In Bed with a Nice Mattress (Company)

Apr 12, 2000 at 4:00 am
We've all heard that politics makes strange bedfellows.

But this is ridiculous.

State Sen. Bill Kenney (R-Lee's Summit), who leads on the GOP side in the race (such as it is) for Missouri lieutenant governor, just happened to transform himself from a staunch pro-business conservative to a raving consumer activist last year. A protect-the-poor, inner-city raving consumer activist, no less.

Kenney's crusade: making our state a safe place to sleep, especially in the inner city. And how? Why, of course, by protecting the citizenry from the scourge of recycled mattresses.

Kenney sponsored a bill to require that all recycled mattresses be labeled with this warning: "This bedding contains previously used materials which have been cleaned and sanitized in a reasonable manner to kill germs and insects and to prevent infection." When the bill failed to pass, he powered it through as an amendment to an impossible-to-veto nursing-home bill, working behind the scenes to overcome legislative rules against unrelated amendments.

Kenney said he was trying to prevent recycled-mattress makers from attempting to peddle "shoddy, used, urinated, bed-stained mattresses and cover them with fabric (and sell them as new)," according to the Kansas City Star. He said he was especially concerned about this practice's causing the spread of disease in the inner city.

Sounds fairly progressive, even Naderish, doesn't it? Indeed it might have been, were it not for a couple of irritating little details that came forth in a front-page Star investigative piece last Friday.

One is that the measure had been opposed by none other than the state Department of Health on the grounds that it had no public-health benefit because the alleged bad mattresses were nearly nonexistent (and the object of no complaints). Health officials argued that the bill would confuse and unnecessarily alarm consumers, as well as create a regulatory nightmare.

In strongly opposing the measure, health officials said this was essentially an intraindustry battle. Passage would mean nothing more than a marketing coup for the makers of new mattresses in their competition with the makers of recycled ones.

In other words, it might benefit a Fortune 500 mattress maker such as, say, Leggett & Platt of Carthage, Mo., in which Kenney happened to have just a few thousand shares of stock and which just happened to support this "consumer" legislation.

Oh, and one other thing: Leggett & Platt, just by utter coincidence, has in the past eight months given $100,000 to Bill Kenney's campaign for lieutenant governor. The first of four $25,000 checks was, by coincidence, received Aug. 28, the day the bill became law.

In fairness, the public has been assured by both Kenney and Leggett & Platt that there is absolutely no connection between these unrelated events. The company's top lobbyist said it supported Kenney because he "is a person we believe in. His philosophy is aligned with southwest Missouri. He shares the same beliefs we do, period. If we gave contributions because we wanted to pass legislation, we wouldn't be giving to Republicans."

Why, of course not.

I mean, what sort of twisted cynic would even imply that a man who just happened to crusade for safe mattresses should have to answer insulting questions about receiving -- from the direct beneficiary of the legislation -- what undoubtedly is the largest political contribution in history to an office that has no power?

OK. Here's a twisted cynic: me. I'd say this is the most flagrant case of abuse of the political process in recent memory.

In the politics business, the office Kenney seeks has been called "lite governor." With all respect to the many fine people who have held the office, it cannot possibly be worth $100,000 to anyone other than the candidate himself (and that's dubious), because, to repeat myself, it has no power.

Why would Leggett & Platt just happen to like Bill Kenney so much that they'd give him 43 percent of all the contributions he received last year in search of an office that has no power?

Traditionally money is said to purchase "access" to the political process, a soothingly civil euphemism that's much preferred, by all parties, to "the purchase of a politician's soul." But when you give $100,000 to a candidate for an office that has no power, to what exactly are you purchasing access?

What do get for your $100,000 -- a chance to take your kids to the Senate chambers and have them tingle was awe when the fellow up front with the gavel gives you a wave? Is it to be certain you have a place to sit if your back is tired (presumably from a restless night on a dirty recycled mattress) on a visit to the Capitol building?

Paying $100,000 for "access" to a lieutenant governor is like shelling out big bucks at a charity auction to have a baseball autographed by Mark McGwire's cousin. If the lieutenant governor is worth $100,000, the governor's got to be worth $5 million.

Actually Leggett & Platt did just happen to give $100,000 to U.S. Rep. Jim Talent (R-2nd) for his Missouri gubernatorial campaign, but that's another story, presumably not involving a crusade against rotten mattresses, although we can't be certain.

Unfortunately, folks at the Post-Dispatch were too preoccupied with going-away celebrations for editor Cole Campbell to concern themselves with picking up the Star's exposé.

If it's any solace, it appears that the Post won't be again ignoring a story of this magnitude anytime soon. One of the things that make this special is that the $100,000 gift was only made possible by the blackout period for Missouri's campaign limits, which were frozen while being reviewed by the courts.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the limits enacted by voters in 1994, reinstating the $1,125 contribution limit for statewide offices.

State Sen. Joe Maxwell (D-Mexico), the leading contender to oppose Kenney for lieutenant governor next November, tells me that he, too, received some funds during the blackout period in excess of what campaign laws did (and now) allow but that he had those funds -- totaling $30,000, or more than 10 percent of his war chest -- returned to the contributors.

As you might expect, Maxwell says his likely opponent is a "poster boy for campaign-finance reform." Me? I think we should give Kenney more credit for caring about our mattresses.

After all, he just wants the rest of us to sleep as well he does with Leggett & Platt.