The election night optics were hard to ignore.
From the stage of the Royal Room in Briarcliff, Mayor Sly James carefully spread his thank-yous for success of the KCI ballot issue throughout the jubilant crowd of business, civic and political figures.
But just one person was at James’ side: Councilwoman and 2019 mayoral candidate Jolie Justus, who introduced him. Lined up in the background, outside the spotlight, were six of her council colleagues, four of them either announced or likely mayoral contenders.
Justus’ high profile underscores the view at City Hall that the former two-term state senator is James’ successor of choice when he leaves office in the summer of 2019.
Since drafting her to chair his newly formed airport committee in 2015, she has been at the center of his chaotic and at times secretive quest for a new single terminal at KCI.
At first glance it is an unlikely partnership. Justus, 46, grew up in Branson and in 2006 became the Missouri Senate’s first openly gay member. James, 65, is a former Marine MP raised at 44th and Montgall on the city’s east side.
She’s a vegetarian who dabbles in mixology. He likes his steaks medium rare followed by a good single-malt scotch.
Unfailingly poised and even-tempered, Justus likes to say: “I was raised in the Ozark Mountains by Republicans. I can get along with anybody.” James is famously prickly.
On a council dominated by ambitious first-termers, where deference to the two-term incumbent James is in short supply, he’s built a bridge to Justus.
“They kind of feed off each other’s energies,” said City Manager Troy Schulte, who finds far less tension around his conference table when Justus is among the council members there with the mayor.
“He likes her and he sees her as a go-to individual who is supportive of what he’s trying to get accomplished for the city. They’re natural allies in that respect.”
Justus also appears to be inheriting James’ campaign infrastructure. When she started fund raising in September, she turned to the mayor’s money man, Tom Keating. She’s had informal discussions with political consultant Mark Nevins of the Dover Group, who headed both of James’ mayoral runs along with the successful recent elections on general obligation bonds and KCI.
Justus and James discourage discussion of the political future.
“I’m not getting into who’s going to be the next mayor,” said James, who has nearly two years left in office. “Everybody and their mother is running for my job, and I don’t have time to mess with it.”
Justus said she is neither seeking nor does she expect James’ endorsement.
“Absolutely not,” she said over breakfast recently near her Longfellow home. “I don’t even ask those questions because I’ve been in that position, of being the outgoing person and someone comes and says, ‘Will you support me?’ You can’t do that.”
The field of candidates is already elbow-to-elbow and likely to grow: Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Wagner, council members Jermaine Reed and Scott Taylor, Crossroads businessman Phil Glynn and Stephen Miller, former chair of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. Unannounced but seriously considering the race are Councilman Quinton Lucas and state Sen. Ryan Silvey.
James enjoys good relations with most of them, especially Wagner, his official No. 2. Last year he endorsed the re-election of Silvey, a Northland Republican he’s worked closely with on state issues.
The council’s other mayoral contenders were reluctant to say much for the record about the Justus-James partnership. Wagner, as mayor pro-tem and chair of the finance and governance committee, said he’s been as much of a mainstay for James as Justus.
“I would say people have accused the same thing related to me,” Wagner said. “The mayor has his relationships and they will all be unique relationships.”
Reed, who with Justus represented the council on the KCI terminal selection committee that recommended Edgemoor for the project, campaigned hard for the airport ballot question on the east side. He said he expects to be mayor when the ribbon on the new terminal is cut in 2021.
“I don’t necessarily have thoughts about other people’s relationships with other individuals,” he said.
“I’m just focused on what I’m working on,” said Taylor, whose $363,000 campaign war chest is the largest by far among the declared candidates.
Justus benefits from James’ affinity for women in key roles. Earlier this month the Womens Foundation, a non-profit, honored James for his work in empowering women and increasing their presence on city boards and commissions.
City Hall observers said Justus plays a role similar to that of his first-term mayor pro-tem, former Councilwoman Cindy Circo. Joni Wickham, formerly his director of public affairs, has been chief of staff since 2014.
They are usually on the same page, but not always. James fought against the generous wage package for firefighters that Justus and a council majority supported in 2015. In the end, James voted for it.
Part of their connection is a tough-love dynamic that allows for push back.
“I think part of it is I am comfortable telling him when I think he is doing a good job and closing the door and asking him if he’s lost his mind,” she told The Star’s Katy Bergen last month on Beer Hour.
Asked for an example of closed-door candor, Justus said James needed to be pushed to ask for help in selling the single-terminal plan. “I said, ‘Look, when you’re a leader sometimes you have to call folks and say ‘I need you to do this for me,’” Justus said.
There are other more social occasions that bring the two together. Justus and her partner Lucy Bardwell were in the audience at Knuckleheads in September when James sang a set with a band led by Wickham’s husband.
But by and large, Justus said, their friendship stays within the confines of politics and governance.
“I think there’s this perception that he and I spend all our spare time together and we just don’t,” Justus said. “A lot of people say ‘Your buddy Sly’ and I say yeah he’s my buddy. But we don’t have that really intense, texting each other at night that sort of thing.”
Plum assignment or lead weight?
After her election to the council in 2015, Justus met with James to discuss committee assignments.
“He said, ‘Hey kid, what do you want to work on?’” Justus recalled on election night. She was eager to dig into social and economic justice issues that were difficult to address in Jefferson City because of the huge Republican majority. She’d do anything, she said, except the airport.
But James insisted, passing over more seasoned council members, like former Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields, to hand her what he knew would be a politically thorny undertaking.
“I didn’t make any friends appointing her to the airport committee, but I wanted somebody who came in with an open mind,” James said. “And that was hard to find on this council.”
Perhaps too open. Justus attended the now-infamous private meeting last March at the members-only River Club, where she joined James and Schulte to hear from Burns & McDonnell executives about a $1 billion no-bid contract to build the new air terminal.
She seemed to have expected the process to unfold differently. In November 2016 she assured a Rotary Club luncheon:
“If we as a city decide we want a new airport, then the city will issue an RFP (request for proposals), RFQ (request for qualifications), an RFI (request for information) or whatever,” she said. “And we will have the designers, the engineers and the architects bid.”
Justus instead joined James and Schulte in attempting to bypass the RFP process to boost the Kansas City-based company. She said that in the absence of interest from other firms, it was appropriate to bring the Burns & McDonnell proposal to the council.
But without an RFP, the city had no real idea of who might have been interested.
When the plan collapsed under heavy criticism, turning into a messy and contentious competitive bidding process, it was usually Justus who stepped in front of the microphones to answer questions. She was the subject of an ethics complaint — quickly ruled meritless by the city attorney — because her law firm represented Burns & McDonnell in litigation over problems with their work on the Branson airport.
What started as a plum mayoral assignment threatened to turn into career lead weight. In the end, however, voters were more interested in a new airport than City Hall sausage making. But Justus said she’ll never put herself in a similar position.
“Obviously from this point forward if anyone comes to the city with a big idea, I say ‘OK we need to issue an RFP,’” she said.
The relationship began well before their City Hall days, when both were relative outsiders in local Democratic politics.
In 2006 Justus, who directs pro bono services at Shook Hardy & Bacon, was cold calling attorneys, trying to raise money for her first senate campaign. Most of the messages she left went unreturned. James invited her to the small office he shared with two younger lawyers at 802 Broadway.
He said it may have been a cold call for her, but he knew she was running. He said he admired her pro bono work for children and advocacy of other issues he was interested in. He wrote her a check on the spot.
Justus supported him in his 2011 mayoral campaign, where his general election opponent, Councilman Michael Burke, was endorsed by three former mayors, Charles Wheeler, Richard Berkley and Kay Barnes.
They worked together on several issues in the senate, including “angel” investment tax credits for start-ups and anti-gun laws. After she was term-limited out of her seat, James endorsed her council run.
James’ political handlers say his voter approval rating is soaring right now, north of 70 percent. But favorability can melt away rapidly, and the close association with a two-term incumbent of dwindling popularity could be a disadvantage.
“I can’t worry about those things,” Justus said. “I have to think about what I think is best. There will be days when I have to vote against him. There will be days when I have to vote with him.”