With less than a month until Kansas City’s general election, the two mayoral candidates stepped up critiques of each other’s records Monday night, trading barbs over who can best deliver on promises of more affordable housing, racial equity and increased government transparency.
Over the course of a 90-minute debate at Rockhurst University, Council members Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas unveiled lines of attack that had emerged only indirectly in previous encounters.
Lucas depicted Justus, a former two-term state senator, as too interested in how state and federal lawmakers might help the city and less compelled to find solutions locally. Justus characterized Lucas as more comfortable opining on social media than following through on legislation.
She repeatedly promised that she would “show up,” punching the phrase in a way clearly meant to convey that Lucas was not reliable or trustworthy.
Justus, 4th District, noted that portions of an ambitious housing agenda Lucas introduced last fall remain in the council committee system. While she didn’t specify the measures, one she was likely referring to was Lucas’ proposal to require apartment developers to set aside 15 percent of new units with rents within reach of residents making below the city’s median household income.
“He has been chair of the (council) housing committee for four years,” Justus said. “You have to make sure that you show up and get things done. ... You have to have someone who’s not just tweeting, not just talking but who follows through.”
Lucas, 3rd District at large, said that while Justus claims an interest in housing policy, she attended none of the community meetings he held on the issue last year. He pointed to legislation he has shepherded to passage, including caps on tax incentives for developers and tighter controls over spending the city manager can initiate without council authorization.
“Time and time again, I’ve led on substantive policy issues,” Lucas said.
As for his use of social media, Lucas had no apologies for trying to get the word out about his work.
“Sometimes you put it on Facebook and tweet about it because you want people to hear about it,” he said.
The debate was the third in a series of six sponsored or co-sponsored by The Star, one in each council district. Rockhurst is located in the 5th District.
Asked by Star editorial writer Toriano Porter how each would bring more racial equity to city government, Justus said she would work to ensure that “everybody is represented” in appointments to boards and commissions.
Lucas countered that it was all well and good to have city boards where “we have people who look different,” but that real equity comes from pursuing policies toward that end.
Justus emphasized her experience as a pro bono attorney and state senator who led a bi-partisan effort to revise the state’s criminal code. The measure eliminated sentences for some non-violent drug crimes and felonies.
She said her work had contributed to the decline in the state’s prison population.
“Everyone is saying it’s because we did those things in Jeff City,” Justus said.
An April report by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent research non-profit, said the prison population nationally is at a nine-year low. While violent crime is up in Missouri, Vera said, state prison officials credit the 2014 law, which took effect in 2017, for reducing the prison population last year from about 32,000 to 30,000.
Lucas, in response, said: “Our best solutions for problems in Kansas City are best found in Kansas City. I don’t want to rely on Jefferson City for the important policy decisions we have.”
Asked about the biggest mistakes they made in public life, Justus acknowledged that hers was in the early stages of the single terminal project at Kansas City International Airport. Justus, who headed the council’s airport committee, has been criticized for her role in entertaining a $1 billion non-bid proposal from Burns & McDonnell.
She said he if she had the chance to do it again, she’d have pushed to open the process to all bidders from the beginning.
“I learned a lot from that,” Justus said. “Because of that I know I’ll be a better mayor.”
Lucas deflected the question, talking not about any direct action he took but expressing in more general terms his regret for not having devoted more time to reducing violent crime.
Other issues covered by the candidates:
Housing: The issue was a hot-button throughout the evening. Members of KC Tenants, a newly formed group advocating for safe, affordable housing and a greater voice in forming policy, heckled and interrupted the candidates, demanding that they be allowed to ask questions.
They were rebuffed by the debate co-sponsors, The Star and Fox 4, who established a format that featured one panel of journalists another of 5th District community representatives and written questions from the audience.
Asked about instituting rent control, both candidates noted that it was barred by state law. Justus drew applause when she promised a “tenants bill of rights.” Lucas said the best way to control rents was not to public withhold incentives to developers who build only high-end housing.
Taxes: Both avoided categorical statements about hikes or cuts. Each said their priority would be finding a way to spend existing revenues more wisely. Justus noted that the petition process in the city makes it too easy to place proposed taxes on the ballot.