Jeff Roe loves penguins. Who knew?
The Kansas City-based political consultant, known for years as the bad boy of Missouri politics, snuggled up to the little birds and plastered them all over campaign fliers during the recent push to pass a sales tax increase for the Kansas City Zoo. That Roe, a 41-year-old staunch conservative, would deign to work for a tax increase in a down economy, all to ensure a nicer home for wild animals, raised eyebrows among political insiders throughout Kansas City. But it’s only one sign of how quickly he’s evolving. These days, Roe and his firm, Axiom Strategies, are operating far beyond their Kansas-Missouri base. In the 2011-2012 election cycle, Roe will work on 29 congressional races from Florida to Washington state. He has moved from a Grand Boulevard office to 3,300-square-foot headquarters in a tony Briarcliff complex complete with big-screen TVs and a commanding view of downtown Kansas City. His staff has at least doubled, from the eight or so who were with him in 2008 to 17 today.
Not only has Roe gone national, he’s gone presidential. Roe was involved in Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign. This year he’s stepped it up by handling Rick Perry’s direct mail account and participating on the campaign’s strategy team. Meantime, Roe is emerging as more of a mainstream player in Kansas City politics. The zoo, Mr. Roe? Really? “When voters are presented with an opportunity to make up their own minds, democracy is always better served,” Roe said without a wisp of defensiveness. “I can’t work for something I don’t believe in.”
But he’s been known to flip sides quickly. For this year’s campaign to repeal the Kansas City earnings tax, he interviewed with some of Kansas City’s top business leaders interested in keeping the tax, then wound up working to defeat the tax. Roe said he viewed the session as an opportunity to show some of the city’s top officials how he does business.
“It’s not every day you get to get in a room of 15 movers and shakers,” he said. “I decided not to let that opportunity pass.” Just a few years ago, stories about some of Roe’s punch-in-the-gut political tactics were a regular topic of gossip among campaign insiders. There were instances of Dumpster diving when Roe’s minions would sift through an opposing candidate’s household garbage to find something embarrassing. There were stories about Roe employees dashing out of the nighttime shadows to snap photos for use in unflattering campaign fliers. The thing was, Roe admitted it all. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” he would say.
In 2006, there were TV ads that chastised one opponent in a wheelchair for working for Penthouse magazine. In reality, she sold ads for a company that owned the magazine. In one of Roe’s best-known commercials, he blasted former Kansas City mayor Kay Barnes, then a 2008 candidate for Congress who was opposing Roe’s longtime mentor, Sam Graves, as championing “San Francisco values.” The ad followed a Barnes’ fund-raising trip to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s district. The spot gave Graves a big early lead in the race that Barnes could never surmount. She wound up losing 59 to 37 percent in one of the most closely watched races in the country. Barnes’ friends have described her as furious at Roe. She declined to comment for this story. Said Roe: “I wanted to set the tone for that campaign early.” Those nasty-boy stories have begun to fade, chalked up to a young professional trying to gain a foothold. And onetime critics have softened their views.
Steve Glorioso, a longtime Kansas City Democratic consultant who helped run Barnes’ congressional campaign, now calls Roe a “political genius.” “The zoo campaign raised Roe’s stature with the civic community,” said Glorioso, who has worked on several projects with Roe. “They probably discovered his horns have smooth, not sharp, edges.” Pat Gray, a venerable Kansas City Democratic operative, predicted that Roe is destined to become “ the guy in town politically.” That he’s always a threat to work for the other side in any issue campaign continues to provide a strong incentive to hire him. Take the zoo campaign. By hiring Roe, zoo proponents ensured that any opposition in Clay County, where passage was uncertain, might be muted. Hiring Roe ensured that the opposition “wouldn’t be ginned up,” said political consultant Pat O’Neill, who worked to pass the tax. Another veteran Democratic consultant, Richard Martin, decried Roe’s “unsavory tactics” in an interview nearly five years ago. Today, Martin has changed his tune, but only by a matter of degrees. “I’ve got a great deal of respect for Jeff and his ability to get clients and expand his footprint beyond Missouri,” he said. “But I still stand by some of those comments. When one of your objectives is to destroy people and take a personal attack or invade their privacy, I think corporations that hire people like that should share some of the responsibility.”
Roe admits that when some people meet him for the first time and realize he’s that Jeff Roe, there’s often quite a response. “Just a shocked reaction that I actually exist in person,” Roe said. But after people get to know him, they sometimes tell Roe that “you’re not as bad as I thought you’d be.” He insists he drives himself, and his staff, as hard as ever before, although he doesn’t take the races and their outcomes as personally. “We don’t spike the football anymore,” he said. “That’s really the posture I would say that has probably changed the most.” A life-threatening illness last year involving a staph infection in one of his legs proved to be a change agent. “I don’t hate as many people as I used to,” he said.
Roe has won respect from many of the candidates he tried to elect, whether they won or lost. “He was excellent,” said Becky Nace, a 2007 Kansas City mayoral candidate who hired Roe to work in what turned out to be an unsuccessful campaign. “From the moment he started on my campaign, the momentum grew.” Former Missouri senator Matt Bartle, a Lee’s Summit Republican, faced a tough re-election challenge in 2006 and hired Roe for the job. “Jeff is just really great at client service,” Bartle said. During the final years of his term as Kansas City mayor, Mark Funkhouser employed Roe to pull himself out of his seemingly endless political tailspin. Kendrick Blackwood, Funkhouser’s chief of staff, said he and the mayor were warned that Roe would play dirty. “But I never felt that Jeff was trying to push Funkhouser into doing anything different than he wouldn’t have wanted to do,” Blackwood said. Blackwood said Roe makes decisions based on poll data and “not on gut.” One direction Funkhouser took as a result of that data was to push for cuts to the subsidies for the stadiums as opposed to cutting other popular programs, such as the zoo. Roe wasn’t able to produce a second term for Funkhouser. But he did finish third in a multi-candidate field, which some thought wasn’t all that bad considering all that Funkhouser had endured in his term. “Jeff is not a magician,” Blackwood said. “But I think he brought tools to the table that we tried to use.”
Not everyone had the same positive experience. Wink Hartman, who finished third in the 2010 GOP primary for Congress in the Wichita area, said he felt used by Roe. “They saw me as a pig coming through the door ready for slaughter financially,” Hartman said. He said he paid Roe $2 million (TV time) but got little for that money. In fact, he said, he saw Roe so infrequently that he and an Axiom employee wound up running the campaign themselves. “I spent one hell of a lot of money,” Hartman said. “Unfortunately, I got very little or nothing in return.”
Roe made a convincing case that “he was the guru for the campaign world,” Hartman said. “Sadly, I found out almost a year later after the $2 million that I spent that he is far from that.” Roe declined to comment.
Evaluating the success rate for any political consultant is tricky. Members of Congress who don’t face serious challenges amount to easy wins that can pad a consultant’s winning percentage. Roe claims 45 wins in congressional races against just six losses. But Roe’s track record in Kansas and Missouri in recent years is mixed. Working as the general consultant overseeing all aspects of a campaign, he won a pair of high-profile congressional races in 2010 with Kevin Yoder in Kansas’ 3rd District and Billy Long in Missouri’s 7th District. But he lost Jim Barnett’s race for Kansas’ 1st District and Hartman’s bid for Kansas’ 4th District. He also was involved in Bill Stouffer’s losing race for Missouri secretary of state and J.R. Claeys’ losing bid for Kansas secretary of state. The Graves win in 2008 was crucial to Roe given Graves’ significance going back to the early 1990s. That’s when Graves was a member of the Missouri House and Roe was a young aide. “If I lose that race, when I go to pitch races in 2010, what’s my argument?” Roe said. “It was critical.”
Running Graves’ campaigns and handling much of his congressional business, such as preparing franked mail pieces, have provided a financial foundation for Roe and ultimately a set of connections that allowed him to begin handling campaigns in far-flung corners of America. There’s Joe Walsh’s campaign in Illinois, Chuck Fleischmann’s in Tennessee and Allen West’s in Florida. These days, Roe also does work for national conservative groups, such as Americans for Prosperity. Meantime, Roe’s wife, Melissa, earns about $90,000 a year as Graves’ deputy chief of staff. She was also Mrs. Missouri 2010. Roe is one of the few consultants anywhere who juggles multiple races in multiple states. He does the same thing at the state legislative level, where he handled direct mail for 25 candidates in Arkansas in 2010 and 30 in Missouri. Roe’s style is heavy on big, bold graphics and big, bold pictures.
One zoo flier, for instance, featured a penguin holding a sign saying “Improve Your Zoo.” Beneath that were three phrases: “New and Unique Exhibits,” “Half-Price Admission” and “More Jobs in the Region.” Not mentioned was the tax increase. In addition to all his out-of-state races, Roe next year will work multiple statewide campaigns in Missouri, issue races and the re-election bids of Graves and Yoder. Weekend work and 12-hour days are routine. In the office, he chews Red Man Golden Blend tobacco and paces. His ultimate goal remains unchanged: to oversee a presidential bid. “I want to run campaigns that really matter,” he said.