As he toured the tiny home village for veterans just off of Troost Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke left no doubt what brought him to town.
“I’m here because of Jason Kander,” said the former congressman from Texas. “He’s someone who has been inspiring for me. His lead is one that I’ve wanted to follow.”
Kander, 38, hasn’t held elected office since January 2017, when his term as Missouri Secretary of State expired. He fell just short of unseating Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in 2016. He was the odds-on favorite to be Kansas City’s next mayor before he abruptly dropped from public view last year to focus on treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
And yet, in the month since he took a leadership position with Veterans Community Project, a trio of Democratic presidential hopefuls – South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton and O’Rourke – have made the trek to Kansas City.
“I think it’s safe to say these presidential candidates aren’t coming to Kansas City to get an early jump on the Missouri primary,” said Jack Cardetti, a longtime Missouri Democratic strategist who worked on Kander’s campaigns for secretary of state and U.S. Senate.
“They’re coming here because they like and respect the work Jason Kander is doing. Jason Kander is the type of young Democrat candidates want to associate with.”
Kander said he expects more contenders in the months ahead, although he demurred when asked who was on the guest list.
“The reason we have interest from folks all over the country, including those running for president, is what we are doing here is really spectacular and a model for the rest of the country,” he told The Star after O’Rourke’s tour of the tiny homes near 89th Street and Troost. Homeless veterans can live there rent-free as they receive help finding permanent housing and jobs, along with any medical care they need.
“I’m always excited to show this place off to people,” he said. “I’ve shown it off to friends and family. It’s also fun to show it off to people running for president.”
Before he launched his short-lived mayoral campaign, Kander explored the idea of running for president himself. But even though “I have a personal relationship with the folks who are,” he hasn’t made any overtures to lure candidates to Kansas City.
Instead, they’ve sought him out.
“The folks who have come here, each of them individually reached out to me,” he said, adding “I’m honored they thought this place was so impressive.”
Kander was considered the front-runner in the 2019 race for Kansas City mayor. But last October he stunned the local political community with a message on his campaign website and Facebook page, revealing that in the 11 years since leaving Afghanistan as an Army intelligence officer, he has experienced depression, nightmares and suicidal thoughts.
Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic consultant, said Kander “had a lot of fans up here,” and that the forthright public discussion of his recent challenges has only added to his stature in that critical early presidential state, where he also ran his voting rights non-profit, Let America Vote.
“He’s handled it with class and grace, and that’s why so many people are wanting to help him out in his new endeavor,” Link said, adding that if he were running a campaign, “I’d invite (Kander) to come campaign in Iowa, certainly some of these other Midwestern states as well.”
It’s also no coincidence that several ex-Kander aides have landed senior positions with 2020 candidates. Long-time adviser Abe Rakov is O’Rourke’s early states director. Jason Noble and Brendan Summers of Let America Vote are, respectively, Iowa communications director and director of state and delegate strategy for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
For his part, presidential politics is not Kander’s focus. He is dedicating his energy to Veterans Community Project, and expanding the work it does across the country.
If a few visiting presidential contenders further that mission, all the better.
“Everyone who sees this place, no matter who they are, a corporate partner, my aunt, it doesn’t matter,” Kander said. “Anyone who sees this place, they walk away saying I want one of these in my community.”
O’Rourke left convinced, calling the project, “a model for the country.”
“They ask two questions when you walk in the door. One, did you serve this country. Two, do you need help,” he said. “That’s all it takes to qualify for housing or for care or for help. That’s how this country should treat every single veteran.”