Justus leads Kansas City mayoral field, but poll shows race is still ‘wide open’

Who will replace Sly James as mayor of Kansas City? Meet the candidates vying for the city’s top job.

Meet the candidates running for mayor of Kansas City.
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Meet the candidates running for mayor of Kansas City.

Just 16 days before Kansas City voters head to the polls for the 2019 mayoral primary, many still don’t know whom they will choose.

That’s the big takeaway from a new poll conducted for The Star by SurveyUSA, an independent, non-partisan firm. The survey of 610 likely voters found 44 percent remain undecided about the 11 candidates vying to succeed Mayor Sly James, who is term-limited after eight years in office.

Nearly three-quarters of those voters are “truly undecided,” meaning they’re not just stuck between two candidates or leaning in a particular direction. They said they have no idea how they’ll vote.

The survey, which has a sampling error of 5.3 percent in either direction, shows Councilwoman Jolie Justus on top with 13 percent. She is the only candidate to draw double digits.

In line behind her, construction attorney Steve Miller, Councilwoman Alissia Canady and Councilman Jermaine Reed have 9, 8, and 7 percent of poll respondents, respectively.

The survey also found likely voters sharply split over whether to impose an additional 3/8-cent sales tax to expand access to pre-K. Forty-seven percent opposed the plan, which is backed by James. About 42 percent said they will support it, and 11 percent are undecided.

With multiple mayoral candidates in play, the race is still “wide open,” said Beth Vonnahme, who chairs the political science department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“I think the biggest problem for the candidates is that they’re appealing to the same type of constituencies, and they’re not able to distinguish themselves,” Vonnahme said.

But she added that the large number of “truly undecided” presents an opportunity for campaigns that can pound the pavement and reach out to voters over the next two weeks.

According to the survey, those undecideds are most likely to be found among women under 50, Hispanics, Republicans and those who make less than $40,000 a year.

The nonpartisan primary is April 2. The two top vote-getters will move on to a June runoff.

SurveyUSA conducted the poll between Feb. 26 and March 13, with both landlines and cell phones, using a mix of live interviews and pre-recorded voice calls. The firm also conducted online polls. The sample is weighted using U.S. Census and voter files to target representative numbers by gender, age and race. The number of respondents using cell phones is also weighted. More details about methodology are available on the final page of the survey.

The poll was completed ahead of James’ endorsement of Justus. In that time, the City Council approved agreements to build a new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport. Justus chairs the committee that worked on the plan.

Justus enjoys outsized support among Democrats, older voters and white and Asian voters. Her supporters also report being “very likely” to vote, liberal and happy with the direction Kansas City is going. Many have four-year degrees and make more than $80,000. They’re split between urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Liz Vostrez, a 36-year-old therapist for children in foster care, said she plans to vote for Justus. She said she appreciated Justus’ work on KCI, transportation and construction, but what drew her to the candidate was their shared interest in the needs of foster and adoptive families. Justus oversees pro bono legal work for law firm Shook, Hardy and Bacon.

“She is my representative in my area, and she is very much a champion for foster families,” Vostrez said.

While the city doesn’t set much policy on child welfare, Vostrez said she thought Justus would advocate on the behalf of families at the state level.

The poll’s findings show that voters view Kansas City at a crossroads. While James continues to enjoy high approval ratings — nearly 60 percent said he had done a good or excellent job as mayor — 42 percent said they wanted his successor to head in another direction. About 41 percent want the next mayor to keep up James’ work, and 17 percent weren’t sure.

Only 28 percent of respondents went so far as to say Kansas City was on the “wrong track.” More than half said it was on the “right track.”

James is campaigning intensively for the pre-K tax, which would generate an estimated $30 million a year, initially to expand the number of seats in quality programs and then offer tuition assistance on a sliding scale.

The proposal draws support from liberals and Democrats, and from those who think Kansas City is on the “right track.” It is also favored by individuals who make less than $40,000 a year, and who would be more likely to qualify for assistance under the plan. Women support the plan in somewhat higher numbers than men, and Asian voters support it in higher numbers than Hispanic, black or white voters.

The proposal is opposed by the city’s 14 school districts, whose superintendents say they don’t like the idea of putting public dollars into private and parochial pre-K classrooms. Just one mayoral candidate, Justus, has voiced support. Most contenders aligned with the local NAACP and Urban League, citing the regressive nature of the sales tax and the burden it places on low-income households.

The poll found likely African-American voters split on the proposal, 41 percent in support and 39 percent opposed. White voters were more negative, disapproving by 50 percent to 42 percent. The program is heavily opposed (71 percent) by voters who see the city on the “wrong track.”

Crime weighed heavily among the concerns of voters. Thirty-five percent said it was the biggest issue facing Kansas City, ahead of infrastructure (17 percent) and schools at (14 percent). Affordable housing, a major topic of campaign-time discussion, was a top priority for just 9 percent of voters.

Doris May, 64, who told pollsters she planned to vote for Councilman Quinton Lucas, 3rd District at-large, is looking to sell her home in the Oak Park neighborhood, where she said random gun violence is far more prevalent than it was when she moved in 18 years ago. She plans to find an apartment on the Kansas side.

“I’m focused on where I am right now, what it used to be, what it’s turned into — is there any way to turn it around before folks like me say, ‘I’m out of here,’” May said.

Poll numbers for the seven other candidates in the race are as follows:

Scott Taylor, councilman, 6th District at-large: 5 percent

Quinton Lucas, councilman, 3rd District at-large: 4 percent

Scott Wagner, councilman, 1st District at-large: 4 percent

Clay Chastain, transportation activist: 2 percent

Phil Glynn, Crossroads businessman: 1 percent

Henry Klein, bank branch manager: 1 percent

Vincent “The General” Lee: 1 percent

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Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.