Missouri Democrat Jason Kander is laying the groundwork for a run to succeed Sly James as mayor of Kansas City, The Kansas City Star has learned.
In a strong sign that Kander is serious about entering the race, he called former Kansas City mayor Emanuel Cleaver in the past few days to tell him he was running, a source familiar with the conversation said. Cleaver, a Democrat, now serves as the congressman for Kansas City in the U.S. House of Representatives.
A Kander candidacy would drastically change the dynamic of a crowded mayoral race — it also would put to rest rumors that Kander would run for president in 2020.
A spokesman for Kander said Thursday morning he had no announcement to make yet, but several sources said Kander could officially launch his mayor bid as early as next week.
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"As he has been over the past few months, Jason is deciding how he can best serve," said Abe Rakov, Kander's former campaign manager and executive director of his nonprofit, Let America Vote.
Kander is an Army veteran and a former Missouri secretary of state who served two terms in the Missouri House. In 2016, he narrowly lost a senate race against Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in an election year that strongly favored Republicans. He has spent the last two years out of office building his profile as a voting rights advocate and rising star on the national Democratic scene.
In Democratic circles, buzz increased this year that Kander might make a run for the presidency, speculation stoked by staff hirings in Iowa — the state that traditionally hosts the first presidential caucus — and Kander's continued public appearances across the county. This month he was in New Hampshire, where the first presidential primary is usually held.
Most Democrats never considered Kander a top-tier contender, pointing instead to sitting U.S. senators like Kamala Harris or former Vice President Joe Biden. But in a crowded field — dozens of Democrats are said to be eyeing a 2020 candidacy — Kander allies said they thought his charisma and youth gave him a chance despite his relatively thin resume.
Bob Mulholland, a California-based Democratic strategist, said Kander may have realized a successful White House bid in 2020 wasn’t very realistic.
"It’s very easy to get halfway up Mt. Everest," Mulholland said. "To get to the top — i.e. the White House — you need a lot of oxygen tanks, and most candidates find the tanks are empty for them."
Presidential hopefuls often find it more difficult than anticipated to raise the massive amounts of money, support and name ID necessary to win their party’s nomination, much less the presidency itself, Mulholland said.
“And most people running for president are governor or former governors,” he pointed out. The highest office Kander held was secretary of state, Missouri’s top election official. "For people to break through is tough."
Josh Earnest, a former press secretary for President Barack Obama, said Kander's interest in running for mayor is consistent with the message Kander has been sending to young people in his travels around the country: Seize the opportunity to make changes in your own communities.
"Sometimes when think about wanting to make an impact on the world, it can be overwhelming because you're not sure where to start, and the case he's made when talking to groups of young people is start in your own back yard," he said. "So a move like this seems consistent when you look at some of what he's been saying publicly."
Earnest, a Kansas City native, was a founding member of the advisory board for Kander's voting rights nonprofit, Let America Vote. He told The Star he had not spoken to Kander about his decision to run for mayor, but noted the Democratic presidential field in 2020 will be a crowded one.
"There can only be one Democratic nominee so from that perspective that's a risk," Earnest said.
Serving as mayor, Earnest said, would put Kander closest to where the problems are.
"And the upside of that is you're often in the best position to solve problems that people experience in their everyday life," he said. "The downside of that is mayors often get blamed for problems that's outside their power to solve."
For that reason, running for mayor of any city primarily as a political stepping stone is a bad political strategy, Earnest said. "So that's why I doubt (a stepping stone) is what he had in mind," Earnest said.
But Douglas Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said running for mayor would be a smart move if Kander does have White House aspirations down the road. Heye served as senior adviser to the Iowa Republican Party in 2012.
If Kander wins and can serve successfully as mayor, “it can give him a platform to talk about the things he wants to talk about," Heye said.
"I tend to be very biased towards mayors," he said. "They’re doers. Trash collection isn’t partisan. Potholes aren’t partisan. Mayors are there to fix problems. That’s a smart place to occupy as you’re trying to build a national profile."
There will be people who are skeptical of Kander's intentions, Heye said, and accuse him of using the mayor's office as a stepping stone to higher office. He said it's important that Kander "remain vigilant and focus on the community."
So far, eight candidates have declared their intention to run for mayor, five of whom are existing Kansas City Council members. None are clear leaders so far ahead of an April 2019 primary election.
Kander was a popular representative of a Missouri House District that covered much of Brookside before winning a statewide office in 2012. He would have instant name recognition among the current field.
"People in Kansas City know Jason to be a hard worker with a lot of energy and a passion for service," said Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat who previously held the same seat in the Missouri House that Kander represented for four years. "If he decides to get in the race, I'd think he would likely be the early front runner."
Mayoral candidates reached by The Star on Thursday morning questioned Kander's intentions.
Scott Wagner, mayor pro tem who is running for mayor after two terms on the Kansas City Council, said he had no intentions of leaving the race after hearing the Kander news.
"Why would I?" Wagner said. "When I decided to run, I wasn't worried about who was going to be in the race. It was because I have a plan for the city."
Wagner hit on themes that will likely emerge in a mayoral race that includes Kander: Name identification and national profile are all well and good, but that's different from having fluency and vision for municipal government.
"The reality is that being mayor is not about being state rep, it's not about being a candidate for the Senate," Wagner said. "It's about how you fill potholes and pick up the trash."
Wagner faces term limits and cannot run for another term on the Kansas City Council. That also holds true for Scott Taylor and Jermaine Reed, both mayoral candidates.
Alissa Canady, a 5th District council member who two weeks ago announced a run for mayor, is in her first term and could run to keep her seat if she wished. That is also the case for Jolie Justus, a 4th District councilwoman running for mayor.
Canady said she had no intention of leaving the mayor's race.
"I stated why I am running," Canady said. "I think those things exist whether Kander gets in or not."
Canady said she was running to support basic services and social services like mental health care, rather than catering to developers and other powerful influences at City Hall.
Canady did point out, however, one implication of having a high-profile candidate like Kander in the race.
"I've got to raise more money," Canady said. "That's about it. I think as far as my message, that doesn't change."
Justus has been considered a top contender to succeed James, with whom she has had a good working relationship since she was elected to the city council in 2015. As a first-term councilwoman, she can stick with the mayor's race or could look to keep her council seat, where she's been a popular council member since leaving the Missouri Senate.
If Justus decided to run to keep her 4th District seat, that would affect a race that is filling up with candidates who had anticipated that Justus was running for mayor. Candidates in the 4th District include Jared Campbell, Geoffrey Jolley and Matt Staub.
"I am a huge Jason fan, but this seems like a move for the highest-profile office he thinks he can grab," Staub wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning. "He's not been a real presence in the KC community for awhile while other candidates have been focused on city issues for years. Not sure what to think of this."
Kander did not respond to a message seeking comment, and he has not formed an official campaign committee with the Missouri Ethics Commission.