Trapp brings cerebral approach to City Council campaign

Sunday, March 25, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:07 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 26, 2012

*Michael Trapp's campaign website is An earlier version of this article had an incorrect address.

This is one in a series of profiles on the five Columbia City Council candidates.

COLUMBIA — On a cool, breezy evening in March, City Council candidate Michael Trapp walked briskly toward the front door of a brick-and-brown-sided house in Columbia’s Second Ward and knocked.

Candidate bio


10 E. Leslie Lane

PERSONAL: Age 43. He has a Bichon-Spaniel dog named Fido.


OCCUPATION: Substance Abuse Counselor at Phoenix Programs Inc.

EDUCATION: Associate's degree in psychology, Monroe County Community College, 1988; bachelor's degree in sociology, University of Toledo, 1990; master's degree in sociology, University of Toledo, 1993.

BACKGROUND: Member of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, Columbia Lodge #207; the Missouri Cadre for Co-Occurring Excellence; KOPN; and the Boone County Offender Transition Network.

These days, Trapp spends most of his evenings knocking. By his count, he had knocked on 1,669 other front doors in the Second Ward before this one.

Whenever a resident answers, Trapp hands them a flier, introduces himself and leads with a question: “Are there any issues or concerns you want raised in city government?”

“I plan on walking the entire Second Ward before the election,” Trapp said. “I’m trying to step up for the honor of us folks focused on life’s tasks.”

No one answered this particular knock, so he slipped a flier between the screen and front door. “Neighbors for Michael Trapp,” it read.

Before walking to the next house he caught a whiff of fragrant freesia blooming in a flowerbed beneath the windowsill.

“Do you smell that?” the avid gardener asked. “When I started this project, there were absolutely no flowers out.”

Trapp entered the City Council race in January, long before the crocuses and snowdrops emerged. He hadn't thought about local politics before. He had been in Columbia only six years and was content with his job as a substance abuse counselor at Phoenix Programs.

“I was just doing my piece,” Trapp said. “Living right, minimizing the impact I left behind, writing poetry. But then Jason Thornhill called me out.”

Trapp said he read a Columbia Tribune article in which Thornhill, the incumbent who is not seeking re-election, called his constituents “fairly apathetic.”

“So I just put it on Facebook, ‘No one is running. Do you think I should?’” Trapp said. “Twenty people said yes; one person said it might cut into your reading time. I decided to do it.”

Harry Train, a 20-year friend of Trapp’s, said he laughed when he heard Trapp had entered the race. But then he gave it some thought.

“It seems like a logical progression,” Train said. “Why didn’t I see this coming?”

While the whirlwind of his first campaign has been taxing, Trapp said he has blossomed into a more focused and disciplined version of himself, a gregarious and cerebral substance abuse counselor who brings an understanding of people, an eagerness to serve and an ear for listening to his pursuit of a council seat.

Life on the road

Trapp, 43, has contemplated the complexities of human interaction since childhood.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, he spent most of his youth in “farm country” in rural Ida, Mich., with his parents and four siblings.

“We were pretty poor,” Trapp said. “I still carry that working-class sensibility. I always feel like I come from peasant stock: short legs, long arms, genetically bred to pick potatoes.”

Trapp had his most transformative childhood experiences on the road with his father, John Trapp, an independent truck driver who let Michael Trapp tag along on his cross-country excursions hauling furniture for Bekins Van Lines.

By the time he was 5, Trapp had been to 45 states, sitting cross-legged in the cab of his father’s GMC Jimmy. He had swum in both oceans, gawked at the New York skyline and searched for roadrunners in Red Rocks Canyon.

Trapp met a cross-section of people. His father often hired transients or hitchhikers to earn a day's wage by loading or unloading freight. Their clients, on the other hand, were usually military veterans or wealthier families.     

“I got to meet all classes of people and see how different types of people lived,” Trapp said. “It really broadened my horizons.”

Train said Trapp’s road time instilled “a thread of common ground and a love for people” in him. “He’s the one person I can think of in my life that can find common ground with anyone in a sincere way.”

The Trapps lost their rural home in the late '70s when the gas crisis and deregulation of the trucking industry forced a move to the “the big city” of Monroe, Mich., population 30,000.

Trapp, however, took advantage of new high school class offerings. He shone in subjects such as Roman mythology, science fiction and mystery horror.

“I was a big Latin geek in high school,” Trapp said. “I’m just a lifelong learner. I tuck away facts. When I sit down with someone who knows more than I know, I switch to learning mode.”

Train said Trapp has always had a humble thirst for knowledge.

“He’s articulate and direct, but he’s not tied to an agenda,” Train said. “If someone makes a good point in a conversation, he’d be the first to admit it.”

After completing undergraduate and graduate school, Trapp took his first job in social work as a family preservation worker for neglected children in abusive homes. He had found the profession that would prime him for a City Council campaign 15 years later.

A “professional listener”

Trapp didn't wear a jacket and tie to a campaign function until the Boone County Muleskinners forum on March 9. He's more comfortable in brown corduroys and Keen walking shoes. On that day, however, his black sport coat matched his dark-rimmed glasses as he entered the Columbia Country Club dining room, sharing the spotlight with his fellow candidates.

When it came time for Trapp’s opening speech, he gripped the microphone with both hands, holding it in front of his face like a candle he’s careful not to blow out.

“I believe in a positive vision for Columbia,” Trapp said. “I have an open mind, and I’m a professional listener.”

Through social work and counseling over the past 20 years, Trapp has listened to abused children, people with developmental disabilities, both the victims and the perpetrators of domestic violence and people dealing with substance abuse.

“I’ve really learned how to engage people,” Trapp said. “You can’t judge or ask them to do something you wouldn’t do. You have to meet people where they’re at. Find something positive and get in there with them.”

Trapp plans to bring that approach to the City Council, where he hopes to talk across differences to build a Second Ward “where people actually know their neighbors.”

Chris Hanes has worked with Trapp for four years at Phoenix Programs.

“Mike has a great demeanor,” Hanes said.“People with mental illness can sometimes be tough to talk to, but, if we go find Mike, he can reach them easily.”

Lisa Groshong, Trapp’s campaign treasurer, has known Trapp for 15 years. She said Trapp's flexible temperament is perfect for dealing with a variety of people.

“He has to help people at their low point, which can be a difficult situation,” Groshong said. “So he’s used to hearing different perspectives and seeing different personalities.”

“He just has a servant’s heart,” Train said. “It’s not about ego.”

In 2009, Trapp invited his father, John, to move in with him at his modest home on Leslie Lane, just down the street from his workplace. Not long after moving in, John Trapp was diagnosed with cardiopulmonary disease. Trapp became his father's primary caregiver, buying him groceries, cooking his meals and giving him his medicine. His father’s illness progressed quickly.

For the first time, though, Trapp's father got to see him interact with clients from Phoenix Programs. He bonded with his father in a life-altering way.

“I got to win my dad’s respect,” Trapp said. “I wasn’t a manly man. I was always sensitive. ‘Mickey,’ was what he called me, ‘I can tell you live your life for other people, and I don’t do that.’ It touched me because he saw what I did for people. He was proud.”

“I didn’t realize how much of my life had gone into caregiving until I lost him,” Trapp said.

Trapp said he has put into his campaign the energy and emotion left over from his father’s April death.

“I’ve been doing one thing after another from when I wake up until I go to bed,” Trapp said. “I like to be prepared for the forums. I spend a lot of time talking to voters and studying the issues.”

Train said he’s been impressed with Trapp’s vigor. “He got rid of cable, downsized and regrouped. He got rid of the distractions and went for it.”

The entertainer

This time people knocked on Trapp’s door. They were coming to a birthday party for Fido, his Bichon Spaniel on March 15. Fido turned 14, in dog years.

Friends and neighbors chatted over Chinese food in Trapp’s living room, where the walls are canary yellow. Trapp often cooks for guests, using fresh vegetables from his garden.

“He is constantly having get-togethers with eclectic groups of people,” Train said. “He’ll have neighbors down the street, friends from work, a real cross-section of people. Last Thanksgiving he even had a philosophy professor from Estonia.”

Trapp moved in across the street from Henry Johnson in 2009. They chat a few times a month while raking leaves or working in the yard.

“He’s a real outgoing person and a good neighbor,” Johnson said. “I feel he’s concerned about the community as a whole. I know he tries to help people. He lets them store furniture in his garage and things like that.”

Johnson and Trapp share a passion for gardening. Trapp grows peas, lettuce, garlic and radishes. He has an herb garden with oregano, sage and tarragon. He also has a strawberry and black raspberry patch, a peach tree and a paw-paw tree.

“The squirrels ate all of my green peaches,” Trapp said. “Squirrel suppression is one of Fido’s few chores.”

Flowers line the beds of soil encircling Trapp’s house. He said he’s confident that when the tulips bloom in April, he’ll be occupying the Second Ward council seat.

“If we lose, Fido and I are hiking the Appalachian Trail for six weeks," Trapp said. "But I haven’t bought a trail guide yet.”

In a post on The Watchword, the Missourian's blog focused on public affairs, reporter Kip Hill explains the process of developing the questions for the candidate video interviews

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