A Plumber, a Chief and an Uber Driver Walk Into a Senate Race. Can one Win the GOP Nod?

July 31, 2020by Bryan Lowry, The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on August 6, 2018, during a news conference in Mission, Kansas. (Shelly Yang/Kansas City Star/TNS)

WASHINGTON — If you’ve turned on a television in the Kansas City area recently, you’ve probably seen Bob Hamilton’s face.

He’s one of 11 names on Kansas Republicans’ Aug. 4 primary ballot for the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Roberts.

Hamilton is wagering that the onslaught of ads will elevate him above the two more established politicians in the field: Rep. Roger Marshall, who represents the state’s most heavily Republican congressional district, and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the party’s 2018 nominee for governor.

Two other Republican contenders could also emerge as factors in the race: former Johnson County Commissioner Dave Lindstrom and Kansas Board of Education member Steve Roberts.

PLUMBER FLUSH WITH CASH

Hamilton, 60, would be one of the wealthiest members of the U.S. Senate if elected. But when he and wife Teresa opened their plumbing business in 1983, it was just Hamilton, his tool box and a truck.

“I think everybody struggles at the beginning. It was just my wife and I. We didn’t have really any resources, but my dad was a plumber and he taught me the tools of the trade. I put out my shingle and put an ad in the Yellow Pages,” he recalled in an interview this month.

It was a cold winter and customers with frozen or broken pipes scrambled to find a plumber. As Hamilton responded, he slowly built a base of loyal clients.

“Every year would get better, better and better,” he said.

It helped the family business to have a big family. Hamilton said his 12 kids (six boys and six girls) started learning at an early age.

His daughters did the office work, answering phones and dispatching plumbers, when they were in eighth grade. The sons sorted copper and did other scut work until they were old enough to go on service calls.

“All my boys had worked in a truck, running service calls. All of them can plumb,” Hamilton said proudly.

He sold the firm in 2017 to Tennessee-based American Residential Services, but his family remains heavily involved. One of his sons manages the company’s daily operations.

Hamilton launched his campaign in late March and has loaned it $3.5 million of his own money. He’s only raised about $194,000 in donations and a significant portion of that appears to be coming from his family. Roughly $51,000 in individual contributions are from donors named Hamilton, many of whom list the same Miami County address — in Bucyrus — as the candidate.

“I’m not concerned with the money part at all,” Hamilton said when asked about the loans. The campaign has spent roughly $2 million since March, much of it going to television.

“It’s the same type of ads that I did within my own plumbing company. Real personal to the point. Not super boring. I just know how to advertise pretty well,” Hamilton said.

Viewers found some of the spots a little too personal. An ad blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic prompted charges of racism and calls for KSNT to take it down, the Topeka station reported in June. (Federal rules barred pulling it.) Another in which Hamilton jokes about electrifying the border wall prompted backlash from immigrant rights groups.

Hamilton dismissed the controversies. “The backlash is going to be from the liberals who don’t like me,” he said.

When asked if he disagreed with any of President Donald Trump’s decisions in the last three-plus years, he could point to only one: his endorsement of Kobach in the 2018 gubernatorial primary.

Hamilton said for too long the country has sent doctors and lawyers (i.e., Marshall and Kobach) to Washington and that they don’t know how to fix things as well as plumber.

But asked about his own plans for fixing the current economic crisis, Hamilton was vague.

“The Senate votes on things. I will vote and I will vote conservative,” he said. “I will fight for lower taxes.”

During his only party debate appearance in Manhattan in May, Hamilton stumbled when asked how he would he would retain Roberts’ seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. He admitted being unsure how committee assignments are made. (They’re assigned by a party committee.)

“Just saying something like that shows that I am a true outsider. And I may not know all the insights of Washington. I know how to fix things,” Hamilton said two months later.

FROM ‘CHIEF’ TO COMMISSIONER

Lindstrom, 65, was drafted from Boston University in the sixth round by the San Diego Chargers . The defensive end never played a down in San Diego but did meet his wife, Mary, there before coming to Kansas City in 1978. He impressed coach Marv Levy and worked his way into the Chiefs’ lineup despite a roster stacked with players at his position.

“When I came to Kansas City, it was a dream come true to me. It allowed me to fulfill a lifelong dream to play in the National Football League. I came from a blue-collar family and the first professional game I attended, I played in,” Lindstrom said. “But more importantly it brought me to Kansas. It brought me to the Midwest.”

When he retired after eight seasons, the Massachusetts native chose to stay.

“We saw that this is where we wanted to raise our family … We stayed here for a very emphatic reason and that was the quality of life, the cost of life and the overall atmosphere in the state of Kansas,” Lindstrom said.

As he and his family built their life in Johnson County, Lindstrom took an offseason job in real estate. The experience taught him the value of owning commercial land, and spurred him to pursue a post-football career as a Burger King franchisee.

This career change is how Lindstrom first became interested in politics.

He said he faced costly red tape as he prepared to open his first restaurant, at the intersection at College Boulevard and Antioch Road, draining his savings down to $5,000. During the zoning process he had to hire an acoustical engineer, for example, to measure noise impact.

“What I said is I’m not going to let this happen again,” Lindstrom said. “I joined Rotary Club. I joined chambers (of commerce). I joined state chambers. And I got plugged in.”

Lindstrom built a profile in the Johnson County business community and politicians took notice. Republican Tim Shallenburger asked him to be his running mate in the 2002 gubernatorial race against Democrat Kathleen Sebelius.

“It was a first exposure to politics and I was a fish out of water there. I wanted to help Tim, but there were other folks that I thought would be better-suited,” Lindstrom said. “But when Tim told me he wanted my business acumen and to be a business ambassador to the state, that really appealed to me.”

Sebelius won by more than 7 percentage points, but the experience led Lindstrom to run for the Johnson County Commission the following year. He served for a decade.

He said before every commission meeting he would walk out into the audience to welcome citizens individually “to their house, their room.” He was a major supporter of airing commission meetings on TV, a change that happened during his tenure.

“One of the things that I am very proud of is I think I made people comfortable in that environment and I cared why they were there,” Lindstrom said.

While he championed the business community during his tenure, one of his proudest accomplishments was blocking a proposed collaboration between the county health department and Planned Parenthood, which he contended would have undermined the county government’s nonpartisan status.

Lindstrom’s work on the commission led to a seat on the Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees, which he has held since 2012, and his selection as chairman of the Kansas Turnpike Authority’s board in 2016.

He said his combination of business experience and time in local government gives him a skill set the better-known candidates lack.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in this race who has the same combination of authenticity, of toughness, of temperament, of community service,” he said.

A NEW SENATOR ROBERTS?

Roberts, 61, who was first elected to the Kansas Board of Education in 2012, hasn’t run an active Senate campaign by his own admission. He said the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted his plans to run a grassroots campaign.

“With the blink of an eye everything got shut down, so I took that as a sign that it wasn’t meant to be,” said Roberts, who lives in Overland Park.

Despite filing with the Kansas secretary of state’s office last year to appear on the ballot, he still hasn’t filed with the Federal Election Commission, something candidates are required to do if they raise or spend $5,000 or more toward their candidacy.

“I’m going to beg just a little bit of forgiveness on the spending. I have to admit I’m a little over, but I’m definitely under on the fundraising,” he said, noting that his campaign website put him over the threshold in spending.

“If the FEC wants to come after an Uber driver for violating the ethics of election spending, they can try,” said Roberts, who makes his living as a math and physics tutor and as a driver for rideshare services Uber and Lyft.

Roberts’ campaign website (the address senatorroberts2020.com/) is an acknowledgment that his last name, the same as the retiring senator, may be an even bigger asset than his experience on the state board.

“My best guess is that we will probably end up with 2 or 3% because of the name Roberts and then maybe another 1% because of the work I’ve done on behalf of Kansas families,” he said.

Roberts was an electrical engineer who began substitute teaching at the age of 37 in 1995 to supplement his income between jobs. He fell in love with the classroom and earned a master’s in education from Grand Canyon University in 2007.

He won the Board of Education seat in 2012 as a Republican on “Kevin Yoder’s coattails” and was re-elected in 2016 for the district that covers much of Johnson County and a small portion of Wyandotte County.

In addition to Roberts and the better-known candidates, the ballot will include Lance Berland, Derek Ellis, John Miller, Gabriel Mark Robles, self-described “Republican socialist” Brian Matlock and John Berman, who lives in Washington State and who filed for Senate in both Kansas and Minnesota.

———

©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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