They come from similar working-class backgrounds. Each has experienced a successful career in political consulting, and both hold bachelor’s degrees in political science from the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Political party preferences, however, are not something they share. Hancock and Kelley are firmly entrenched within the Republican Party and Democratic Party, respectively. They rarely agree on political issues and almost never agree on candidates.
In a time of political partisanship, this has done little to deter their friendship. Instead it’s strengthened it. And it’s led to collaborations, most notably as co-hosts of a semi-regular talk show on KMOX (1120 AM).
The beginning of a beautiful friendship
John Hancock, 48, has been campaigning for politicians and causes he believes in since he was a Boy Scout. The lifelong ragtime fan and accomplished pianist made news as a teen for his role in successfully lobbying for the city-funded renovation of music great Scott Joplin’s former home in St. Louis.
Michael Kelley, 36, grew up around politics. His father was the president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also campaigned for politicians at an early age. And he never complained as a youth when President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address interrupted his favorite TV programs. He took notes, hanging on every word.
Despite both men being young political junkies, Hancock first pursued a music degree. He changed majors to broadcast journalism. The third time was a charm with political science.
Hancock earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from UMSL and later returned to the university to pursue a doctoral degree in political science. But politics got in the way.
“I got elected, effectively ending my academic career,” explains Hancock, who went on to serve two terms as a Missouri state representative. “I still owe a paper to Dave Robertson (Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at UMSL).”
Terry Jones, chair of the Department of Political Science, taught both Hancock and Kelley. Jones says he remembers Hancock’s strong interest in scholarly research. Kelley, Jones says, was enamored by the political process and aspired to get “in the game” as quickly as possible. His first job after UMSL was as an aide to Rep. Dick Gephardt.
A decade-plus age gap kept Hancock and Kelley from crossing paths on UMSL’s campus. That changed not long after Kelley graduated and had risen to the role of executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party. Hancock was his counterpart for the Missouri Republican Party after consecutive narrowly failed bids for Missouri secretary of state.
Their initial meeting was the result of a Hancock-led press conference to attack a Democratic candidate. Kelley and company crashed it.
“That’s a common practice in politics,” Kelley explains. “You know, to make sure you’re in the story.”
A week later, Hancock “returned the favor” for a similar press conference organized by Kelley.
Soon they began sharing face time at less contentious affairs like a debate before the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and various UMSL events. They learned they had a lot in common, and a friendship was forged.
Jones says it’s not uncommon for political consultants to get along, despite representing opposing parties.
“Just as two attorneys might argue tooth and nail with one another during a trial and then go out and have a beer together afterwards, the same atmosphere applies to political consultants,” he says.
Then again, opposing attorneys likely don’t co-host a radio show.
A Democrat and a Republican walk into a radio station
The KMOX connection came about when Hancock was asked to participate in a political roundtable discussion on “The Mark Reardon Show.” The producer wanted a Democrat to counter Hancock’s Republican views.
“Why don’t we get Michael Kelley,” Hancock remembers suggesting.
Much like their off-air lives, Hancock and Kelley gelled while on KMOX. The producer took note. And when the need arose for fill-in hosts, Hancock and Kelley were called.
Hancock jumped at the chance. He wanted to be on the radio ever since he was a kid, when his dream job was to call St. Louis Cardinals games on KMOX.
Kelley says he never anticipated he’d have a regular role on radio. But he didn’t hesitate to sign on for what is now known as “Hancock & Kelley.” It’s a semi-regular program that fills in whenever Mark Reardon or Charlie Brennan is off the air. Hancock estimates they do about 35 to 40 shows a year. They also both serve as political analysts for various KMOX programs and spent six hours on air dissecting the results of election night 2010.
Hancock and Kelley both say they feel they can give an insider’s perspective to politics, which might separate them from other radio hosts. They both oversee St. Louis-based political consulting firms that work daily with political candidates and issues across Missouri and the nation.
“We’re engaged in current events,” Hancock says. “We’re not just commenting on them; we’re participating in them.”
They also know the political players on both sides of the aisle. Rarely do they need to go beyond their cell phone contact lists to get a high-profile political guest to weigh in on the regional news of the day.
An early March show, for example, featured as in-studio guests a St. Louis labor union attorney, two state representatives, a state senator and a law professor.
“There are not too many people who run for office in the state of Missouri or the (St. Louis) area who I haven’t met or don’t already know or won’t have the opportunity to know,” Kelley says. “The same can be said for John.”
In the KMOX air room, Hancock and Kelley sit across from each other, flanking the guests. There’s plenty of playful political joshing between the two off air. They don’t shy from taking political jabs at each other on air. But the tone remains civil and never turns too heated.
UMSL’s Terry Jones, for one, praises his two former students for taking “the issues seriously, but not themselves too seriously.” That’s apparent when listening to their good-humored banter on air and when seeing them interact in the KMOX hallways after their show.
“We’ve been doing this together for a few years, and he’s become one of my closest friends now,” Hancock says.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Kelley says. “If it wasn’t for this arrangement that John and I find ourselves in, I’m not sure we would be the friends we are today. And now I have a friend for life.”
This story was originally published in the spring 2012 issue of UMSL Magazine.