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Cleaver wins, proclaims ‘new era’

DATE OF EVENT: Tuesday, March 26, 1991

DATE PUBLISHED: Wednesday, March 27, 1991, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: A dozen years earlier, Bruce R. Watkins had failed in his bid to become the city’s first black mayor. In defeat, he reflected, saying it may take “a different color to win.” By 1991, times had changed. Councilman Emanuel Cleaver, a longtime activist, defeated Bob Lewellen to become Kansas City’s first black mayor.

Emanuel Cleaver, bolstered by strong support in the core of the city, was elected mayor of Kansas City on Tuesday, defeating fellow councilman Bob Lewellen.

“This is not a Cleaver victory. This is a Kansas City victory,” Cleaver told supporters Tuesday night. “The election is over, and Kansas City is beginning a new era. That era includes every single human being who lives in Kansas City.”

Cleaver, a three-term city councilman, becomes the first black mayor of Kansas City, which is about 70 percent white. He will be sworn in April 10, along with 12 council members, most of them newcomers. …

Cleaver defeated Lewellen by a 9-to-1 margin in the city’s 10 wards that are dominated by black residents. But he held his own in some mostly white wards, losing big only in the Northeast area, the Northland and far south.

Cleaver pledged in his victory speech to fulfill campaign promises of progress and harmony.

Lewellen was upbeat in defeat.

“No grim faces,” Lewellen told about 150 supporters. “It’s not the end of the world.”

Cleaver, a 5th District councilman since 1979, had never won a citywide race before his first-place finish in the Feb. 26 primary, but he is well known.

“We campaigned the length and breadth of this city,” said Luther Washington, Cleaver’s political director. “Emanuel is a special kind of candidate. He is one of the few who can bridge all the parts of a diverse city.”

Mayor Richard L. Berkley, who did not seek a fourth term, said he wasn’t surprised by the Cleaver win.

“It’s a reflection of the support he’s developed in his 12 years on the City Council,” Berkley said.

Voters who backed Cleaver said they liked his record as a councilman.

“I thought that he responded to the needs of Kansas City very well, and I figured he could build on that as mayor,” Eli Wheeler, a minister on the East Side, said as he voted Tuesday.