By Don Bradley
The race for Jackson County Executive is shaping up as quite the marquee event.
The Democratic incumbent is a former major league all-star, one Republican was part of the January 6 mob that stormed the capital and another, until recently, hadn’t registered to vote.
When White first got into politics, he no doubt ran into people at the courthouse who wanted to talk 1985 baseball and the (first) glory days of the Royals.
But those summers have long passed and now he’s a seasoned politician with a record to run on. He can point to accomplishments, but it’s not all cheers.
He took a lot of heat for property reassessment, mixed it up with other officials, and a state audit raised questions of mismanagement and unauthorized spending.
White’s story is well known. A grandson of sharecroppers, he played 18 years for the Royals, helping the team to its first World Series championship and winning eight Gold Gloves at second base.
In 2014, voters elected White to an at-large seat on the county legislature. Two years later when Mike Sanders resigned as county executive, White was named to the post and he won a full term in 2018.
He takes pride in his support of Children’s Services Fund and the county’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program aimed at prevention of drug misuse and abuse.
He also led efforts to renew COMBAT, the anti-violence, anti-drug abuse program. But that program led to allegations of mismanagement and wasted money. It also caused bad blood between White and Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker who ordered an audit which concluded the program lacked oversight. Control was then turned over to the prosecutor’s office.
White countered that the audit was flawed.
In 2020, another audit concluded White spent more than $10 million without legislative approval by using an administrative transfer rule designed for small purchases.
“The county needs better processes so that citizens can be confident all spending is appropriate,” Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway said at the time.
White disagreed with some of the audit findings but said he would work with officials on possible changes.
White’s campaign did not provide comment for this story.
Shortly after start time for a forum for candidates running for Jackson County Executive, the host announced the event was canceled because only one of the five showed up.
“I’m not scared of confrontation,” said Stacy Lake, who later that night challenged incumbent Frank White to a one-on-one debate.
She said White’s no-show was disrespectful to the League of Women Voters, women’s groups and to all county residents.
“Especially during this time where support for women is more critical than ever,” Lake said. “I am calling the Jackson County Executive out for a one-on-one debate to show who is the best candidate to lead Jackson County on the democratic side.”
Lake, an attorney making her first run at elective office, does not hold back in her criticism of White, including his handling of the 2019 property reassessment.
“He knew the valuations were not accurate and didn’t try to fix it,” said Lake, who also mentioned the state audit and what she called White’s mismanagement of the county budget.
She said reassessment and the budget would be her top priorities if elected, but knows taking on an incumbent with White’s name recognition is a tough road.
“This is David and Goliath,” said Lake, who spent three years in Asia working as a Chinese translator. “I never thought it would be me to do something like this, but the community has been hurt and no other Democrat was willing to stand up.”
In 2019, Jackson County residents paying attention to goings-on at the courthouse got to know Preston Smith.
As a member of county’s board of equalization, Smith took a public stance against the county’s assessment process which he said was flawed and resulted in unfair tax hikes for many property owners.
Smith said that experience is the chief reason he decided to get in the county executive race. During that time, Smith frequently appeared in media reports and television news criticizing White.
Smith had another TV moment more recently. On Jan. 6, 2021, he was among the throng that stormed the U.S. capital to disrupt the certification of electoral votes after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump.
Smith said he breached the police perimeter surrounding the building but did not go inside.
“I did nothing wrong and I did not get arrested,” Smith said.
Smith paints himself as a maverick, saying the Republican establishment tried to keep him off the ballot. He acknowledges bad blood between him and not only his primary opponents but also the county’s Republican committee, which he said threatened to remove him from the ballot for being hostile.
“They made me mad, I was hostile,” Smith said.
An education consultant, Smith also criticizes White for enforcing Covid rules that “lasted too long.”
Pearson said his years working in the county assessment office makes him the most qualified candidate to tackle property tax issues.
“It will be hard to find anyone who has more experience in these processes than me,” Smith said, who acknowledged he worked mainly in personal property such as vehicles.
He said it was difficult to watch people come in to contest their tax bills. Many residents, Pearson said, believe the county has ignored those concerns and that tax bills are likely to increase again.
Pearson also said infrastructure would be a top priority if he won.
“Our roads and bridges are falling apart,” he said.
His entry into the race drew immediate pushback. He said that’s because Preston Smith, the first Republican to file, wanted to avoid a primary fight so he could focus and save money for a November election against White.
Smith also called out Pearson for not being a registered voter.
“I never thought anyone would start a grudge with little ol’ me,” Pearson said. “But I’ve never liked politics, never been involved in it. Filling out a little circle on a ballot has nothing to do with making a difference as county executive. Don’t get me wrong, voting is good but how many years of voting does it take to become qualified.
Question: For someone never involved with politics, never interested in politics and never registered to vote, how did he know which party to file for?
“I guess I just always knew I was a Republican,” Pearson said.
In February, Galvin filed to run for another term as a 6th District member of the county legislature, a seat she first won in 2014.
But in May she pulled out of that race and jumped into the Republican primary to have a go at unseating White.
“I had a lot of people coming up to me and saying if anyone can beat him it would be me,” Galvin said. “So I had to decide whether to run for a safe seat I had a good chance of winning or go for a much tougher one against the incumbent.
Her decision, she said, was based on the 2019 reassessment. She acknowledges many properties had been under assessed for years but the mistake was trying to make up for it one year.
“Some tax bills went up 300 percent, people were losing homes they’d lived in their whole lives, renters couldn’t pay rent,” Galvin said. “It was horrible. He (White) had the power to stop it and did nothing about it. I knew 2023 would be a bad time if we kept with the same administration.”
She also criticized the county’s “reckless” spending, particularly with projects such as new jail construction and a possible renovation of the courthouse. Those projects would run into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Galvin, currently the vice chair of the legislature, worked for over 30 years in the construction industry and says her work experience would serve the county well in dealing with infrastructure improvements.
“We need a watchdog for taxpayers and I’m that person,” she said.
Of her primary race, Galvin acknowledged the mudslinging but said she would not stoop to that level.