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Former Kansas Congressman Dennis Moore, remembered for decency and for 'showing up,' dies at 75

Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., questions witnesses during a House Financial Services Committee hearing regarding Lehman Brothers and financial reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 20, 2010.
Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., questions witnesses during a House Financial Services Committee hearing regarding Lehman Brothers and financial reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 20, 2010.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore served Kansas' 3rd Congressional District from 1998 to 2010. Later, diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, he spoke out in support of more resources and research. Moore died November 2.

A lifelong public servant, Dennis Moore was a centrist Democrat from Kansas who represented a Republican Congressional district for six terms. He held his seat largely because of his old-fashioned approach to public service.

Dennis Moore died November 2 after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He would have been 76 on November 8.

In a statement, his wife, Stephene Moore, said during his fight with Alzheimer's disease, he "remained happy, gracious, dignified and with a constant sense of humor for which he was known." The statement went on to reveal the former Congressmen died after "a brief battle with cancer."

Moore was known for coming home for local events — the dedication of a memorial or the opening of a new veteran’s program. A throwback to a gentler, more humane era in politics, he was passionate about civility.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a colleague from Missouri’s 5th Congression District, served on the House Financial Services Committee with Moore for many years, and says he has stayed in regular touch with him since Moore left office.

“The Dennis Moore we knew may not have been as comfortable in Congress today because of the tribalism and the way our democracy has been threatened,” Cleaver said. “Dennis Moore was one of the good guys who never deviated from a stern-but-always-gentlemanly style of work on both sides of the aisle.”

In 1998, Moore defeated Republican Vince Snowbarger for Kansas' 3rd Congressional District seat. He was the first Democrat elected to the seat in 37 years.

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Long-time friend Carolyn McKnight, former chair of the Johnson County Mainstream Coalition, said Moore was able to hang on to this seat as long as he did because people knew who he was.

“They liked Dennis Moore. They saw that he cared about them,” she said, “and guess what? He showed up. If they were cutting a ribbon, it was nothing for him to come from Washington.”

Between the time he was elected and the time he retired in 2010, Moore never took his reelection for granted. When asked at his victory party in 2008 what he’d be doing the next day, he grimaced.

“Starting my next election campaign,” he said. He cited this grueling routine as one reason for his decision to retire.

Moore also expressed weariness at the eroding civility he saw in Washington by the end of his career. In a conversation with KCUR around his kitchen table following his last term, Moore said the lack of collegiality and cooperation had become dispiriting.

“When I was first in Congress, I belonged to a group called the Center Aisle Caucus,” he said. “This was a group of Republicans and Democratic members who’d get together at least once a month … to get to know somebody on a personal basis. For the last year and a half I was in Congress, we had no meetings.”

An even-tempered professional

Dennis Moore was born in 1945 in Anthony, Kansas, southwest of Wichita.

He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1967 with a degree in political science and from Washburn University School of Law in 1970.

After a stint with the U.S. Army Reserve, Moore began his legal career as an assistant attorney general for Kansas, followed by 12 years as the Johnson County, Kansas, District Attorney.

Former Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning was an officer and police chief before becoming sheriff. He worked closely with Moore over the years and remained a friend. He said Moore had an unusually strong ethical and moral fiber.

“If you couldn’t make a case on facts and evidence, you didn’t have a case,” Denning said about Moore’s legal practice. “You didn’t cut a corner, you didn’t embellish. (He) truly believed in that symbol of justice.”

Moore hired attorney Tom Bath as a young prosecutor in the mid-1980s to work with him in the D.A.’s office, giving Bath his first job.

Bath stayed on in the D.A.’s office when Moore left to join the defense firm of Moriarty, Erker & Moore. During that time, the two lawyers came together as opposing counsel on a particularly contentious case.

“Dennis was very vigorous in his defense of the young man,” Bath remembered. “We certainly went at each other pretty hard. But once we went through the courtroom doors, we were friends and colleagues.”

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Bath noted defense attorneys and prosecutors often don’t enjoy harmonious relationships, but he said Moore was equally approachable and affable in both roles.

One of Moore’s most high-profile cases was that of Debora Green. In October 1995, the affluent Prairie Village, Kansas, oncologist was convicted of intentionally setting fire to her home, killing two of her three children. Involved in a nasty divorce, she also attempted to poison her husband with ricin. Green pled no contest to two counts of capital murder, two counts of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated arson in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. Moore defended Green and told reporters she was accepting responsibility for the crimes but said, “I don’t think she ever intended to kill her children.”

A moderate in Congress

Moore never deviated from his middle-of-the-road politics and was a centrist pillar of his party. He was co-chair of the Blue Dog Democrats, a group of 50-plus members created in 1994 to give conservative Democrats a unified voice in Congress. He was also a member of the New Democrat Coalition, another group of centrist Democrats who supported a pro-growth, business agenda as well as a balanced budget.

Conservative groups blasted Moore for his embrace of progressive positions on social issues. He supported abortion rights, earning an “A” rating from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, or NARAL, and voted in favor of stem-cell research. He supported greater restrictions on guns and got high marks from environmental advocates.

He voted for the Affordable Care Act, drawing death threats as the bellicose debate escalated across the country. He canceled town hall meetings so as not to risk the safety of his staff or constituents.

Moore sponsored bills to raise a death gratuity for families of fallen soldiers and to provide funds for American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to travel home while on short-term leave.

Kathleen Sebelius, former Kansas governor and also a long-time friend of the Moore family, said Dennis Moore was an old-school politician whose style might be unrecognizable in today’s polarized political landscape.

“You know one of the most depressing things about the current political climate to me is that talented young people may be discouraged about seeing public office as an opportunity to serve,” she said. “Nothing could be better than (to) look to role models like Dennis Moore and say, ’You know, I want to be like that guy.’”

Surprised by his announcement to retire

Two years after Dennis Moore retired from Congress, he went public with his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. In 2014, he testified before a Senate committee on the need for more Alzheimer’s research and resources. He said treatment options were limited.

“Basically, to take the medication they prescribed for me and others and to get some exercise,” he said. “My wife encourages me and I’m a smart husband and I say, ‘Yes, dear.’”

Along with his wife, Stephene, Moore continued his public service until he was no longer able, this time advocating for the six million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

Stephene Moore ran for her husband’s congressional seat the year after he retired. She lost to Republican Kevin Yoder.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.