We think we know the guy, but do we really? Just who is Mike Sanders?
Is he the earnest, energetic administrator who has capably transformed Jackson County government into a professionally run machine these past five and a half years? Is he a man of big ideas -- his commuter rail push, for instance -- admired as much for his drive and determination as for any accomplishments?
"He's just like a dog with a bone," U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said of her onetime protege. "He had so much energy, it gave me a headache."
Or is Sanders, the county executive, just another shrewd, conniving politician, as his adversaries say, who picks fights to boost his image and punish his enemies?
"The true Mike is the kind of person who will step on and squeeze anybody he has to along his path in a very dirty, sneaky way," said J. Beto Lopez, who thought his reputation was damaged when Sanders successfully blocked Lopez's reappointment to the board that oversees the Truman Sports Complex.
The recent stadium lease dustup showed both aspects of Sanders after a long stretch where he hadn't been making many headlines. And for those who might have forgotten, it was a reminder that he likes to mix things up.
There are more than two sides to Mike Sanders. There's the man of ambition, the current chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, who makes no secret that he'd like to have U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver's seat in Congress when Cleaver moves on.
Then there's the family man who backed out of a run at statewide office this year -- lieutenant governor or secretary of state -- because, Sanders says, he didn't want to disrupt the lives of his wife and two boys, ages 6 and 8.
There's the gregarious, risk-taking poker player and the introverted student of chess known to read books about the game on airplanes.
In short, Sanders doesn't fit easily into a single box.
"He's this combination of geek and brawler," said chief of staff and close friend Calvin Williford. "It's strange."
Not so strange, Sanders says, offering his own pithy, personal assessment:
"In some ways, I think I'm the most political and least political person you're ever going to meet."
A diverse job
We first met Mike Sanders exactly 10 years ago. To fill the unexpired term of former Jackson County Prosecutor Bob Beaird, Democratic insiders in August 2002 picked as their candidate a relatively unknown lawyer from Independence.
While Sanders had yet to become a public figure, he was already hooked in politically, having met or called everyone on the 90-member county committee to become their unanimous pick.
He would go on to win in the general election when no Republican bothered to run. And he earned a reputation as a tough prosecutor -- smart, glib and not at all shy in front of the TV cameras.
"The greatest job a lawyer can have" is how the then-35-year-old Sanders put it soon after taking office that fall. He had begun his career as one of McCaskill's assistants right out of law school when she was chief prosecutor in the mid-1990s, and now he was at her old desk.
Sanders said at the time that he had no higher political aspirations.
"The only thing I ever wanted to be from the time I went to law school was a trial attorney," he still maintains.
Two elections and four years later, voters made Sanders county executive, handing him a second term in 2010.
Unlike his predecessor, Katheryn Shields, Sanders' years as county executive have been largely free of controversy. He has won praise for his steady management of county affairs and finances. He has not raised taxes, nor made drastic reductions in services, despite an economic downturn that led to layoffs and cost cutting.
"He's an outstanding leader who's brought transparency to county government," said Legislator Dennis Waits.
Fellow Legislator Scott Burnett agreed: "To be a good county executive, it's all a matter of surrounding yourself with good people, and Mike's done that."
Running county government was unlike any challenge Sanders had faced before as an Army officer, a prosecutor or a lawyer in private practice. From managing a staff of attorneys who put bad guys in jail, he went on to become CEO of an organization responsible for everything from keeping up parks and collecting taxes to attracting new business and paving roads.
"It's literally from meeting to meeting to meeting, you're shifting gears so much," he said.
In the space of four hours this past Monday, Sanders popped the clutch five or six times.
First, a 10 a.m. strategy session with staff and two members of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority in a conference room next to his suite of offices in the downtown courthouse.
Then it was across the hall to jaw with a Google account representative on a speakerphone.
Then back to Room 201 to discuss financial challenges facing the assessor's office and listen to an update on an inner-city project before lunch upstairs with Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.
Then back to Room 201 for progress reports on county construction projects.
All that before the regular weekly meeting of the county Legislature, which he attends to issue occasional reports and present awards to some of the 1,100 county employees who have reached milestones.
There's little exciting about the mundane business of county government, but Sanders adds drama.
During his two partial terms as prosecutor, Sanders seemed constantly at odds with somebody, most notably Shields.
He accused her administration of misusing county drug tax money and called for an audit. She accused him of wanting to steer drug tax funds to his cronies. She dinged him publicly for giving raises to his employees when other county employees went without.
Ultimately, Shields became the target of an FBI investigation that got one of her cronies, former county executive Bill Waris, convicted of lying to FBI agents in a case concerning a county appointment.
Shields was never charged, but she later was prosecuted in an entirely unrelated matter -- a mortgage fraud case in which she and her husband were found innocent.
Sanders, meanwhile, emerged unscathed and triumphant. Even now, years later, Shields remains a Sanders foil. He often compares his accomplishments to her administration without mentioning his former adversary by name.
Both as prosecutor and as county executive, Sanders has been accused of settling private political scores publicly, though always in the guise of good government.
In 2006, for instance, he asked the county Democratic Party chairman at the time, Phil LeVota, to endorse his bid for county executive. LeVota refused, citing the need for someone in that position to remain impartial through the primary.
Trouble was, LeVota also happened to work for Sanders as an assistant in the prosecutor's office. Shortly after he rebuffed the boss's request, controversy arose over LeVota making political phone calls while on duty and giving a TV interview in a courthouse corridor about McCaskill's run for the U.S. Senate.
Sanders called for an inquiry, and LeVota resigned his job.
Since then, they have patched things up, and LeVota thinks the Sanders of today is far more mature.
"He maybe doesn't take things as personal as he used to," LeVota said, "and maybe doesn't have as thin a skin and is not as vindictive as he used to be."
Principle or payback?
Lopez doesn't buy it, citing the controversy that arose when the husband of Legislator Theresa Garza Ruiz took a job at the Guadalupe Center in 2010. After questions were raised about a possible conflict of interest because the center gets county funding, Garza Ruiz asked for a ruling. Maybe she could recuse herself from voting on matters concerning the center.
The county counselor's opinion: For the money to continue to flow, either she or her husband would have to resign.
"But is there proof of that?" she asked at the time. "No."
Sanders denies playing politics in either case. When it comes to upholding ethics in county government, he says he's a stickler. During his first term, he pushed through a new county ethics code.
Neither does he apologize for working behind the scenes to deny Lopez a second five-year term on the sports authority.
"We got accomplished everything we wanted to get accomplished by changing the sports authority," he said.
Sanders had for years been frustrated by his inability to exert control over the independent, five-member board appointed by the governor.
First he argued he wasn't getting access to financial documents, even though the county ultimately wrote all the checks for hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium upgrades. And when the flow of information improved and construction ended, his attention turned to how dollars are being spent out of the RMMO (repair, maintenance, management and operations) account.
He has been critical of the board's failure to pressure the Royals and Chiefs to set aside for a rainy day.
Too much of the RMMO money has gone toward salaries and supplies, he thinks, leaving little or nothing in the kitty for fixing or maintaining the stadiums. The teams counter that they are entitled to continue the current spending pattern. When things break or need upgrades, they say, trust them to honor their promises to Jackson County voters and make fixes.
"Trust us, trust us, trust us," Sanders smirked. "What happens if the scoreboard blows up? What happens if there's a crack in the foundation? ... What happens if the teams don't fix it to a standard that we want or a standard that's necessary? Do we sue them?"
His answer over the last couple of years was to press for a firm repair and maintenance schedule from the teams. Only until now he's had no leverage with the Royals and Chiefs because their landlord is the sports authority, not the county.
Hence Sanders' successful push to get one of his allies, county Democratic Chairman Steve Bough, appointed to the board to replace Lopez. That means at least three of the board members are sympathetic to his concerns.
It was a solid win for him, but some critics found his methods distasteful.
While Sanders claims to have never made critical public statements against Lopez or the teams, his behind-the-scenes maneuvers took a public turn when someone in county government leaked documents to radio host Kevin Kietzman. The records showed that some of the RMMO funds were going to things such as payroll taxes rather than stadium upkeep. Kietzman and his listeners pummeled the teams, Lopez and other members of the sports authority.
After the meeting where Bough was sworn in, board member and former Chiefs player Deron Cherry took a not-so-subtle slap at Sanders for his treatment of Lopez.
"That's the way politics work," he told The Star. "The only thing I hate is, don't destroy a man's reputation for the end game. ... Sometimes I hope our elected officials would think about that."
Privately, top officials with the Royals and Chiefs also complained that they were being vilified, wondering whether Sanders' power play was less about the money and more about burnishing his image as a defender of the taxpayer.
"We all know this is political in nature," Kevin Uhlich, the Royals' senior vice president for business, wrote to Williford in an email obtained by The Star.
Sanders denies he bagged on wealthy team owners for personal advantage.
"Arguing with billionaires is not a smart political strategy," he said. "That's not how you get ahead in this business."
Of course, the opposite case could be made, especially if one of those billionaires happens to be the not-so-popular owner of a losing baseball team.
Sanders is now on to other things. As state party chairman, he keenly watches the campaigns of Democrats. Suddenly, with Republican Todd Akin battered nationally for comments about rape and pregnancy, McCaskill's re-election bid inspires more optimism.
At 45, Sanders isn't at all sure what the future holds for him. Leaning back in his chair, feet on the table, hands clasped behind his head, he said he might run for higher office, stay put or chuck it all in 2014.
"I probably shouldn't say this, but my personal life would be better off if I got out of politics," he said. "There are huge sacrifices your family makes to be in a job like this."
But he will soldier on. There is so much more to do, he says, even if that means rubbing people the wrong way.
"I'm not a guy who shies away from confrontation," he said.
That he isn't.