Is there an outsider? How Justus, Lucas may position themselves in KC mayor’s race

For nearly two decades, Kansas Citians have demanded an outside voice in their mayoral politics, lifting at least one candidate who hasn’t served on the City Council into the runoff for mayor.

Voters dropped that demand Tuesday night.

Two first-term members of the Kansas City Council — Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas — emerged victorious from the city’s nonpartisan primary and will compete in a June 18 runoff to succeed Mayor Sly James. It’s the first time since 1999 that two council members, current or former, have squared off in the general election.

To some, advancing two sitting council members may seem like a vote of confidence in the city’s current leadership. Lucas, however, appears poised to take on the role of the “outside” candidate.

“I’m clearly, of the duo, the outsider,” Lucas said. “If you look at who’s had the closer relationship with the mayor’s office, if you look at fundraising reports or anything of the support, I am someone who has had to build a coalition.”

As she campaigned, Justus said, she heard from voters they didn’t want a drastic change in the city’s current direction. She says Kansas City is “on a roll” but needs to ensure that the success is shared across the city.

“Instead, they wanted experienced leaders who are going to take this city and continue to move it forward, but at the same time have the skill and the knowledge and expertise to really just start to work on some of those systemic issues that have been real problems for our city for decades,” Justus said.

The two have served on the council together for nearly four years and voted the same way on issues ranging from the new soon-to-be-built single terminal at Kansas City International Airport to major development projects. Justus acknowledged the two shared similarities and hopes for the city.

But now that the 11-candidate primary field has been trimmed to a head-to-head general election, Justus and Lucas will be working hard to persuade voters that they offer a clear choice.

Final unofficial results Tuesday night showed Justus first at 22.6 percent — 12,630 votes in all — to Lucas’ 18.4 percent, or 10,287 votes. Councilwoman Alissia Canady’s strong grassroots support gave her a third-place finish with 13.4 percent, or 7,514 votes. Construction attorney Steve Miller trailed her with 12.1 percent — 6,800 votes.

Like many mayoral primaries, Tuesday’s election drew minimal turnout. Just under 56,000 showed up to the polls, or an estimated 17 to 20 percent of registered voters.

Patrick Tuohey, who directs municipal policy at the libertarian Show-Me Institute, said he doubted that Tuesday’s results were a reliable barometer of what Kansas Citians want in a mayor, pointing to the low turnout and plurality victories for Justus and Lucas.

“From my point of view, I think Kansas City...has a lot of work to do,” Tuohey said. “I think we need change, so as I look at these two, I wonder how comfortable either of them will be in running as a change candidate given that they’ve both been there.”

But often, they’ve been on the same side of myriad issues while serving on the council.

They’ve voted the same way on major projects, including an early agreement with developer Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate for the new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport and tax incentives for a proposed Crossroads headquarters for architecture and design firm BNIM, which the company later withdrew.

Both voted to rename The Paseo to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a controversial measure pushed by religious leaders on the city’s east side. Opponents said residents along the street were not properly notified. Canady said repeatedly at campaign forums that the city skirted an ordinance requiring approval from property owners on the street.

Justus said their leadership styles are a key difference. Now that they don’t have to fight nine other candidates to get their messages out, she said, voters will be able to see their distinctions in sharper relief.

“Until then, I think a lot of people are going to be looking at our track records,” Justus said.

While they are both council incumbents, their paths to the 26th floor of City Hall could not have been more different.

Justus is from southwest Missouri, went to Missouri State University and holds a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She served two terms in the state senate, where she led the minority party. It’s rare to hear her speak at length during council debates. She talks, instead, about building consensus.

Lucas grew up on the city’s east side with a single mom and two sisters. He says scholarships made it possible for him to attend the Barstow School, Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell Law School. Although not vocal on every issue, he has delivered impassioned speeches at council sessions on affordable housing, and economic development and the renaming The Paseo for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to cite a few.

Lucas is likely to push his record on reforming tax incentives for development and championing ordinances aimed at spurring more affordable housing development. His personal story growing up poor has also been central to his campaign.

“I think I clearly come from an outsider’s perspective — somebody who grew up in a single-parent home, grew up partially homeless and who still kind of understands that life,” Lucas said.

Canady, who ran a strong grassroots campaign, finished third, ahead of opponents who outspent her by a wide margin. She attributed her success to a campaign that resonated with the interests of voters, but said she wasn’t able to maximize her reach without more funds.

“Oftentimes, candidates are reluctant to have these honest conversations for fear of not getting money for their campaigns, and it’s true. I mean, I experienced it,” Canady said, “but it doesn’t mean that the voters won’t respond to you.”

She said she would be interested to see how Justus and Lucas distinguish themselves.

“I don’t think Kansas City needs to have another black mayor or the gay mayor,” Canady said. “They need a mayor that’s going to respond to the issues that affect Kansas Citians and someone who’s serious about doing their job and not politically positioning themselves for the next opportunity.”

Patrick McInerney, a Democratic attorney, said both Justus and Lucas have appeal outside of their districts and will fight for votes across the city.

“The easy answer is to say, ‘Well, it’s an east side candidate vs. a corridor candidate,’ and that just does not capture this race at all,” McInerney said.

The race, McInerney said, could likely come down to which campaign works harder.

“There’s certainly nobody who’s a lock,” McInerney said. “It’s not David and Goliath — you’ve got two substantial candidates.”

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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.