Wendell’s 1982 Campaign and the Pleasant Hill Chili Supper
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 1:30pm admin
It hardly seems possible, but forty years ago this week during Wendell Bailey’s 1980 U.S. Congressional campaign, I appeared on his behalf at the St. Louis County Pachyderms. Wendell had been invited to their “Meet the Candidates” event, but had to be in Willow Springs for a birthday party.
With a milestone birthday later this week, a bit of reflection about Wendell’s storied career is fitting. After a stint as mayor of Willow Springs, he served four consecutive terms, 1972-1980, as a Missouri State Representative; in 1980 he became a U.S. Congressman; in 1984 he was elected Missouri Treasurer and was re-elected in 1988; and in 2000 he won the Republican nomination for Missouri Lieutenant Governor. Underscoring it all, he is a product of WSHS, Class of 1958.
For me, the most memorable Wendell Bailey campaign was the 1982 U.S. Congressional race. One of the highlights included Wendell and Jane Bailey on stage with Vice President George H.W. Bush and Mrs. Bush at a packed auditorium in Blue Springs. Earlier that same evening, volunteers got to meet and shake hands with the vice president at a private function. After the rally, I answered the phone in the headquarters, and the call came from Air Force Two, the vice president’s plane. In a moment, I was connected to Wendell who was flying back to DC.
But the 1982 campaign has a backstory. Wendell’s Congressional story began two years earlier in the 1980 Republican primary in the old Missouri 8th District, when he bested 12 opponents running for the seat Richard Ichord (D-Houston) held for 19 years. In the general election, he beat Steve Gardiner (D-Ballwin), and distinguished himself as a freshman U.S. Congressman by actually passing legislation.
In 1980, Missouri’s 8th District covered a large portion of central Missouri, from the Arkansas border, around the Lake of the Ozarks to Columbia, eastward along the Interstate 70 corridor to West St. Louis County, and southward through Dent, Shannon, and Oregon Counties.
In 1981, because of relatively low population growth in the 1970s, Missouri lost one of its ten Congressional districts. The redistricting process, courtesy of a Federal Court three-judge panel, dismantled the old 8th district by merging its eastern counties into the 10th District that was held by another Republican, Bill Emerson. The western counties became part of the 4th District, held by Democrat Ike Skelton.
As Ozarkers might say, that put Wendell between a rock and a hard place. The New York Times reported in February 1982 that “White House officials and other national party leaders have been urging Representative Wendell Bailey, who is being squeezed out of office by redistricting, to run against a Democratic incumbent, Representative Ike Skelton.”
From a Republican national strategy, a chance to take down an incumbent democrat might have made sense, but it created numerous challenges for Wendell. The New York Times noted in the previous article that running against Ike Skelton meant “Mr. Bailey would probably establish a new residence, since his home in Willow Springs lies three and a half miles outside the new Fourth District. Forty percent of the residents of the new Fourth used to be in Mr. Bailey’s old Eighth District in the south central part of the state.”
Wendell took the honorable high road and refused to run against a fellow Republican. Instead, he took on the formidable challenge of running, essentially, outside of his old district against a popular incumbent Democrat congressman and former state senator, who retained 60% of his district after the remapping.
Wendell offered me an opportunity to work on the 1982 Congressional race, and I arrived at the headquarters in Blue Springs one afternoon in June. Wasting no time, campaign manager Duane Benton (now a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit) gave me the keys to a Pontiac, loaded it with Bailey for Congress yard signs, and dispatched me to Pleasant Hill in Cass County.
Pleasant Hill and the surrounding counties became my area to establish a beachhead in “enemy” territory. I trudged the streets, knocked on doors, hawked campaign material, and made a daily stop at the office of the Pleasant Hill Times to chat with the editor, who said he was impressed with my enthusiasm.
Progress in Pleasant Hill was steady but unremarkable, and Wendell decided we needed to hold an event there. Since I had been selected to be a judge in the Missouri Chili Cookoff, and imagined myself to be a “chili head,” I suggested we hold a chili supper. Wendell said, “Okay, do it.” Suddenly, I got a sinking feeling as I imagined the size of the task and the possibility for failure. One of Wendell’s catchphrases was “lack of blame is sufficient reward.” I could see blame on the horizon. Why did I open my big mouth?
I reserved a date at the Pleasant Hill Memorial Building, a venue that had dining capacity and a kitchen with a stove, refrigerator, and cooking utensils. I ordered a half-gallon of chili powder from a spice company, and purchased the remaining food items and paper products from a small grocery store in Pleasant Hill. The store was owned by a young couple who allowed me to display a Bailey sign in their window.
With the logistics in place, all I needed was assistance from some of the staffers. At a staff party the night before the chili supper, several people promised to help, but the next morning nobody showed. We had advertised the free chili event and anticipated a crowd, and now the responsibility was on my shoulders.
I hightailed it to Pleasant Hill where I had a trunk load of groceries, including 40 pounds of ground beef, waiting to be picked up.
Inside the store, I chatted with the proprietors as I paid for the supplies. An owner’s mother, a gray-haired lady who always sat quietly on a stool behind the counter, asked how many were helping me. I explained the situation to her and then asked, “Grandma, do you know anything about making chili?” She said, “No . . . but I’ll help you.”
I loaded the groceries into the car, and with Grandma riding shotgun, headed to the Memorial Building. By now, it was past noon, and time was of the essence. Fortunately, the kitchen had 4 5-gallon cooking pots. I put 10 pounds of ground beef in each one and started browning the meat. Grandma sorted the onions, garlic, and peppers, and opened bean and tomato cans. By 2 p.m., we had 4 pots of “Texas Red” simmering.
That evening we served approximately 100 people. My visits to the newspaper office may have paid dividends because the event was covered by the Pleasant Hill Times, with a front-page photo. An explanation about the photo is in order. The apron I was wearing came from the Missouri Chili Cookoff, which was sponsored by Budweiser. Just before the photo was snapped, I pasted a Wendell Bailey bumper sticker over the “King of Beers” logo.
Although the ’82 race didn’t have the result we had hoped for, the effort was significant in two respects: the two-term incumbent Democrat was held to 54% of the vote, and Wendell’s state-wide recognition expanded, which helped his comeback as state treasurer two years later.
I’ll conclude with an apt quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles; or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena . . ..” And Wendell has certainly been in the arena. Happy Birthday to my friend and mentor, and Willow’s favorite son.