Former Congressman Dennis Moore, the first Democrat elected to the Kansas 3rd District in more than 30 years, died Tuesday. He was 75.
Moore was elected to Congress in 1998 when he upset former Republican Congressman Vince Snowbarger, holding the seat until he stepped down in 2011 shortly before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He died after a battle with cancer.
A former Johnson County district attorney and member of the Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees, Moore was known for connecting with a district that tended to reflect the political middle.
“He sort of developed a good internal tuning fork for the vibration of the district,” said Howard Bauleke, who was Moore’s chief of staff throughout his 12-year term.
“They were where he was personally and ideologically, and so it was easy for him to maintain that connection,” Bauleke said.
Moore turned back challenger after challenger throughout his run representing the 3rd Congressional District.
He defeated conservative Phill Kline in 2000, former fighter pilot Adam Taff in 2002, conservative Kris Kobach in 2004, Chuck Ahner in 2006 and former Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan in 2008.
Moore’s biggest win came against the little-known Ahner in 2006 with 65% of the vote.
His barely scraped by in relection bids against Kline and Taff.
He beat Kline – then a conservative state lawmaker – by about 10,000 votes out more than 300,000 votes cast in 2000.
He edged Taff – a political novice and a moderate Republican – by about 8,000 votes out of about 220,000 votes cast two years later.
“Dennis Moore was a lawyer and very organized thinker, and he always had his eye on the ball,” Bauleke said.
“When the time came to do the right thing and cast tough votes, he never buckled for a second. He knew what the right thing was, and he did it.”
A “blue dog Democrat,” Bauleke said Moore tended to lean more liberally on social issues such as abortion and LGTBQ rights while moving more to the right on fiscal matters such as tax cuts and government spending, Bauleke said.
“Dennis, in retrospect, was quite progressive on social issues and in that I think he reflected where the district was going during his tenure,” he said.
“He was always a voice for fiscal discipline.”
As a congressman, a guitar became the congressman’s brand. He would often play at public events, strumming out folk or rock tunes.
It became a featured element in campaign ads with one showing him playing a couple chords. Moore stops, looks into the camera and says: “I hope you’ll be pickin’ Dennis Moore for Congress.”
“From the time I was a little kid I always liked music,” Moore told the Basehor Sentinel in 2009.
Moore told the newspaper he began learning to play the guitar in his teens and started giving public performances in college.
“I enjoy it, and people seem to enjoy it, and it’s just a nice way, honestly, to relax and get through some of the pressure here, you know?” Moore said of playing.
He told the paper that he wrote some of his own songs – he called it “political satire” – including one focused on the collapse of the Nixon administration.
When he was district attorney, Moore started a group with two assistants called Denny and the Doo Dahs, performing for nursing homes during the lunch hour.
“It was obviously something he enjoyed,” Bauleke said. “He was able to build a political persona around that activity, which is wonderful thing.
“It drew him closer to people and helped them open up and listen to his message.”
Kansas Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes recalled the guitar in a remembrance she shared on Twitter.
“You could always count on Dennis for a great joke or a good tune on his guitar,” Sykes tweeted.
“I will miss his big heart, warm words of encouragement, and his deep love for the state of Kansas,” she said.
Johnson County Commissioner Becky Fast, who worked for Moore as his director of constituent services, called Moore a public official for everyone.
“Everybody was a friend,” Fast said. “He was every man’s congressman, district attorney, JCCC trustee. He would shake everybody’s hand in a room.
“He would be the last person out of a room when we were taking him to meetings,” she said. “On an elevator, he would starting talking to people.
“He knew Johnson County and wanted to get to know people as neighbors.”
Bauleke said Moore kept a very aggressive schedule in the district.
“Dennis was the kind of guy who would go to the opening of an envelope if you invited him,” Bauleke said.
“He was the guy who would always do the Eagle Scout ceremonies and the 100th birthday for some local notable – just the sort of social things that used to lubricate the political process in a way we’ve kind of lost,” he said.
Fast noted that Moore was able to work with former Republican U.S. Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts to secure funds for important local projects, including a new bridge across Interstate 35 in Lenexa and flood control in Merriam.
Bauleke estimated that Moore helped secure more $200 million in federal funds for flood control, transportation and social services for the district.
After leaving Congress, Moore took up advocacy against Alzheimer’s disease, appearing on Capitol Hill in 2014 with comedian Seth Rogen for a hearing on federal funding to battle the illness.
“An epidemic is well upon us, and too many families are in situations like mine – facing a fatal disease that currently has no way to prevent, cure or even slow its progression,” Moore told a congressional subcommittee.
“As a nation, we cannot afford to wait until Alzheimer’s bankrupts the nation, just as it already has so many hardworking families in Iowa, Kansas, and all across this country.
“We must make the smart investment now to realize a better, healthier future for our families and our nation,” he said at the time.
Democratic Congresswoman Sharice Davids expressed sadness at Moore’s death.
“Dennis was a dedicated, gracious, and principled leader who will be remembered for his service to the Third District and the state of Kansas,” Davids said in a statement.
“To say he left big shoes to fill is an understatement—he leaves a legacy of fighting tirelessly for what is good and right and decent for the people he represented.”
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, who heard Moore’s testimony on Alzheimer’s in 2014, also extended his sympathies.
“Congressman Dennis Moore, above all, was a kind man. He was a doting father and grandfather, and I am very saddened to learn of his passing,” Moran said in a statement.
“That respect only grew when I witnessed the way he and his wife, Stephene, faced his battle with Alzheimer’s with a determination to use their experience to help others.
“His legacy will be the way in which he gave others battling Alzheimer’s courage and hope.”
Former Democratic Congressman Dan Glickman shared his sympathies in a Faceook post.
“A fine and decent congressman, and an extraordinary human being,” he said.
For a few remembrances, here’s some ads that Moore ran during his 1998 campaign for the House and a BBC documentary that also includes commentary from the late political scientist Burdett Loomis, who recently passed away.
These were provided courtesy of Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty.
Moore defends against Snowbarger