Vincent C. Lee sits in a restaurant at 18th and Vine, surrounded by half a dozen friends and a reporter. He holds a stack of index cards with scribbled notes about his positions on city issues.
Which he largely ignores. Instead — as is often the case — an hourlong discussion with the 59-year-old Kansas City mayoral candidate quickly turns into a jocular, rambling, sometimes profane conversation about politics, government, history, legal battles and more.
“You want something to eat?” he asks, laughing.
Few Kansas Citians know much of anything about Lee, who calls himself “General.” He has hovered outside the periphery of government for almost two decades, running as a write-in candidate from time to time but never holding elected office.
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He wanted to run for mayor in 1999 but submitted nominating petitions that lacked the required notarization. He sued to stop that election, and — in a recurring theme of his public career — he lost.
He got a handful of write-in votes anyway.
Lee’s odds of defeating incumbent Mayor Sly James are extraordinarily long. In mid-May, he told the Missouri Ethics Commission his campaign committee had raised less than $500, compared with James’ $916,000 haul.
So far, there have been no “Lee for mayor” TV ads. No general election debates. No big campaign rallies or get-out-the-vote efforts. A few yard signs.
That means Lee must run a shoestring campaign as the anybody-but-Sly James, a way for voters generally disgruntled with the current administration to be heard on Election Day.
“He’s not approachable,” Lee said, referring to his opponent. “Called city workers stupid. … That offends the hell out of the average citizen.”
James has disputed the characterization of his comments about ambulance billing practices as calling city workers “stupid.”
Lee grew up in the city’s Wayne Miner public housing development with “two brothers and four or five sisters,” he said. He’s a product of Kansas City’s public school system, although he says he left Manual High School before graduation because of family issues.
He variously describes himself as a “businessman” or “consultant” but is no clearer than that. He says he lives on income earned years ago from real estate investments. His marriage ended in divorce.
He first raised Kansas City’s eyebrows in 1996 when he offered to pay $100,001 for the federal skyscraper at 911 Walnut St. Lee wanted to turn the structure into a juvenile detention hall.
But he failed to post the required 10 percent deposit — the money, he said, would have to come from Congress. So the federal government rejected the bid.
Lee sued. And lost. A federal appeals court upheld the judgment.
In 2007, Lee expanded his legal targets, suing at once Kansas City school officials, the city’s election board, that year’s mayoral candidates, the city of Raymore, Jackson County and Missouri. Among other things, Lee said his rights were violated because his mayoral write-in votes that year weren’t counted. He also tried to stop the district from closing schools and asked for a grand jury investigation of “fraud.”
Federal Judge Fernando Gaitan wasn’t amused. “It is difficult to decipher from Lee’s complaint exactly what type of relief he is seeking,” he wrote before briskly dismissing the case.
Today Lee defends the lawsuit. “Everybody else is talking about the school district now,” he said. “We already addressed the issue and spent money out of my pocket.”
He tried to join Clay Chastain’s lawsuit seeking to toss James from this year’s ballot for failure to pay some taxes. Lee lost that one, too.
The setbacks in those lawsuits, and others in state court, haven’t deterred Lee from seeking a role in the city’s future. “It’s not ambition,” he said. “It’s a drive and a desire to make a difference.
“I didn’t wake up saying, ‘I want to run,’” he said. “When you’ve got principles and values, there’s no room to compromise.”
The platform written on his notecards is vaguely populist, more aspirational than specific. He’s worried about the city’s racial dividing line, its subsidies for hotels and businesses, its lack of diversity. He wants to re-examine the city’s tax-increment financing program and build a brand new airport outside the city limits. He isn’t sure about expanding the streetcar system.
He thinks he appeals to the city’s ordinary voter, not its civic leadership.
Lee said he’s committed to telling Kansas Citians the truth about their government, but he concedes his rhetoric may interfere with the message.
“When you’re more direct and frank, people have a tendency to take it and put a negative twist on it,” Lee said.
“What’s a great debater?” he asked. “A bigger liar than the other one.”