Claire McCaskill grew up in a political family, but not at a time that welcomed women with big plans. She earned a law degree and paid her way through school by working as a waitress. By 1982 Claire had set her sights on the Missouri House of Representatives. That door was slammed in her face, but Claire always kept pushing—first as a prosecutor of arsonists and rapists and then all the way to the door of a cabal of Missouri politicians, who had secret meetings to block her legislation.
In this candid, lively, and forthright memoir, Senator McCaskill describes her uphill battle to become who she is today, from her failed first marriage to a Kansas City car dealer—the father of her three children—to her current marriage to a Missouri businessman whom she describes as “a life partner.” She depicts her ups and downs with the Clintons, her long-shot reelection as senator after secretly helping to nominate a right-wing extremist as her opponent, and the fun of joining the growing bipartisan sisterhood in the Senate.
Unconventional, unsparing in its honesty, full of sharp humor and practical wisdom, and rousing in its defense of female ambition, “Plenty Ladylike is a powerful, unapologetic primer on the successful exercise of real power and what it takes to get it, keep it, and use it. This is a brilliant memoir that nearly explodes with encouragement for women on how to achieve their dreams” (Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of Lean In).
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
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Plenty Ladylike CHAPTER ONE Blonde Ambition
Street after street, door after door, I walked and knocked. “Hello, I’m Claire McCaskill, and I’m an assistant prosecutor. I’m running for state representative, and I’d appreciate your vote.”
I was twenty-eight years old, single, a renter with no money or political organization backing me up. It was 1982, and I was a young prosecutor with courtroom experience who was comfortable making a case and doing hard work. When I ran for my first political office, a seat representing part of Kansas City in the Missouri House, people told me I needed to knock on doors. I knocked on 11,432 of them.
While I remember many of these encounters, one has replayed itself in my head hundreds of times over the years. It was dusk on an early summer evening as I approached a small Tudor in a modest neighborhood. I’d been knocking for several hours by the time I reached this house. A man in his upper-middle years opened the door, and I rattled off my greeting. He looked me over slowly, up and down, and said, “You’re too young. Your hair is too long. You’re a girl. No way are you tough enough for politics. Those politicians in Jeff City’d eat you alive. Go find yourself a husband.”
And he slammed the door in my face.
I won that race—and I kept on running for the next thirty years.
From a very young age, I was driven. In school I spoke up so much I earned the nickname “Motor-mouth McCaskill.” I didn’t want to just get A’s; I wanted to win every spelling contest. I didn’t want to be just a cheerleader; I wanted to be captain of the squad. Until I got to college I didn’t realize that such drive wasn’t always socially correct. My parents had done an amazing job of protecting me from a very dangerous point of view: that women should not be ambitious.
My mom, Betty Anne McCaskill, emphasized early on that women can do anything men can do. She refused to let me and my sisters, Anne and Lisa, get a Barbie, Queen of the Prom board game when we were young. To win the game you had to get a dress and a boyfriend and go steady. “Dumb game. That is not how you win anything,” she told us. While she never discouraged marriage, she and Dad both reinforced the need for us to first be self-sufficient. In that sense, my parents were way ahead of their time in stressing independence. My dad’s words still ring in my ears: “You can’t find happiness with someone else until you are happy with yourself.” My dad, Bill, gave me the gift of incredible respect for a sense of humor. Even while I was ambitious, the people in my household taught me not to take myself too seriously. And as the most important male figure in my life, my father also gave me permission to be bossy and opinionated.
When I was in high school, I encountered my first situation where I had to choose whether to go along and be popular or to speak out even though I risked alienating some of my friends. The social sorority to which I belonged had always used popularity as the only measure for inclusion. I took the risk of saying that it might be a good idea to look at grades and school activities and maybe work for a little diversity if we were really focused on service as much as prestige. I felt strongly about this, and it hurt when my friends turned against me. That evening, as I was crying in my room, Dad quietly told me to snap out of it. He asked me to choose whether I wanted to be a leader or a follower, pointing out that followers never got their feelings hurt, but leaders always do. He told me one of his corny jokes and made me laugh. That was the year that Dad gave me John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage for Christmas.
Each year Dad encouraged me to enter the American Legion speech contest at West Junior High School. Though I made the finals in seventh and eighth grade, I never won. The contest required memorization of the speech, no notes allowed. One of those years I had the traumatic experience of forgetting my speech in front of the entire student body. Part of me wanted to sit out the competition in ninth grade, but a bigger part wanted to win. Dad and I talked about it and decided that my topic for this last try needed to be something I felt strongly about. I chose to give a speech about the Ku Klux Klan. He had me research the KKK, and we decided together that their offensive and repugnant oath would be a dramatic beginning to the speech.
I can recall exactly how I felt standing alone at the podium, and I remember where Dad was sitting. And I can still feel the surge of adrenaline when, as I opened with those sickening words of allegiance to racism, I felt the connection with the audience and the incredible high when the thunderous applause came at the end of the speech, when I closed with the Pledge of Allegiance. Later Mom told me that when they announced me the winner, Dad was crying. It was probably around that time that I started talking about being Missouri’s first woman governor.
If you wanted to predict where I might end up, there are some good clues in a series of episodes that took place during my junior and senior years at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri. I had been a cheerleader all through junior high and until my senior year at Hickman, when they brought in professional judges to pick the team and I didn’t make it. It was as if the roof had fallen in on my life. My younger sister, Lisa, can still recall coming home and finding me sprawled across the bed, sobbing, mascara running down my face. What a comedown. What a catastrophe.
To make up for losing my cheerleader’s spot, I launched a secret comeback by running for Hickman’s homecoming queen. It was a stealth operation because nobody really “campaigned” for the honor. The football team chose the queen, usually the girlfriend of one of the team captains. I figured out that all the votes from the linemen and the second- and third-string players were being taken for granted, and I methodically identified all these players and their girlfriends. Then I quietly began to reach out to them. I paid them special attention, did favors, arranged dates, and went out of my way to show I cared. I did it subtly and slowly for months.
At first the plan was all about me. But I came to learn that I really liked the people whose votes I was courting. They became my friends, and I started to believe that I was actually giving them some input into a process they never had before. The following winter I wore the homecoming crown, and although I wanted others to believe I won because I was popular, in fact I had carried out an effective political operation by identifying a constituency and working hard to gain its support. For years afterward I kept to myself what I had done, talking about it only with my closest friends. I’m still slightly embarrassed to admit that I campaigned for homecoming queen, but it’s important for women to own being strategic. To this day I remain friends with some of those linemen on the football squad.
Losing my cheerleading spot helped me in the long run. The only salvation I could find at that time was when I became Pep Club president and, at my dad’s urging, joined the competitive speech and debate squad. I had to learn how to speak on any topic I was given only moments before walking into the room for the tournament. It was a frightening thing to do, but I remember hitting my stride during the third contest and thinking, I can do this. That confidence has come in handy countless times in the courtroom, on the campaign trail, and on the floor of the U.S. Senate. I soon discovered that other students were warming up to me now that I had been brought down a notch or two from my cheerleading pedestal. I realized vulnerability can be an asset.
The day after I graduated from Hickman High School, I packed my beat-up Chevy Nova—bought with money I made working as a clerk at a fabric store—and took off for a job bussing tables at the Lodge of Four Seasons at the Lake of the Ozarks. Every summer throughout college I worked as a waitress at the Lodge, located about an hour from Columbia and the University of Missouri. You learn a lot about people when you wait on them. You learn how to communicate and how to calm people down when they’re upset or frustrated, and you learn that giving people information in a friendly manner can produce great results. That is another important skill in politics.
Before I graduated from high school, I made up my mind that I was going to law school. I pursued a political science degree at the University of Missouri and concentrated on getting good grades. I set goals for myself, and I’d often lie awake at night plotting out how to achieve them. I considered each step that would be necessary in the process and identified allies. Sometimes my ambition surprised me. As a freshman I pledged one of the school’s most prestigious sororities. I was the first woman to chair the university’s homecoming gala. I became a football hostess, a job in which you help recruit athletes. While landing the hostess position depended partly on looks, you also had to know enough about football to answer their questions and show you understood the game. You had to know the difference between a tight end and a linebacker because when you’re meeting with a potential recruit it is important to make him feel welcomed and needed, and knowing about his job as a football player was part of that.
Many years later, Anne Loew, one of my sorority sisters, talked about how, though it might have looked easy, I had put a lot of work into getting to where I wanted to be. “We’d walk into a party and all I’d want to do was grab a beer and have some fun,” she said. “But then I’d notice Claire working the crowd. She seemed to have an unerring ability to single out the most important people in any group—whether students or professors—and concentrate on them. It was a challenge to her to win them over. It didn’t matter if they were her enemies. Claire would be there, smiling and chatting. ‘Why have an enemy,’ she’d say to me, ‘when you can have a friend?’ ”
Over time Anne learned that I was working on a long-term plan—that each step forward was getting me closer to a specific goal. Jill McDonald, another friend from those days, didn’t like me at first because I seemed a little too opinionated, a little too pushy. But later she came to see those traits as independence. “Despite her ambition, in some ways Claire really didn’t care what other people thought of her,” Jill said. “In her personal life, she did what she wanted. In that area she never compromised to achieve anything, and yet somehow she still came out all right, though there were people who came to hate her for that attitude. Back then there were still lots of men and women around campus who wanted her to be just another meek sorority type. Claire just said ‘to hell with them.’ ”
More valuable to me than my political science classes were the outside experiences that came with them. For example, in 1974, when I was a junior, I conducted research for one of my professors, David Leuthold, by attending the Democratic Midterm Convention in Kansas City. Warren Beatty was there as a delegate, and it was interesting to me to see how much more attention the movie star received than the well-known feminist icon Bella Abzug. One summer I took a comparative government course at Georgetown University and interned in the office of Congressman Jim Symington of Missouri. My most valuable learning experience outside the classroom came with an internship in the Missouri Legislature in Jefferson City. That was an unsettling initiation, an introduction to something they never discussed in civics class. It was 1974, and I went to work in the office of State Representative Sue Shear, a Democrat from the St. Louis County suburb of Clayton. It was the first time I experienced moments of being very uncomfortable as a young woman surrounded by lots of men.
There were inappropriate things said to me and inappropriate behaviors that made me very uneasy. Representative Shear’s office was on the ground floor of the capitol, so I began my internship spending lots of time on the nearby elevator, as I was sent on errands to the upper floors of the building. One day I ended up in the elevator with two older male legislators and one of their assistants. They began asking if I liked “to party” and then tried to get me to come to one of their offices for some drinks. I felt trapped. For the rest of the internship, I took the stairs.
I also watched in horror at the way Sue’s colleagues marginalized her. They were patronizing and dismissive. When she was elected in 1972, she was the first woman to be recruited and supported by the Women’s Political Caucus in Missouri. There were only a handful of women in the Missouri Legislature then, and Sue was a crusader. She was willing to fight anyone anytime over the issue of women’s rights. But because she was sounding one note almost exclusively, she wasn’t taken as seriously as many of her women colleagues. With the determination of a bulldog, she wanted to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, though she didn’t make much headway. So although I loved and admired her, watching her made me realize that sheer determination and focus alone are not going to win the day. The Missouri Legislature never did pass the ERA.
There were women legislators who would try to be one of the boys, making deals and cracking dirty jokes. Judy O’Connor from northern St. Louis County won a special election in 1971, filling the seat that had been held by her husband, who was killed in a car accident on his way to the state house. Winnie Weber from House Springs in Jefferson County, known as “the life of the party,” had won her seat in 1970. Observing my female colleagues in the Missouri House in the eighties made me realize that self-effacing humor combined with a passionate focus on substantive issues could be effective, whereas either one in isolation, not so much.
A year after my internship with Shear, in 1975, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and immediately entered law school at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I got accepted elsewhere, but I went to Mizzou because I knew that being part of the network of lawyers in Missouri would help me more with any future political campaigns. I became close to many of my classmates, including David “Doc” Limbaugh, brother of the future conservative radio celebrity, and David Steelman, who would later marry Sarah Steelman, one of the three candidates who sought the GOP Senate nomination to oppose me in 2012. I had serious political differences with Doc and David, but it would not be the last time that I made fast friends with those who held opinions that were different from mine.
I didn’t like law school very much. I liked the trial-related courses, but property, trusts, wills, and tax law really didn’t engage me. Everyone was very competitive, so there was a lot of one-upmanship and talk of high-salaried jobs with big law firms. As a result I didn’t spend a lot of time hanging around the school; instead I took a job as a waitress in Columbia. When I studied, it was usually at my apartment or on my work breaks. My job gave me perspective, because when everyone else was stressing out over law school, I was trying to figure out whether the order I turned in for a medium rare steak had been correct.
After graduating from law school in December 1977, Kansas City was my destination. I chose it because I didn’t know anybody there and no one knew me. I wouldn’t be “Bill and Betty’s daughter.” I wanted to make it on my own. I had grown up for the most part in Columbia and had been a “townie” while going to school, and it was time to leave. My law school grades were just average. I applied at some law firms without success and ended up as a research attorney for the Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City. Unlike being a law clerk for a judge, the research staff did legal work for the entire court. It was grunt work; the research attorneys occupied the lowest rung on the ladder in the hierarchy of the court of appeals. Stuck at my desk in the stacks on the eleventh floor at the Jackson County Courthouse, it seemed like I was going nowhere. And I was bored, so bored that a judge once caught me napping on a hideaway couch.
The job didn’t pay well, and I had thousands of dollars in student debt. So the following spring, I used vacation time to go to California with the express purpose of getting on a game show to win money to pay off some of my student loans. Like many others, I had watched game shows on television and thought, I can do that! By then my friend from college, Jill McDonald, was living in LA, and I knew I could have her couch during my visit. When I got out there, I interviewed for several shows, took the tests, and went through the paperwork. Eventually I was accepted for a show called High Rollers. Alex Trebek was its master of ceremonies. In this game two participants were given multiple-choice or true-false questions, and if you answered correctly you would roll the dice that could lead to prizes. They taped five segments in one day, and I was champion on four of them. I won $37,000 in cash and prizes and a trip to Italy.
“She won everything from a fur coat to a bedroom set,” my mom said later. “It was just ridiculous. A lot of it ended up in my basement, since she lived in a small apartment in Kansas City, while she worked at selling most of it to pay off her student loans.”
I didn’t use up all my luck on High Rollers. Still miserable as an appeals court research attorney, I set up interviews at the Jackson County prosecuting attorney’s office and with the public defender. I longed to be in a courtroom, and I knew that those two offices offered the best chance. Very few lawyers actually get into a real courtroom to practice except in the area of criminal law. Luckily the prosecutor’s interview was first; I was hired on the spot. Work in the prosecutor’s office was far superior to work in the public defender’s office when it came to building a résumé for the political offices I planned on seeking. I worked there for four years, and to this day I’m still using what I learned from that period of my life.
When I started that job, there were no women in the office with whom I engaged on a professional basis other than the secretaries and the women who operated the elevators. There were a couple of female police detectives, but all of my colleagues were men and all of the bosses and the judges were men. I had to decide every day whether I was going to rock the boat over sexist behavior or was going to keep my head down and earn respect by being a top-notch trial lawyer. I generally chose the latter course.
In one of the first major cases that I was assigned, I found myself up against Larry Gepford, the former elected Jackson County prosecutor. I was nervous. This man had been the boss of my office, knew everyone in the courthouse, and was close friends with all the judges. When it was time to take a deposition of one of my witnesses, I walked into the conference room, where Mr. Gepford was already seated comfortably, with the court reporter nearby. He looked at me and said, “Honey, get me two yellow pads, a pencil, pen, and a red marker. Also get me a cup of coffee while you are at it.” I had to make a split-second decision: Do I confront him right now and set him straight that I am neither his secretary nor his honey, or do I deal with it another way? I graciously got his pads, pencil, pen, and coffee, and we did the deposition. But for the next six weeks I worked my tail off preparing for that trial, and when the verdict came in guilty with the sentence that I had asked for, it was especially sweet. He told my boss that I was a “tiger in the courtroom.” That felt good, much better than the momentary satisfaction of telling him off.
While many of my colleagues in the prosecutor’s office became good friends, and while most of the judges I appeared in front of were honorable and supportive, there were a few very crude characters. Referring to me and another woman who later joined our office, one told his buddies, “I don’t think it’s fair to have two hot women in the courtroom.” One judge kept badgering me to go out with him. He would call me to his chambers whenever I had a case before him, and I learned to always bring one of my colleagues with me. I eventually had to ask my boss to help me avoid assignments in his courtroom.
At the beginning I was doing food stamp fraud, then they had me prosecuting sex crimes: child abuse, rapes, and assaults. I lost one of my first cases because I failed to nail down a technical point. It was a rape case; the victim had gone home with a man from a bar, and he had brutally raped her. I failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt the identity of the perpetrator. I glossed over that point because it seemed obvious to me, and when the jury came back with a “not guilty” verdict, I felt as though I had allowed the criminal justice system to assault the victim all over again. How could they have done this? I wondered. What would I tell the victim? I was so upset that I started to lunge toward the jury as they were filing out, wanting to confront them, but one of the other lawyers in the office, a more senior prosecutor, held me back and said, “You need to take a deep breath and get control of yourself.”
One of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had was the one I had with that victim when the trial was over. For many years afterward, she sent me a card each Christmas. They were precious to me; with each one she was forgiving me. I learned an important lesson from that trial: pay attention to detail, be prepared, and never take anything for granted.
Another rape case has stayed with me. I was a very junior prosecutor, sitting in a conference room in the law library where we would meet once a week to go over the trial docket for the following week. I was the only woman in the room, and a rape case was on the docket. The trial docket supervisor said, “I don’t think we can take it to trial. The defense is that she consented. She’s single, was out at a bar, and had an IUD in. Sounds like a loser.” It was as if a bucket of cold water had been poured over my head. This was one of those critical moments: What do I do? Do I speak up? If I do, what happens? And if I don’t, what does that mean? How do I advance an opinion in a way that is most effective and remains true to my principles but doesn’t hurt my career? I was a single woman on the pill. If I got raped that night, was my office not going to take the case because of that?
I didn’t say anything at the meeting, but afterward I went to the docket supervisor and told him, “I think you guys need to think this through. This is not good. You can’t prejudge the victim based on whether she was using birth control.” Later he acknowledged my point, saying something like “I never thought of that.”
Over time the sexual assault cases began to eat at my emotional health. I told my bosses, “You know, I deal with the worst form of humanity day in and day out, and it is beginning to impact how I view the world and how I view men. Every man is beginning to look like he’s a creep that’s committed some horrific sexual assault.” I began looking around for other opportunities to advance within the office.
In 1980 the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration awarded a grant to help prosecute arson for profit. It included money for a new position, a full-time special arson prosecutor, and I went after that job. An arson case is very difficult to prove; it involves a lot of science and circumstantial evidence. And while you might establish that a fire was caused by arson, it’s very difficult to prosecute the perpetrator. There are usually few or no witnesses, and you have to dig through a lot of tedious financial stuff. It’s not exciting, and prosecutors usually shy away from cases that are difficult to win.
I lobbied hard and successfully for the new position. While I recognized it would be tough to make circumstantial cases, the job was a big break. It came with a substantial raise, and the grant also paid for me to receive specialized training in arson’s causes and origins. That gave me expertise and credibility, making me more marketable down the road. Insurance companies want to hire lawyers who know how to prove arson because they don’t want to pay claims to people who have burned down their buildings.
The grant also gave me the ability to shape the position into something more than just handling a criminal caseload. I reached out to the community and brought in insurance agents and firefighters and others who deal with arson. We established an Arson Task Force, which put police, firefighters, and the insurance industry at the same table, talking and cooperating. We began promoting community awareness, which allowed me to give speeches and presentations throughout the state. In the end we achieved one of the highest conviction rates for arson in the country while filing the kinds of cases that previously would have been declined by busy, overwhelmed prosecutors. Eventually I traveled around the country, helping to train other prosecutors on arson.
Prosecuting the cases generated favorable publicity. On April 22, 1981, the Kansas City Star ran a story with the headline “Arson Pays? Not against This Prosecutor,” with a photo of me pulling on firefighter’s boots. The story recounted how I had tramped through the ashes of an arson-caused fire that destroyed an apartment building and killed six people. It pointed out that in the previous year the new arson squad had filed 101 cases, compared with seventy during the previous four years combined. Captain Billie T. Moran, the commander of the Kansas City Police Department arson control unit, said the squad’s arrival had increased the number of arson convictions. “It’s really a very difficult crime to solve and prosecute,” Moran said. “If nothing else, we are proving it can be done and I think with a great deal of success.”
By this time I had become a trial team leader, supervising three or four other attorneys handling felony prosecutions. One of those who joined my team in 1981 was Louis Accurso, who would become my lifelong friend, law partner, political supporter, and godfather to one of my children.
“She taught me how to use the right degree of sarcasm in cross examining a witness,” Accurso said later. “She would do a ‘You mean to tell me?’ and you could see she had the witness on the ropes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in another female trial lawyer, and that’s probably one of the hardest jobs on the planet, outside of being a single mother. She had to find a way to be aggressive without acting like a man. And she never acted like a man; she always acted like a very classy, well-spoken woman, and she never hid her femininity; she always dressed really well, and she used to have really long blonde hair, and she tossed it when she needed to during a trial.”
Robert Duncan, one of the Kansas City area’s most distinguished criminal defense attorneys, once calculated that he and I had faced off eight times. “She’s not the least bit afraid to go straight for the throat,” he said. We tangled over the celebrated case of a restaurant fire at Gordo’s Lounge, which occurred late one night in 1978. Three times we went to court; the first trial ended in a hung jury, the second, a mistrial, and the third time, a conviction. There was no question that the fire had been set. The building had been soaked in paint thinner and gasoline; the restaurant was locked and there was no sign of forced entry; and the property owner had recently doubled his insurance. Still, it was difficult to prove who did it. The state supreme court later upheld the conviction, and the case became a landmark for circumstantial arson cases and impeachment of witnesses, and is still cited in legal opinions and briefs.
I taught prosecutors on my trial team to hunt for details. For example, if a house has burned down suspiciously, where were the pets? Where were the children? Did the people who owned the home behave in a different way during the time leading up to the fire? In the Gordo’s Lounge fire, I noticed in the photos of the debris that a large and very expensive cut of meat was still sitting on a charred table in the kitchen. During the trial, I didn’t mention this photo when I entered it into evidence, but when I summed up the case for the jury, I asked, “Is it reasonable to believe that a restaurant owner who intended to open again the next day would just walk out and lock up, leaving meat of that value to rot?”
The attention the arson squad generated brought me assignments across Missouri. Soon I found myself in Joplin, prosecuting a woman accused of murder and arson in the death of her husband. There were odd details in that case. For example, the night of the fire, which was in a rural area, the wife talked to the firefighters and told them about what had happened and her “innocent” activities that evening, complete with tears and expressions of grief. I noticed that in her statement that night she had gone out of her way to talk about the gas can on the basement steps. She told the firefighters that she had realized the cap was not on the can after the fire had broken out upstairs in the house, and that she had secured the cap before she escaped the fire so it “wouldn’t make it worse.” Why would she go out of her way to point that out, unless she was worried about her fingerprints on the gas can? I wondered. I then checked the records and learned that the power went out in the house as the fire broke out. In the darkness she would not have been able to see whether or not the cap was secure. She was lying. Her fingerprints were on that can because she had used it to pour gasoline in the doorway of her bedroom where her husband was sleeping, and then poured it down the stairs to the first floor of the house. She then left the can on the basement stairs, lit the fire, and waited for the fire department to arrive, feigning horror that her husband was burned alive while trying to escape through a bedroom window that was too small for him to get through. Exposing that lie was key to unraveling her defense. The jury found her guilty of manslaughter.
One of the things that disturbed me during my earliest years in the Jackson County prosecutor’s office was the fact that employees, staff, attorneys, nearly everyone who worked there was expected to contribute money to the prosecutor’s reelection campaigns. In politics it’s called a “lug.” Someone representing the campaign would come around asking for donations. Most of my coworkers didn’t make that much money; my own starting salary was less than $13,000 a year. In those days I was getting around in my second old Chevy Nova, which was so rusted you could see the ground through a hole in the floor. I was so offended at being expected to contribute that I made up my mind I would never solicit a campaign contribution from someone who worked for me.
In 1981 Ralph Martin was succeeded as prosecutor by Albert Riederer, and for the next three decades Albert was at various times my boss, my friend, my mentor, my political rival, and my counselor. He helped launch my political career, but he also short-circuited it. Sometimes we collaborated on legislation, sometimes we fought in public, and sometimes we competed for the same office. Our relationship swung up and down, but in the end we never let our rivalry get in the way of our friendship.
When Albert tossed a couple of political hot-potato cases in my lap, part of me was angry and part of me was proud. These were high-profile assignments in which a person could make some powerful enemies but also prove her skills. One case involved an arson fire that had been set by firefighters.
In March 1980, during a six-day strike by members of Local 42 of the International Association of Firefighters, some union members set fire to a city-owned field near one of the Metropolitan Police stations. At the time of the strike, police officers were providing fire protection for the city. I was given the job of prosecuting some of the firefighters, and defending them was Larry Gepford, the former prosecutor. This was a felony case that was tried before Richard Sprinkle, who was probably the most respected judge in the courthouse. He and Gepford had known each other for years. Holy shit, I thought, how many different ways is this going to be hard?
The union members had been caught in a van with sterno cans adjacent to the field. I presented the evidence cleanly, and it was persuasive. But I made a fatal mistake: I failed to file a motion preventing Gepford from mentioning that the firefighters would lose their pensions if they lost the case. After I finished the first half of my closing argument, it was Gepford’s turn. He stood up and, gesturing to the many family members seated in the courtroom, he asked the jurors to think about those families and what would happen to them if the firefighters were convicted and lost their pension benefits. I shot out of my chair to object, and of course the judge sustained it and told the jurors they should disregard the remark. But it was too late; there was no way to un-ring the bell. There was no conviction, and I felt lower than a snake’s belly.
But two good things emerged from my defeat. Before the verdict came in, Judge Sprinkle wrote a letter to my boss saying that he was writing as the jury was deliberating and wanted to let him know that I had done a very good job in the courtroom, regardless of the jury’s decision. Then later, when I was seeking public office, I stood before members of the firefighters’ union and asked for their support. One of the guys I had tried to put in jail spoke in my favor during the endorsement meeting, saying essentially, “We don’t have to worry about her doing her job.” Ever since then, the firefighters have been big supporters.
Albert Riederer may have thrown me some curveball cases, but he was very encouraging when I decided to run for the state house, and he turned out to be one of my biggest supporters. But it was my mother and father who were the most important sources of advice throughout my political career. While Mom had been unsuccessful in her run for the Missouri Legislature, she was still the best politician I knew and a natural campaigner. Dad at the time was struggling; he had lost his job in the insurance business and seemed unable to cope with life. We would later find out that a brain tumor was altering his ability to function. He and Mom moved in with me in a small rental house in Kansas City. I was taking care of them in their time of need, but they would be my rock-solid foundation as I moved from the fight in the courtroom to the brawl of politics.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Blonde Ambition 1
Chapter 2 Bill and Betty 19
Chapter 3 A House Hazing 33
Chapter 4 Madame Prosecutor 55
Chapter 5 A Statewide Office 73
Chapter 6 Reaching for a Dream 93
Chapter 7 "Go for It" 113
Chapter 8 Call Me Claire 131
Chapter 9 Boondoggles 145
Chapter 10 Dark Money 155
Chapter 11 Operation Dog Whistle 165
Chapter 12 The Magic Uterus 177
Chapter 13 Divine Intervention 185
Chapter 14 A New Civility 195
Chapter 15 "A Vastly Underreported Offense" 207
Chapter 16 Redefining "Ladylike" 217