in Helm’s departure. So I called over to their chairman, Shellie Montemurro, who was quick to set the record straight.
“One of the things we do not do is endorse any candidate,” Montemurro said by phone. “We really want our members and community members to get involved in the election process.”
The Lee’s Summit Democrats’ activities began to ramp up around 2017 when, Montemurro notes, the group saw a void in how voters were being educated on school board and city council races.
If you remember back to that time, Missouri State Sen. Mike Cierpoit was running a rather nasty campaign to keep his seat in a special election against now Lee’s Summit council member Hillary Shields.
“We thought after the 2017 special elections and 2018 election, a lot of people felt alone,” Montemurro said.
Montemurro said the group spends no money on nonpartisan elections, choosing rather to encourage and engage voters.
“We are not recruiting and specifically asking candidates to run, whatsoever,” she said.
Their activities differ from Foundations for our Future, whose stated mission includes “to seek out and support the next generation of city leaders in Lee’s Summit.” Clearly a nod to the fact that this particular group does not just endorse candidates, but they could be actively recruiting for local council and school boards seats as well.
Foundations got into the school board game during the last cycle, but you won’t see any endorsements from the group in 2021. Chairman Mike Atcheson said via e-mail that due to COVID restrictions, the group was neither conducting interviews nor endorsing candidates this election cycle, which is disappointing as it was another opportunity for voters to hear directly from the office-seekers.
It may be a bit of a regrouping time for Foundations, too. The group has lost some footing in the last year and ducking out of an election, no matter what the reason, doesn’t illustrate that they have as strong an influence as it once did.
Back to Monte Helm, the Lee’s Summit Democrats held an informal Zoom meeting to get to know him and talk through his candidacy and plans. Helm dropped out of the race soon after. Speaking to him last week, he noted that he may run again in the future. Montemurro said Helm told the group he wanted to learn more about progressive voices and learn more about the other candidates.
It’s not a stretch to assume the LS Dems are, within their own group, quietly supporting incumbent and Board President Ryan Murdock and newcomer Rodrick Sparks. But I don’t know that and I am not a member of the Democrats’ group.
The Jackson County Republican Party is another group that you may, quietly or not so quietly, see delving into nonpartisan elections, too, in Lee’s Summit.
I asked member Ryan Derks — you’ll remember his name as the candidate that took on U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and lost last November — if the organization, as some had shared with me, was going to engage and endorse candidates for Lee’s Summit School Board. Derks replied that they are not, “We are simply looking to figure out where the candidates stand.”
A Facebook post on his page from Feb. 23 would indicate differently, though, as Derks made a public call to his 7,000 followers to be prepared for the April 6 elections in Lee’s Summit and other cities, noting “In the meantime I’m going to do my best to contact and make an ‘Endorsement List’ of Pro-America candidates.” Derks finished the post offering to hand out media contacts to prospective candidates.
Derks followed up with a message to me saying this was a project he was undertaking on his own. The “Pro-America” thing is baffling. My guess is any candidate running for school board is going to be in support of the country they live in. This type of language is usually code or political talk for something else. I am sure you can figure out what that is.
I am unclear why Derks would want to start off the school board conversation with “how much do you love your country?” and not anything of substance. Perhaps until he has a handle on the issues of the day in LSR7, it’s best if he stays out of the fray.
I’ve said it before: PACs are here to stay in Lee’s Summit.
They’re only going to be more active, more vocal and have more sway over elections moving forward.
But despite all the signs, the Q&As and the endorsements, nothing benefits a voter more than a good, ol’ fashioned conversation with a candidate.
Single-issue voters are as dangerous as single-issue candidates.
Montemurro said it is that kind of education the LS Dems seek to instill into their membership — a place for members to go and learn.
“We’re looking for folks that are able to come to the table and have those difficult conversations within our community,” she said.
God bless America. Go vote (and don’t forget to love your country) on April 6.