When it comes to hard-hitting stories I've written about black leaders, there are two that haunt me. One I completely regret having written. I might talk about that one in a later post. The other I don't necessarily regret. But as time goes on I feel more and more uneasy about it.
It was an election story about Wesley Fields's bid for city council.
This is a story I was encouraged to do by a number of political insiders I used to keep close contact with. I was given a good number of promising leads early on. I also had a small number of black sources who were pretty much provided to me by folks affiliated with Fields's opposing candidate, incumbant Becky Nace, who is white.
In retrospect, a lot of the "dirt" I digged up on Fields was insignificant. He was clearly a carpetbagger, having moved to Nace's district after local leaders talked Fields out of challenging Troy Nash.
But I need to stop right here and acknowledge that if Fields had been taking on Nash, another black candidate, I have no doubt that we would have not gone with the story. Even if you think carpetbagging is bad, the racial dynamics of this should tell you a lot.
Then I found that Fields had registered his car in Grandview, at his parents' house. As such, he didn't pay taxes to the Kansas City school district in which he lived.
I don't know. In the big scheme of things, this doesn't seem a very big deal. Indeed, I did the same thing when I was in college, so as to avoid the higher taxes of the town where I was living.
But in a large story package, it seemed to add to the heft of the case against Fields.
That said, the bulk of the investigative work I did on the story was aimed at Fields's position at Bryan Cave, a law firm with deep political connections. Fields was one of the primary lawyers on Bryan Cave's contract with the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation, which administers the city's corrupt tax-incentive program. And this was my main justification for doing the story. I felt very strongly at the time that Fields was a pawn of The Man.
Also I should add that I worked very hard to investigate and publicize Fields's strengths and accomplishments. And I even went so far as to point out that he's a textbook example of how Kansas City ought to develop new generations of leaders. He was valedictorian of his high school, he went to an Ivy League school and then to the top-ranked University of Virginia law school. All along the way he distinguished himself as a natural leader. Unfortunately, young men and women like Fields tend to not return to Kansas City, opting instead for cities like Chicago and Atlanta, where the power structures in the black community are much stronger.
One thing that I still ache over with regards to the story was that one of Fields's roommates from college didn't get back to me until after the story had gone to print. This former classmate gave some terrific examples of what kind of a leader Fields is. The stories he shared with me offered particularly strong evidence of Fields's ability to bridge divides between whites and blacks, and that's something Kansas City obviously needs.
I began regretting the story almost as soon as it ran. While I got a lot of props behind the scenes from white leaders, and a few blacks, some of my more reliable contacts in the black community were pretty lukewarm about it. When I explained my concerns about Fields's tax-incentive-program connections they seemed to understand, but there was lingering discomfort of the all-out-effort nature of the investigation, digging up every little piece of dirt I could possibly find.
Worse, I heard from a lot of sources that the main black sources I relied on to call Fields's credibility as a black leader into question were themselves not the most credible within the black community.
And this was confirmed quite emphatically when the election reslts came out. Though Fields lost handily, he beat Nace decisively in the black districts.
When that happened I had two unsettling thoughts. One, I and the Pitch had little clout in the political landscape. And, two, I was wrong.
And now, with the passage of more time, I'm thinking that Fields might well have been a better choice, though it's still tough to get around the whole tax-incentive-program angle. But even there, I think I have to come clean about the institutionally racist nature of my coverage of this story. As I said, we probably wouldn't have done the story if Fields were challenging Nash. And if it were really all about the tax-incentive stuff, why work so hard to call Fields out on the petty stuff, which people probably wouldn't think twice about if he were white?