An attorney with close ties to the University of Missouri-Kansas City appears to have the most backers for a seat on the UM System Board of Curators. But a former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party is the one records indicate is closest to being appointed by Gov. Mike Parson.
According to emails, letters and text messages turned over to The Independent under a Sunshine Law request, Lisa Weixelman, an attorney at Polsinelli law firm in Kansas City, has the backing of UM System President Mun Choi.
Warren Erdman, once a close aide to former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and now executive vice president of Kansas City Southern Railroad, asked that Weixelman “should at least be considered.”
But Todd Graves, brother of U.S. Rep. Sam Graves and a former U.S. Attorney, was asked Dec. 16 to provide fingerprints for a final background check for his application for a seat on the nine-member board. Longtime observers of state government say that step often takes place after an appointment has been offered, accepted and the file is being prepared for delivery to the state Senate for confirmation.
There is no indication in the records turned over to The Independent by the governor’s office of any other candidates providing fingerprints.
Neither Graves nor the governor’s office responded to requests for comment about the appointment.
Choi says he was asked by the governor’s office to offer his recommendations to Parson. In a Dec. 15 email, he suggested Weixelman and Jean Paul Chaurand, executive vice president at the Marion and Henry Block Family Foundation.
In a Jan. 6 email, he narrowed his recommendation to Weixelman.
“She’s a graduate of the law school at UMKC and brings extensive experience,” Choi wrote to Robert Knodell, the governor’s deputy chief of staff. “She has been a strong partner for higher education through the UMKC Board of Trustees and Missouri 100 supporters and advocates for higher education affordability, research and economic development.”
6th District seat
Graves and Weixelman are candidates for the 6th Congressional District seat held by curator Phil Snowden. There are two other curators, from the 1st and 2nd Districts, in seats from terms that expired Jan. 1. There is a fourth seat available for appointment, the 8th District seat of David Steelman, which expired Jan. 1, 2020.
The board oversees a four-campus system with more than 70,000 students and an annual budget of about $3 billion that last year included $355 million in state tax funds. Appointment to the board has traditionally been one way governors reward close political friends.
The 6th District includes 35 of the 45 counties north of the Missouri River, but also stretches into eastern Jackson County, so most of the population is in the Kansas City region. It is also the only seat where communication records provided to The Independent by the governor’s office show efforts to sway the choice.
For the Kansas City region, it is the only seat on the board open until 2025.
Most of those communication — in emails, letters and text messages — seek either to promote Weixelman, because of her close ties to UMKC, or warn about possible difficulties for Graves.
“Wanted to let you know up front that there would be some pretty strong opposition to that confirmation,” Chris Schappe, counsel to Missouri Senate Democrats, wrote in one text to a member of the governor’s staff.
Democrats would likely oppose Graves as too political for the board because he was appointed GOP state chairman by former Gov. Eric Greitens, serving from 2017 to early 2019. Graves, founder of the Graves Garrett law firm, also has ties to Parson’s political operation. Uniting Missouri, a PAC established to support the governor, last month moved into a downtown Jefferson City building owned by a company connected to Graves.
Some Republicans are upset with Graves because, while leading the party, he directed $200,000 to a committee seeking to overturn the 2018 anti-gerrymandering initiative known as Clean Missouri. The spending left the party short of funds at the beginning of the 2019-2020 election cycle, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
In January, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said Graves faces “potential issues from both sides.”
The push for Weixelman is, in part, based on concern that the board lacks members who have personal ties to campuses besides the flagship Columbia campus. Eight of the current members hold degrees from the Columbia campus. None have degrees from the Kansas City, St. Louis or Rolla campuses.
And the board made Choi chancellor of the Columbia campus, the first system president to also hold that job, in March 2020.
State Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, emphasized worries about a Columbia-centric board in a letter to Parson at the beginning of February. He wrote that UMKC’s position “will be only be impeded without proper representation on the UM Board of Curators.”
Asked last month at a press conference whether those efforts are influencing his selection, Parson declined to answer.
“A governor picks the people they want,” Parson said, “and I am going to continue to do that.”
The records, covering the period Dec. 1 through Feb. 9, show that six people have applied for or been promoted for the 6th District seat, along with four applicants for the 2nd District seat and one applicant for the 8th District seat, where incumbent curators are also serving on expired terms. No applications have been received for the 1st District seat.
Along with Graves, Weixelman and Chaurand, those applying or being promoted for the 6th District seat are Blake Hurst, former president of the Missouri Farm Bureau; Jeff Vogel, chief financial officer at Walsworth Publishing in Marceline; and David Liechti, an accountant from St. Joseph who is a former member of the state Board of Education.
The 8th District applicant is developer Gerald Jones II of Cape Girardeau. The 2nd District applicants are Michael Behan, an insurance broker, Ryan Corrigan, an engineer and contractor, Geoffrey Steinhart, retired vice president of engineering at Anheuser-Busch brewery and Suzanne Spence, a leader in several service organizations, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis and wife of 2012 Republican gubernatorial nominee Dave Spence.
In the 6th District, Chaurand did not apply after being suggested by Choi. There is no application for Liechti in the files provided. He was endorsed by Peter Herschend, founder of Silver Dollar City in Branson and 29-year member of the Board of Education.
Erdman’s email on Weixelman’s behalf stopped short of a full endorsement.
“Even if another candidate is selected, the local community would be comforted in knowing that she was considered and reached out to,” he wrote to Kyle Aubuchon, director of Boards and Commissions for Parson.
The board currently has seven men and two women.
“Not only would she provide badly needed gender diversity, she would be seen in KC as a strong, experienced and collaborative board member,” Erdman wrote.
The request for input on the appointment is evidence of strong partnerships with state government leaders and the legislature, Choi said in an interview last week.
“As such, we are often asked for input on a number of issues that affect higher education,” he said. “I provided input that you reference with the belief that individuals with experience with other universities within our system would be beneficial. In this case, someone in the 6th district with personal experience with UMKC.”
All nine who made formal applications listed themselves as Republicans. Over the past decade, most have served the party in official positions, like Graves, actively promoted the election of Republicans, like Hurst, or donated to Republican candidates in amounts ranging from under $1,000 to more than $63,000, according to state and federal records.
Weixelman, however, has made only two contributions in the past 10 years reported in state or federal records, both to Democrats. She gave $200 to the campaign fund of Kansas City Mayor Sly James in 2014 and $500 to the gubernatorial campaign of Chris Koster in 2015.
State law requires that no more than five curators can be members of the same political party. The current board has four Democrats, three Republicans and two independents. The outgoing board members include two Democrats, Snowden and 2nd District curator Maurice Graham, one Republican, Steelman, and one independent, 1st District curator Julia Brncic.
If Parson chose to fill all four available seats, he could choose three Republicans and one Democrat or independent.
When lawmakers return to work next Monday from their mid-session break, Parson will have eight weeks to make appointments while the Senate is in session to confirm them.