Friday, January 25, 2008

Blunt planned campaign just days before quitting

JEFFERSON CITY | On the weekend before his State of the State address, Gov. Matt Blunt convened his campaign team for a strategic retreat at a luxury Ozarks resort just south of Branson.

Confidence filled the room. Blunt's trusted advisers discussed a fundraising goal that could have shattered the state record, developed a TV ad blitz to begin airing before spring and honed a campaign message for a competitive challenge from Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon.

Although the Republican governor never said so directly, he left little doubt: Blunt was running for re-election, and he was running to win.

So perhaps no one was more shocked than those in Blunt's inner circle when, just 10 days later, Blunt announced his exit from the race.

"Everyone was convinced we would win this race," said John Hancock, a Republican consultant and pollster who attended the campaign retreat. Hancock, Blunt's campaign spokesman, learned the governor was not running just hours before he publicly announced his decision Tuesday.

The Associated Press confirmed Blunt's campaign retreat with multiple participants, several of whom recounted the details on condition of anonymity.

The gathering at the Big Cedar Lodge south of Branson included top-ranking staff from the governor's office, pollsters, media specialists, fundraisers and people responsible for Blunt's communications and grass-roots organizing. It had been a while since any similar such meeting. The gathering, in essence, amounted to a kickoff for the campaign year.

Participants described the governor as inquisitive, engaged, involved in all aspects of the planning.

Before their meeting, Blunt already had shot video footage for a first-round of campaign commercials. The plan developed that weekend called for Blunt's commercials to begin running before spring. The goal was to beat Nixon to the punch, to get a couple of weeks of uncontested air time in which Blunt could lay out his accomplishments directly to voters before they got bombarded with competing messages.

Blunt already had raised almost $10 million since he was elected in 2004, though his campaign had barely $4 million on hand as a result of previous expenditures and refunds required by a Supreme Court ruling. Blunt's campaign still needed to refund about $2.3 million, which would put him nearly even with what Nixon had on hand.

But Blunt had shown the ability to rake in large amounts of money before. Some people thought he could take in about $20 million — twice what he raised for the 2004 election and far more than the Missouri candidate record of almost $15.7 million set by Republican Sen. Jim Talent in his unsuccessful 2006 re-election campaign.

The campaign team discussed various factors that could influence the governor's race — even several initiative petitions being circulated, mindful of how a stem cell ballot initiative spilled over into the 2006 Senate race. Blunt also reviewed internal polling data, which meeting participants said showed him closing the gap, but still down, to Nixon.

Blunt's message, as sharpened during the meetings, would proclaim he converted a $1 billion inherited shortfall into three straight years of budget surplusses, significantly boosted education spending, presided over the creation 90,000 new jobs since he took office and transformed a broken health care system.

That same message formed the foundation for Blunt's televised State of the State address several days later, on Jan. 15.

Those who attended the campaign retreat believed it could be a successful message, even though Nixon would highlight Blunt's cuts to the Medicaid health care system, warn the economy was faltering and assert that the governor had not done enough for education.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Embattled KC parks board member Frances Semler steps down

Frances Semler, the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners appointee whose membership in the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps caused a political controversy for Mayor Mark Funkhouser, has resigned.

In a statement faxed to area media outlets, including The Kansas City Star, Semler writes “ENOUGH, I am resigning.” In the letter she cites repeated and ongoing personal attacks against her character as a reason, and blasts her most vocal opponents and levels her own criticisms at Kansas City Police Chief Jim Corwin and unnamed City Council members, saying some on the council have made “vicious, false and irresponsible claims about me.”

Also apparently, in recent days, Semler has taken issue with comments made in published reports by Mayor Mark Funkhouser and his wife, Gloria Squitiro.

“I do believe I have been a positive asset. There are many projects I eagerly wanted to pursue,” Semler writes. But after reading quotes from Funkhouser in the The Star last week, “I feel BETRAYED.”

Semler could not be reached Tuesday morning for comment.

Funkhouser in June appointed Semler, a neighborhood association president, to be the sole Northland representative on the five-member park board.

The appointment triggered sharp protests from several minority organizations, including the National Council of La Raza, In October, of La Raza voted to pull its convention from Kansas City, at a projected loss of $5 million, because of Semler’s connection to the Minutemen, a divisive group that takes a hardline stance on immigration issues.

On Jan. 15, the leader if the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said that the SCLC had decided to move it’s convention from Kansas City to New Orleans and would call for a boycott of Kansas City if Semler was not removed from the park board.

Rita Valenciano, head of the local Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, said Semler’s decision to step down was a welcome outcome. But she, added, she would have preferred if the mayor had taken action himself.

Semler had offered to resign last year when controversy first erupted over her appointment, but Funkhouser declined the notion and publicly backed her appointment.

“It’s something that should have been taken care of in the very beginning,” she said. “It was a lack of leadership … my concern is if the mayor is going to accept her resignation.”

Before launching into her criticisms of city officials, Semler writes “as a United States citizen I have always felt able to express my views freely. Out of respect for the Mayor, I have allowed my voice to be stilled. No longer.”

While referring to illegal immigration as a “well-organized invasion of illegals,” she defends the Minutemen as an unjustly attacked group dedicated to the enforcement of immigration laws.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Canada manual: U.S. prisoners face torture

Associated Press Writer

A training manual for Canadian diplomats lists the United States as a country where prisoners risk torture and abuse, citing interrogation techniques such as stripping prisoners, blindfolding and sleep deprivation.

The Foreign Affairs Department document, released Friday, singled out the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. It also names Israel, Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Syria as places where inmates could face torture.

The listing drew a sharp response from the U.S., a key NATO ally and trading partner, which asked to removed from the manual.

"We find it to be offensive for us to be on the same list with countries like Iran and China. Quite frankly it's absurd," U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins told The Associated Press. "For us to be on a list like that is just ridiculous."

He said the U.S. does not authorize or condone torture. "We think it should be removed and we've made that request. We have voiced our opinion very forcefully," Wilkins said.

Michael Mendel, the Israeli Embassy spokesman, said Israel's Supreme Court "is on record as expressly prohibiting any type of torture. If Israel is included in the list in question, the ambassador of Israel would expect its removal," he said.

A Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr, is in custody at Guantanamo, but Canada has long publicly said it accepts U.S. assurances that Khadr is being treated humanely.

The government inadvertently released the manual to lawyers for Amnesty International who are working on a lawsuit involving alleged abuse of Afghan detainees by local Afghan authorities, after the detainees were handed over by Canadian troops.

Canada said the manual is for training, and does not amount to official government policy.

"It is not a policy document or any kind of a statement of policy. As such it does not convey the government's views or positions," said Neil Hrab, a spokesman for Canada's Foreign Affairs Department.

"The training manual purposely raised public issues to stimulate discussion and debate in the classroom."

Human rights groups have long called on Canada to pressure the United States to return Khadr from Guantanamo. They say Canada has not done enough for Khadr, who has been in custody since he was 15. Khadr is accused of tossing a grenade that killed one U.S. soldier and wounded another in Afghanistan in 2002.

He is the son of an alleged al-Qaida financier, and his family has received little sympathy in Canada, where they've been called the "First Family of Terrorism."

Dennis Edney, one of Khadr's lawyers, said the foreign affairs document shows that Canada says one thing publicly but believes something else privately.

"Canada was well aware that Omar Khadr's allegations of being tortured had a ring of truth to it. Canada has not once raised the protection of Omar Khadr when there are such serious allegations," Edney said. "What does that say to you about Canada's commitment to the rule of law and human rights? It talks on both sides of its face."

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