The race between Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas is growing more heated as the two seek to distinguish themselves from one another less than three weeks ahead of the vote for Kansas City mayor.
As the campaign days dwindle, the two City Council members are sharpening their narratives for voters: Justus as an effective policymaker with a history of leading on big projects and neighborhood issues, Lucas as a City Hall change agent who will provide better basic services.
The two met Thursday night at Ruskin High School in the fourth of six debates hosted by The Star. It followed news that Justus and a political action committee associated with the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council challenged Lucas’ trustworthiness. The PAC, called Carpenters Help in the Political Process, put up a site alleging conflicts of interest on Lucas’ part. Justus’ own campaign site says, “Voters in Kansas City need to know that you just can’t trust Quinton Lucas.”
In the debate, Justus, 4th District, cited a key vote over the single terminal project at Kansas City International Airport. She said Lucas, 3rd District at large, promised he would vote with opponents of a contract with Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate to build the terminal. He ultimately voted with Edgemoor supporters.
“These are tough conversations and I get that,” Justus said, “but if you are going to make a commitment to someone, you need to keep that commitment. If you’re going to tell someone that you’re going to do something, that you’re going to pass a housing policy and you’ve got four years to do it, then you need to do it.”
Justus said she heard from community and business leaders a desire for a mayor who will show up and follow through.
Lucas rebutted by saying this was the first he’d heard from Justus about his trustworthiness.
“She’s never told me before that I’m untrustworthy and some god awful public servant,” Lucas said.
He said wouldn’t run a negative campaign against Justus, although he went on to question the transparency of some decisions she has made.
In the debate, Lucas didn’t dispute the account of his KCI vote. But he said in an interview last week that he made no promises to council colleagues in advance of the Feb. 2018 approval of a memorandum of understanding with Edgemoor. He went on to say Thursday night that his job was to look out for taxpayers. He questioned Justus’ initial support for a no-bid contract that would have allowed Burns & McDonnell to build the new KCI terminal.
The project went through a competitive bidding process after push back from the council and public. Maryland-based Edgemoor is the developer.
“If we’re talking about saying one thing and doing another, “ Lucas said, “it’s another bad idea to then kind of change your mind in the procurement process so one day it’s a no-bid contract, two weeks later it’s a right-of-first-refusal, four weeks later it’s some new convoluted process.”
He added that all of it was “kind of secretive, nontransparent, not in the best interest of what the voters want.”
Justus has since said she should have lobbied harder for a competitive process when Burns & McDonnell first came forward.
After the debate, Justus addressed the charges the carpenters PAC made against Lucas. She said it was “discouraging” that he didn’t vote for ethics reforms proposed last year by Councilman Scott Taylor, 6th District at-large, and that she would support similar measures as mayor.
She didn’t take issue with Lucas over his acceptance of contributions for a 3rd District Holiday party from companies that bid on city business—another claim of interest conflict made by the PAC. She said she has seen other elected officials take philanthropic gifts for constituent services.
She did object to a no-bid contract he sponsored for outside law firms to scrutinize the airport terminal deal after the city began considering a no-bid contract with Burns & McDonnell. The carpenters PAC accused Lucas of giving the business to his former employer, Wilmer Hale, and accepting donations from the firm. Lucas was an intern at the firm in 2008.
Justus said had she known that when she voted in favor of the contracts, she would have scrutinized them more closely. But she stopped short of saying he had committed an ethical violation.
Lucas drew audience support when he said City Hall needed to be more responsive to the basic needs of voters. He called for a state audit of the city’s water department, which, according to a recent city audit, installed numerous malfunctioning meters despite knowledge they were inaccurate.
He objected to a proposed bike plan that lays out up to $400 million in suggested infrastructure improvements. The plan provides a road map, but the council would have to approve the funds.
“If you’ve heard a theme from me today, it really is not that we need more money from you. We just need to deliver what we said we were going to do.”
Justus, who has frequently told campaign audiences that Kansas City is on a roll, acknowledges there is room for improvement in areas of economic development and basic city services. She says she has a history of “showing up, following through (and) getting things done.”
In her platform, she promises to make City Hall more accessible to voters by holding office hours, scheduling council meetings at more convenient times and providing child care to Kansas Citians who come to speak on issues.
The two also sparred over their voting records on economic development incentives. Lucas sponsored an ordinance to cap the level of tax incentives or abatements developers can receive at 75 percent. Justus voted against that proposal.
Lucas noted the high school where he and Justus debated sits in the Hickman Mills School District, which is suffering financially, in part, because of a mistake made when Cerner was granted incentives to build a campus in the area that resulted in lower tax bills for the company.
“What that (development) was supposed to lead to was sunshine and roses, lots of things,” Lucas said. “What it is leading to right now for us is some real pain – pain for the school children, pain for our communities.”
Both Lucas and Justus promised a shakeup on the boards and commissions that recommend economic development projects to the City Council for approval.
Justus said economic development incentives have helped revitalize some areas of the city, but she said she supports reforms.
“We can’t just keep incentivizing bricks and mortar. We have to be incentivizing job creation,” Justus said. “We have to be incentivizing transportation and the way we connect these new jobs and that we’re providing affordable housing.”
Both candidates are opposed to a proposed 50 percent cap on all incentives that provides no exceptions. The sweeping initiative will appear on the June 18 ballot along with the mayoral and council races.
The two will face off in two more debates before the June 18 election — June 8 at noon at the Northland Cathedral, and June 9 at 2 p.m. at Unity Temple on the Country Club Plaza.
An earlier version of this article did not mention Lucas’ earlier dispute of negative claims about his vote on the KCI terminal project. It has been updated.