Wheat, Alan 1951–
Alan Wheat 1951–
When Alan Wheat made his bid for the Senate in 1994, he was described by Dennis Farney in The Wall Street Journal as “a new kind of black candidate: not simply a representative of black America but a bridge-builder between black and white America.” It is an opinion that was repeated often in Wheat’s ten-year congressional tenure. Politics in America described him as personifying “the House’s younger generation of main-stream-oriented blacks,” and that he had “the distinction of representing far more white constituents than any other black member.” The Kansas City-area district Wheat served is almost 75 percent white. From the beginning of his political career Wheat strove for advancement, and succeeded in achieving several leadership positions in Congress. However, he was unsuccessful in his 1994 bid for the Senate.
Born to James Weldon and Emogene Wheat in San Antonio, Texas on October 16, 1951, Alan was one of three children. His father was a colonel in the Air Force and Wheat received his primary education in schools around the world. He attended Grinnell College, a prestigious liberal arts school in Iowa. During his tenure at Grinnell, Wheat’s political leadership qualities began to emerge when he led a campus protest to demand black-studies courses at the college. In 1972, Wheat graduated from Grinnell College with a bachelor of arts degree in economics. After graduation, Wheat became an economist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Kansas City. In 1973, he was employed as an economist for the Mid-America Regional Council of Kansas City, serving in that position until 1975 when he became an aide to the Jackson County executive.
In 1977, at age 25, Wheat was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. He served three terms in the state House, and chaired its Urban Affairs Committee. In 1982, Congressman Richard Bolling announced his retirement. Wheat was among seven Democrats who vied for the vacated seat. He was the only African American candidate among them. Although it was suggested that he would only support African American issues, one-third of Wheat’s vote total in the primary came from white voters. In all, he captured 31 percent of the vote.
At a Glance …
Born Alan Dupree Wheat, October 16, 1951 in San Antonio, Texas; son of James Weldon and Emogene (Jean); wife’s name Yolanda; children: Alynda Wheat. Education: Grinnell College, B.A., 1972. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Church of Christ
HUD, Kansas City, Missouri, economist, 1972-1973; Mid-America Regional Council, Kansas City, Missouri, economist, 1973-1975; County Executive Office, Kansas City, Missouri, aide, 1975-1976; Missouri House of Representatives, Jefferson City, 1977-1982; Congress, 5th District Missouri, Washington D.C., congressman, 1983-1994; CARE Foundation, vice president of public policy and government relations, 1995; SmithKline Beecham, vice president for Federal Relations, 1996; Clinton/Gore ’ 96 Campaign, deputy campaign manager, 1996.
Member: Rules Committee; Select Committee on Children, Youth & Families; Subcommittee on Government Operations & Metro Affairs of the Commission on District of Columbia, chairman; Select Committee on Hunger, US House of Representatives, beginning 1990; Martin Luther King Jr., Federal Holiday Commission, beginning 1989, commissioner; Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, beginning 1990, president.
Awards: Third freshman Congressman in history to be appointed to the Rules Committee; Best Freshman Legislator St. Louisan Magazine, 1977-1978; 1 of 10 Best Legislators Jefferson City Tribune, 1979-1980; 1 of 10 Best Legislators Missouri Times Newspaper 1979-1980.
Wheat’s opposition in the 1982 general election was state Representative John A. Sharp. Sharp charged that Wheat, if elected to Congress, would be a tool of the radical black political organization, Freedom Inc. because the majority of his voter support in the primary came from ten Kansas City wards where the organization was influential. However, Wheat defeated Sharp by garnering 58 percent of the vote in the election, basing his campaign on appealing to both the working classes and business people.
Wheat retained his seat in Congress for the next six years without facing stiff competition in any of the elections. In 1988, he was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote. He faced opposition in 1990, but still won with 62 percent of the vote. In 1992, the House banking scandal made it a tough election year for Wheat, who was one of those guilty of overdrawing his account. He was challenged by four Democrats in the primary including Fred Arbanas, who had been a Kansas City Chiefs football star before moving into politics. Wheat won the primary because he ran a stronger, more aggressive campaign than his challengers. The scheduling of a late-summer primary also helped to mitigate the effects of the banking scandal. In the November election, Wheat faced two third-party candidates as well as Republican Edward “Gomer” Moody, a prominent businessman. Although Wheat was victorious, the participation of these candidates reduced Wheat’s vote total to 59 percent and was his lowest winning percentage since 1982.
Personal and professional growth were important to Alan Wheat and he sought to gain prominence in the Democratic Party. During his first term in Congress he was assigned a seat on the prestigious Rules Committee, following his predecessor, Richard Bolling. He was only the third freshman Congressman in history to be appointed to the Rules Committee. This was an influential seat because, as Politics In America states, “other committee leaders are anxious to accommodate members of Rules, given its role as traffic cop for nearly all bills.” Wheat was offered an active role in the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, but he turned it down to consider a position as Democratic Caucus vice chairman and a seat on the Budget Committee.
In addition to his work on the Rules Committee, Wheat also worked to secure federal funds for projects in his district. Among his successes were several multimilliondollar flood-control projects, federal money for the South Riverfront Expressway, and funds for a federal study on a proposed light-rail system for the Kansas City metropolitan area. He also secured funding for a new federal courthouse in Kansas City.
In 1987 Wheat supported the homeless-aid bill, and was appointed to the House Select Committee on Hunger in 1990. He also met in 1990 with African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He supported the Civil Rights Act of 1990, and became president of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. In 1991, the Caucus voted to have Wheat appointed chief deputy majority whip, but Democrat John Lewis of Georgia won instead. In 1992, Wheat served as co-chairman of the Credentials Committee during the Democratic National Convention.
Wheat was ranked as one of the most liberal House members by Roll Call in 1994. In 1991, he supported the implementation of a waiting period for handgun purchases and opposed the use of force in the Persian Gulf. In 1992, Wheat voted to eliminate the space station program and allow the shifting of funds from defense to domestic programs. Finally, in 1993, he supported legislation that allowed unpaid family and medical leave and opposed legislation requiring parental notification when a minor sought an abortion.
In April 1994, Wheat met with residents, community activists, and police officers in two Missouri neighborhoods to listen to concerns about neighborhood violence. A strong proponent of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Wheat argued in the Congressional Digest that “Too often today, kids who should be found with books, baseballs, and bicycles are found instead with Uzis, Street Sweepers, and TEC-9s. In short, we must attack crime today with police, punishment, and prisons. We must also attack crime well into the future with schools, jobs, and hope.” On April 21, 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed.
In 1994, Senator John Danforth (R-Missouri) retired. According to political observers, Wheat faced an uphill battle to win the vacated Senate seat. Of the seven Senate candidates, his toughest opposition in the primary was Marsha Murphy. While Wheat sought to become the first African American to win a Missouri statewide election, Murphy’s goal was to become the first female senator from Missouri. She had served as Missouri deputy director of Richard Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign and became Jackson County executive in 1990. During the Senate primary, Murphy portrayed Wheat as a tax-and-spend liberal and reminded voters of his role in the 1992 House banking scandal. Despite these attacks, Wheat won the Democratic nomination with 41 percent of the vote, becoming the first African American nominated to a statewide office in Missouri.
In the 1994 general election, Wheat faced Republican and former Governor John Ashcroft, a popular and respected figure in Missouri politics. He faced several obstacles in his campaign against Ashcroft. He’d depleted his campaign funds in the tough primary race against Marsha Murphy, while Ashcroft experienced an easier, less expensive nomination run. Ashcroft began running campaign ads on television in August of 1994, while funding problems forced Wheat to wait until late September to begin airing his ads. President Clinton, a Democrat, had experienced low popularity ratings in 1994, a fact that hurt many Democratic candidates throughout the nation. As Lance LeLoup, director of the Public Policy Research Centers at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, told The Christian Science Monitor in 1994, “The national scene is not very conducive to Democrats.” Wheat’s campaign was also hampered by voter apathy among African Americans and charges that he was a liberal Washington insider. All of these factors contributed to Ashcroft’s victory over Wheat in the 1994 election.
In 1995, Wheat became vice president of public policy and government relations for the CARE Foundation, an international relief and development organization. Eventually, he left the CARE Foundation to become vice president for federal relations at SmithKline Beecham, a drug company based in Washington.
In 1996, Wheat was named a deputy campaign manager for the Clinton/Gore presidential campaign. As deputy campaign manager, he was responsible for the development of minority support for Clinton’s re-election. On May 15, 1996, Wheat accepted a position as director of public liaison to Clinton/Gore campaign chairman Peter S. Knight. Knight, an attorney, had served as Vice President Gore’s administrative assistant in the Senate and vice presidential chief of staff. Wheat’s appointment made him the highest-ranking African American staff executive.
The Negro Almanac. A Reference Work on the African American. Fifth Edition. Edited by Harry A. Ploski and James Williams, Gale Research, Detroit, 1989, p. 396.
Politics in America, edited by Phil Duncan, Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1990, pp. 859, 1992, pp. 853, 1994, pp. 881-83.
Black Enterprise, November 1994, p. 32.
Christian Science Monitor, October 18, 1994, p. 3.
Congressional Digest, June-July 1994, p. 180.
Jet, August 22, 1994, p. 46; May 20, 1996, p. 22.
Wall Street Journal, March 9, 1994, p. A14.
—Sandy J. Stiefer
"Wheat, Alan 1951–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wheat-alan-1951
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