Missouri senator faces attacks he says are payback for filibuster of Graves nomination

Sen. Paul Wieland, running for a local office in Jefferson County, is being targeted in postcards, digital ads from new PAC funded by friends of University of Missouri Curator Todd Graves

By: - July 28, 2022 5:55 am

Attorney Todd Graves, left, and state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, enjoy a light moment during a March 31, 2021, hearing on Graves’ nomination to the University of Missouri Board of Curators. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

The political enemies made in Jefferson City by a state senator seeking to continue his political career in county government followed him home.

State Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, must leave office in January because of term limits. He is running in the Republican primary for county executive in Jefferson County, challenging first-term incumbent Dennis Gannon.

On July 13, a political action committee created last year – Let’s Go Brandon PAC – began blanketing Jefferson County with postcards and digital ads attacking Wieland, spending $123,938 so far. 

The PAC has only three donors:

Ketchmark and McCreight, a Kansas City law firm, which gave $71,000; Herzog Contracting Corporation, a St. Joseph-based heavy construction firm that gave $75,000; and $100 from the Don’t Tread on Me PAC, which shares a treasurer, Chris Vas, with Let’s Go Brandon PAC.

The mail pieces attack Wieland over lobbyist gifts he’s received since he joined the Senate in 2015 and his 2017 vote to allow a legislative pay raise to take effect.

To Wieland, the source of the money makes it clear that he is being attacked because he opposed the nomination of politically connected Kansas City attorney Todd Graves to the University of Missouri Board of Curators.

Graves’ friends are bent on revenge, Wieland said.

“That is the only thing I can figure,” Wieland said in an interview with The Independent.

Graves is a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, and his brother is 6th District U.S. Rep. Sam Graves. He was Republican Party chairman from 2017 to 2019 and his law firm provided legal defense for former Gov. Eric Greitens during House impeachment hearings.

Graves is chairman of the Herzog Foundation, which describes itself as a “several-hundred-million-dollar endowment from the late-Stanley Herzog” to “support the advancement and acceleration of Christian education.”

Michael Ketchmark, a prolific political donor to both parties and leading partner in Ketchmark and McCreight, is a friend of Graves and squired him around the Missouri Capitol in March 2021 to urge support for his nomination. 

Neither Ketchmark nor Brad Lager, chief executive officer at Herzog Contracting, responded to messages seeking comment. Vas, the PAC’s treasurer, also did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Appointment fight

At the beginning of 2021 there were three vacancies on the UM Board of Curators and competition was fierce to be Gov. Mike Parson’s choice for 6th Congressional District seat. Each congressional district has one member on the board, and there is one at-large member from anywhere in the state.

Along with Graves, candidates lobbying for the selection included Blake Hurst, former president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, and Lisa Weixelman, an attorney at Polsinelli law firm in Kansas City.

Hurst was the choice of rural interests to represent the district that runs from Kansas City north to the Iowa border and from the Missouri River east to the Mississippi. Wixelman was the choice of Kansas City interests who wanted a curator who had attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She was also backed by UM System President Mun Choi.

But Graves was Parson’s choice.

Many Republicans were upset with Graves because of the way he ran the state party. When he left office as chairman, 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.  

During Graves’ confirmation hearing, Wieland led tough questioning about the cash transfer, about a lawsuit Graves’ firm filed against a Republican state senator while Graves was party chairman, about his removal as U.S. Attorney in 2006 and about a $408,000 contract his law firm received to investigate the Missouri Gaming Commission.

When the confirmation came to the floor, Wieland, a handful of other Republicans and most Democratic senators filibustered to prevent a vote

During the debate, Wieland said Graves was “flippant” in his answers.

“This is of great concern to me,” Wieland said at the time. “In the future, should a situation arise with the university, can we expect this nominee to be responsive to the Missouri Senate?”

Wieland questioned whether the Gaming Commission contract was somehow compensation for the state’s refusal to pay for his firm’s defense of Eric Greitens during impeachment hearings.

To end the filibuster, Parson made a deal with Democrats to appoint a graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City when he makes a selection for a curator from the St. Louis area. The governor spurned a different deal offered by Wieland and other Republicans engaged in the filibuster, but without Democrats, the roadblock could not be sustained.

There is one seat vacant and another with a curator serving an expired term but Parson has not yet fulfilled the promise he made to Democrats.

The end left bitterness between Graves’ backers and Wieland.

Jefferson County politics

Gannon, the incumbent, said he was unaware of the Let’s Go Brandon PAC or its plans to intervene in the race until a supporter called him about the postcards attacking Wieland.

“I did know there were some people who did not, for whatever reasons, did not get along with Paul,” said Gannon. “I do not know who they are and never heard the name of the PAC until one of my friends got a piece of the literature. I have no idea, I don’t know what the relationship is with them and my opponent.”

Gannon has reported the spending as an in-kind contribution to his campaign.

The race for county executive, a four-year post with a salary of about $85,000, pits two candidates with long experience in Jefferson County politics. The winner will face Democratic candidate Frank Newkirk of Barnhart, who is unopposed in Tuesday’s primary.

Wieland was elected to a term in the Missouri House in 1994, and was also in the House from 2011 to 2015. He has been in the Senate since 2015.

Gannon, elected in 2018, is the husband of Sen. Elaine Gannon, a lawmaker since 2013, and the son of Jack Gannon, a Democratic legislator from 1973 to 1987. 

Gannon has raised $270,000 to keep his job, including $73,939 of Let’s Go Brandon’s expenses reported as in-kind contributions and $87,000 loaned to the campaign. Several PACs that play heavily in legislative races have given to his campaign.

He’s received $15,000 from three PACs controlled by lobbyist Steve Tilley, a longtime friend of Ketchmark who helped facilitate at least one statehouse meeting for Graves and Ketchmark during the confirmation fight. He’s also received large PAC contributions from labor unions, with the Laborers International Union PAC giving $20,000 and the carpenters union adding $10,000.

Gannon said he’s trying to keep the race about jobs and law enforcement. The county is expanding its port with a $25 million state appropriation and crime in the region makes it a top issue for voters.

The only controversy about the port, he said, “is people taking credit who shouldn’t be taking credit.”

Wieland has raised $164,000 for his campaign, also tapping PACs that give large amounts to influence legislative races. His biggest backer is Jeffco Now, a PAC that contributed almost $20,000 in 2021. 

His campaign message focuses on making more county records available online and opposing tax increases. A proposed sales tax for county parks was defeated in April by a margin of almost 3-1. 

The claims made on postcards Wieland provided to The Independent – including one sent to his home – are that, as a senator, he was the largest recipient of lobbyist gifts in the legislature and he was one of two members who voted in 2017 to allow a pay raise proposed by a non-partisan commission to take effect.

Both claims are accurate, but the lobbyist gift charge is somewhat misleading. Since Wieland joined the Senate in 2015, Missouri Ethics Commission records show, he was the largest recipient of gifts, almost $24,750. But in the period since he returned to Jefferson City as a House member in 2011, he is the fifth-largest, at $31,233.

The top recipient of lobbying gifts in that time was former state Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, with $53,189.

A constitutional amendment passed in 2018 ended all but the smallest lobbying gifts starting in 2019. Since the amendment passed, lobbyists have reported spending $8.24 on Wieland. 

When Wieland voted to accept the pay raise, legislative salaries were $35,914 and had not been increased since 2009. Lawmakers are now paid $36,326 per year.

Gannon said he has tried to remain positive with his campaign messages. He worries that messages from outside groups will be blamed on him.

“You always worry about that,” he said. “You always worry about their message and will it reflect poorly on me as a person.”

Wieland said he is not worried about the impact of the postcards and digital messaging. The Kansas City postmark makes people suspicious of the message, he said.

“The people here know me” after 14 total years in the legislature, he said.

PACs have attacked him in past races, he said.

“They’ve sent out a ton of mail telling people how horrible I am,” Wieland said. “People are kind of getting immune to it.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.