Government & Politics

Kander confirms bid for Kansas City mayor in a move already shaking up the ballot

Jason Kander
Jason Kander File photo

Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state whose growing nationwide profile as a Democrat led to speculation about his presidential ambitions, confirmed on Sunday his unexpected decision to run for mayor of Kansas City.

Kander is planning a formal announcement of his candidacy to succeed Kansas City Mayor Sly James later on Monday morning. The Star reported last week that Kander was considering a run for mayor and that he was likely to announce his decision early this week.

"I want to make sure that no matter where you live in the city and however you grow up, you have a chance to build your life right here," Kander said in an interview with The Star on Sunday. "Whether it's because of a job, education, crime, housing or infrastructure, we all know that Kansas City is at its best when people don't have to move from one part of the city to another or out of town altogether to live the life they want and deserve."

Kander's decision to run for mayor had an immediate impact on the 2019 ballot.

Jolie Justus, a 4th District councilwoman who was widely seen as a strong contender among the growing field of mayoral aspirants, confirmed on Sunday that she will instead run for re-election to her council seat.

Justus was initially caught off guard when she learned that Kander was considering a mayoral bid. Justus announced her intention to run for mayor last year. Now she will run against a field of candidates who filed to run for her seat with the expectation she would be vying for mayor. That field includes Jared Campbell, Geoffrey Jolley and Matt Staub.

"When I first learned he was interested, I was surprised like everyone else. To say I was not disappointed, yeah, I was disappointed," Justus told The Star on Sunday. "After I had an opportunity to think about what's most important to the city and what's most important to me and my family, it didn't take long to come to the conclusion that I want Kansas City to keep moving forward, and this was the best path to do that."

Justus said she and Kander would have drawn on similar bases of voters, donors and campaign volunteers.

"The only way that I would have been able to differentiate myself from that is, I think, not going negative, but it might have been divisive, I believe," Justus said.

Justus is now backing Kander's candidacy for mayor. Kander's campaign announcement includes endorsements from former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes, Missouri House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, businesswoman CiCi Rojas and current Kansas City council members Kevin McManus and Teresa Loar.

Kander's mayoral candidacy comes as a surprise, as he has often been pegged to ambitions for higher public office. He served two terms in the Missouri House before serving one term as Missouri secretary of state. In 2016, Kander gave Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a close run for U.S. Senate in a year when Republicans otherwise pummeled Democrats up and down the federal and statewide ballot.

Kander then formed Let America Vote, a voting rights advocacy nonprofit. Speculation about Kander's 2020 presidential ambitions abounded on the news in April that he had hired Des Moines Register political reporter Jason Noble as national communications strategist for Let America Vote. Politico interpreted Noble's hiring as a means to gain an inroad into Iowa's largest newspaper and an expansion of Kander's presence in a state that holds the nation's first presidential caucus.

On Sunday, Kander waved off talks about higher political office.

"While running Let America Vote, I was also considering the best way to serve," Kander said. "Obviously, I was flattered by all the different ideas that people had for me. But the whole time I was thinking about how to impact my community most and whether that was in public office."

The 2019 mayor's race, he said, was an opportunity to serve Kansas City, "particularly at a time when I think it's real important that we have somebody who can continue the progress that's been built."

News of Kander's interest in City Hall drew speculation from other local political aspirants about whether Kander would treat the mayor's office as a stepping stone for a higher political calling.

Asked about that criticism, Kander said that if elected, he would seek two terms, the limit for municipal officeholders in Kansas City.

"If I do a good enough job, if the voters of Kansas City will have me, I would hope to serve another term as well," he said.

Other mayoral candidates questioned Kander's fluency in municipal governance.

"The reality is that being mayor is not about being state rep, it's not about being a candidate for the Senate," Kansas City councilman Scott Wagner said last week. "It's about how you fill potholes and pick up the trash."

Others wondered whether Kander would keep up his national political profile in office.

Quinton Lucas, a Kansas City councilman who on Saturday made his bid for mayor official, said Friday that Kander would find that serving in Kansas City is "not like going to steak dinners in New Hampshire."

Kander said he spent time in the Missouri General Assembly working on Kansas City issues, including local control of the Kansas City Police Department, transit funding, sorting out the use of economic incentives to attract businesses back and forth between Missouri and Kansas, and other local issues.

"I got more votes than anybody else on the ballot in Kansas City in 2016," Kander said. "People here know that I've always worked very hard for them."

On policy issues, Kander reiterated his support for Kansas City municipal government obtaining local control of the Police Department. The Kansas City Council sets the department's budget, but its governance board is populated by the Missouri governor's appointees.

Kansas City is the only large city in the country that does not control its own police department.

"Kansas City deserves local control of its police department. Jefferson City has no business controlling our police force, and it needs to end," Kander said. "It's unfair and doesn't make any sense."

On housing policies, Kander said developers should be encouraged to create more affordable rental apartments, particularly if they receive incentives or tax abatements from City Hall.

"We absolutely should demand equity and inclusion when developers ask for help," Kander said.

Kander also emphasized racial and gender equity in city contracts and programs, creating access to grocery stores and banks on the East Side, improving infrastructure and adding lights to poorly lit streets.

Kander is the ninth candidate for mayor. He joins Lucas, Wagner, councilwoman Alissia Canady, councilman Scott Taylor, councilman Jermaine Reed, attorney Stephen Miller, businessman Phil Glynn and Rita Berry.