Milton the Perennial Candidate

Reporters often find some political candidates intriguing even though they have absolutely no chance to win the office they’re seeking.  Some run because they have something to say.  Some run because they want to represent a group with a certain point of view.  Some run because they think they can win although knowing inwardly that a victory is less likely than a lightning strike.  Some run because they’re just plain nutty. Sometimes they’re just plain fun.  We don’t pay much attention to them after doing, maybe, one story early in the campaign. But their presence somehow makes campaigns richer in a non-financial sort of way.

Yesterday’s entry about Boots Weber calls to mind another colorful perennial candidate from long ago who ran for governor five times.

His name was Milton Morris.

Milton died almost thirty years ago but he remains a legend in some circles in Kansas City, not because he ran for governor but because of what he did for jazz.

During prohibition times he was an 18-year old owner of a drug store he called the “Rendezvous” where he sold whiskey for two bucks a bottle.  In those days you could still buy booze if it was for medicinal purposes and Milton sold “medicine” at his drug store.

As soon as prohibition was repealed in 1933 he became a saloon owner.  He had a place called the “Hey Hay Club.”  It became a hangout for young jazz musicians whose names are now legendary.  Not many people are left who can remember sitting on hay bales in a former barn while they listened to a young Count Basie, or Jo Jones, or Ben Webster, or Lester Young playing on a stage that once was a hay wagon.  He later owned other places including Milton’s Tap Room, which he was running when he died at the age of 71 in November, 1983.

Milton’s Tap Room at 35th and Troost was a small, dark joint that Morris claimed would hold 1,000 people, 69 at a time. One  Morris memory has him saying that he unscrewed one light bulb every year so he wouldn’t have to paint the place. Another story is that he had paid the vice cops a dollar each to raid one of his previous clubs twice on New Year’s eve so the place would empty out and new people could come in.

Another story is about the time Milton and some others visited President Truman in the White House in 1948, when the President asked him, “Milt, they still got all those whores down around 14th and Cherry?”  That and other memories of this eccentric, funny lover of jazz and Cutty & water are on a website called KCjazzlark.  It’s good that stories about Milton Morris are preserved this way.

Milton decided to get into politics in 1960 when he ran in the Democratic primary for Governor.  He got 3.63% of the vote, the second-highest percentage he would ever get.  He also ran in the Democratic primaries in 1964 and 1968.  He skipped ’72, ran again in 1976, and made his last run for Governor in ’80.  His best showing was in 1968 when he challenged the election of Warren Hearnes to an unprecedented second straight four-year term.  He got 7.14% of the vote.

He ran on a platform of legalized bingo, legal casinos, legalized pari-mutuel horse racing at Kansas City Airport (which was then downtown), and leaving bars open until 4 a.m..  His bumper stickers asked passersby, “Why pay taxes?”

He also ran for Mayor of Kansas City once on a platform that called for a “Wide Open Town.”

His longtime bartender at the Tap Room recalled in the February/March 2001 issue of JAM magazine that when Milton told his mother he was running for governor in 1960, she told him, “That’s nice, but don’t sell the saloon.”

He always made special efforts to be in line or have someone in line holding a place for him so he could be the first candidate listed on the primary ballot for Governor.  That practice no longer happens.  The Secretary of State changed the rules years ago so candidates in line on the first day draw numbers to determine their ballot placement.

Milton Morris and Boots Weber might appear to have little in common and we certainly have no first-hand knowledge to find things they did share.  But they both had a zest for life.  They both are fondly remembered by those who knew them best.  They both loved campaigning.  They both added something special to the political campaigns they entered.  And frankly, they were a whole lot more interesting than many of the people who got a whole lot more votes.

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