Neither pushover nor agitator: How Jolie Justus would govern as Kansas City mayor

Jolie Justus acknowledges her role in the politically fraught proposal to build a new Kansas City International Airport terminal through a no-bid contract, which kicked the project off on its much-criticized path.

“It set a tone for everything else relating to the airport process,” she said. “The dominoes just started falling after that, and it didn’t have to be that way.”

Looking back, the first-term councilwoman said there are things she should have done differently.

Justus, who chairs the City Council Airport Committee, said she should have pressed Mayor Sly James and supporters harder to move forward with the idea in 2016, when polling showed it to be politically unpopular because of the cost, even though tax funds would not be used.

And when Burns & McDonnell first approached the city about a no-bid deal to build the new terminal, she said she should have pushed back, insisting from the start on an open competition for the job.

The mistakes have earned her a drubbing from campaign opponent Quinton Lucas and some other council colleagues, who questioned the strength of her committee leadership.

But Justus, 48, also sees her work on KCI as a strength. For voters, it offers a window into how she intends to govern if elected on June 18th.

“At the end of the day, I am incredibly proud of that because when we saw something was wrong, we addressed it,” she said. “When we hit a brick wall, we turned and started working in a different direction.”

Justus said the airport is part of a larger record of tackling “really intractable problems” and following through with solutions. That includes fighting for Democratic priorities during two terms in a Republican-dominated state Senate and finding ways to improve the city’s neighborhoods.

She points to a history of collaborating and building coalitions to shape policy, a skill set needed to govern effectively in Kansas City’s form of government, where the mayor has few executive powers and needs a majority council vote to push through legislation.

Those traits won praise from her Jefferson City allies and opponents alike, who described her as pleasant and gracious — but also formidable.

“All the skills that made my life difficult, she has,” said Sam Lee, a Missouri anti-abortion activist and director of Campaign Life Missouri. “And I say that with the greatest respect.”

‘I don’t care how big the problem is’

As a Democrat in a state legislature dominated by Republicans, Justus needed the majority party to get anything done. Those who worked with her said she cultivated relationships across the aisle, both to limit Republican inroads on issues such as abortion rights and to boost Democratic priorities. One she cited was a child care assistance program she spent four years working to pass.

It required patience and persistence, Justus said, recalling one Republican male colleague who opposed the initiative because he believed that women should stay home with their children.

“He stood up and said that, and I lost it,” she said, but was able to retain Republican support for the program.

She said, “You have to have someone who can stand up in the face of that and still push forward changes that are going to protect the people of the state and city.”

In 2014, Justus similarly had to bring together parties with often conflicting interests — criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and victim advocates — to revise the criminal code. As written, it was cumbersome, confusing and had duplicate definitions for numerous offenses.

One day librarians came to the Statehouse to urge legislators not to decriminalize stealing library books. Justus said she told them that would still be illegal under theft laws but wouldn’t have its own definition.

“I kid you not, every day there was some new thing, and the fact that I was able to work with the most conservative Republicans in the state of Missouri and get that through was one example of how — I don’t care how big the problem is,” Justus said. “We can get to something that’s going to work if you just don’t stop pushing for these things.”

David Pearce, a two-term Republican senator from Warrensburg, called her a “consensus builder.”

“She certainly was not a pushover,” Pearce said. “She stood for what she believed in, but at the same time understood how to work with the majority party.”

Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who served alongside Justus in the Senate, said through a spokesman she was “incredibly hard working and had a very collaborative style.” Schmitt stopped short of endorsing Justus.

But Jefferson City is not Kansas City. Coming from the Statehouse to City Hall, Justus has had to adapt to a faster-moving and more politically fluid environment.

Council members run in non-partisan races for a body that is not organized by majority and minority party membership. While nearly all 13 members are Democrats, the council’s legislative process provides fewer guaranteed friends — or enemies. That dynamic, trying to assemble a majority of individuals who don’t vote according to party label, is different, she said.

“With labels aside, on every single issue, you can go out and build a coalition to get something done,” Justus said.

Coming to the council, that ability to push through proposals has aided Justus.

As Mayor Sly James’ go-to on KCI, from ballot question to final council approval to groundbreaking, Justus helped oversee a messy but ultimately successful process.

Other significant accomplishments were a successful campaign for a new animal shelter, in partnership with Councilwoman Teresa Loar, as part of the $800 million general obligation bond package passed by voters in 2017, and protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence.

“Certainly, with the airport, to a degree in partnership with Councilwoman Loar related to the animal shelter issue, she’s been able to take a couple of those big projects,” said Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner who lost to Justus and Lucas in the mayoral primary.

A collaborative approach?

While Justus credits many of her legislative victories in the Senate and on the Council to a collaborative problem-solving approach, not all of her colleagues have felt consulted or included.

Loar, 2nd District at-large, who campaigned with Justus for the new animal shelter, said communication can be a problem.

“She doesn’t talk to any of us on the floor,” said Loar, who serves on the Airport Committee Justus chairs and has been critical of the terminal project. She described her leadership style as “continued silence.”

“She doesn’t discuss anything. I mean, she’s been the chairman of the airport committee for four years now. She’s never once come down to my office and said, ‘Can I answer any questions for you? Are there any problems? What can we do to get you the information you need?’ Nothing.”

Loar, who often aligns herself with Lucas, also complains that Justus is too close James, whom she regards as a bully.

Councilwoman Alissia Canady, 5th District, said it didn’t appear that Justus was leading the selection process for an airport developer, but was instead deferring to others.

“It did not appear as if Jolie was leading that even though she was the chair of the airport committee,” Canady said.

Justus counts as a victory the slate of recommendations from a task force on violent crime James asked her to chair. It called for better coordination of prevention efforts and prosecutor-led review boards to study fatal domestic violence cases for strategies to minimize recurrence. The task force also led to money for a youth and family violence plan to be developed by the health department.

“It had been on several violence task force recommendations to do it, but it had never been funded,” said Canady, who served on the task force.

Justus said there are often too many task forces at City Hall, but this was different.

“What we were able to do with this one was we were able to implement the items,” Justus said. “Not all of them, but you know what? Some really substantial ones, including for instance, that domestic fatality review board. That is critical.”

Those domestic violence review boards will be key in crime prevention, said Rosilyn Temple, founder and executive director of KC Mothers in Charge. Overall, she believes Justus was an effective leader who would stand up for what’s right as mayor.

Other reviews of the task force are less glowing. Justus’ opponent, Lucas, called it an “abject failure,” saying he had been told members stopped showing up because they didn’t see it as useful. He said the biggest recommendation that came from the task force was to create a position at City Hall to coordinate violence prevention services.

“If that’s follow through, that’s not the type of follow through I think Kansas Citians want,” Lucas said.

Canady confirmed that some members stopped participating halfway through the group’s listening tour because of the slow process. But she said she believed the recommendations from that task force have the potential to make a dent in the city’s violent crime rate, she said.

Justus’ work as a pro bono attorney led her to push for an ordinance giving survivors of domestic and sexual violence the right to break their leases to leave an unsafe living situation.

The state legislature, Justus said, hadn’t done anything about it. It didn’t pass the first time, but the council went back to the drawing board and ironed out the details to get it done.

“Those were the things that we’re able to get to when we work together,” Justus said.

Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League but not speaking on the organization’s behalf, agreed Justus worked well with fellow council members and found her open to feedback.

“There’s not much daylight between them (Justus and Lucas) on the issues. It boils down to who will best lead the City Council to address those issues that my organization and that I personally as a citizen of Kansas City — the thing that I am concerned about.”

Grant commended Justus’ work as a state senator on criminal justice reform and said issues of crime and public safety, delivery of basic city services and economic development reform will be paramount to her as she considers her vote.

Justus and neighborhoods

The other council highlight Justus mentions isn’t a major legislative victory or huge infrastructure project like KCI. It was a few blocks of sidewalk to get children safely from Crestview Elementary School to their homes without having to use the middle of the road.

“I have to tell you, as great as that airport thing was, seeing those kids walking to school on that first day on those sidewalks was really a proud moment,” Justus said.

Tami Myers, the former Crestview home owners’ association secretary who approached Justus about financing the sidewalks, said children would have a safe route to school for decades.

“She’s not about talking,” Myers said. “She’s about doing.”

The councilwoman is also highly regarded in the Westside neighborhood, where Ezekiel Amador III, who lives near the Boulevard Brewing Co., said she’s been helpful cleaning up neighborhoods and supporting public safety. On major issues, he said, she’s reasonable and works with neighborhood leaders.

“She may disagree, but she will talk to you,” Amador said.

While Justus voted in 2017 against Mary Jo Draper, who was opposed to a 256-unit apartment development at Westport Road and Broadway Boulevard, the Valentine neighborhood activist described her as accessible. She said she respected Justus’ practice of hosting regular “office hours” at Tower Tavern in Midtown.

“We don’t always agree on every issue, but I feel like she listens,” said Draper, who added that she has not decided how she will vote.

If Justus has a weakness, Draper said, it’s that she may be a little more open to listening to developers than to neighborhoods.

Grant gave a similar critique. She called Justus’ vote in favor of incentives for Three Light, the third in a series of luxury high-rise apartment buildings by Maryland-based Cordish Companies, “problematic.”

“By speaking of ‘we’re on a roll,’ or ‘let’s continue the momentum,’” Grant said, borrowing lines Justus often uses in debates and remarks, “that connection to the outgoing mayor’s administration is a concern in our community. We want change in economic development, so while we want to see improvement, we want momentum — but we want momentum in distressed communities, and we need to hear a stronger message from her on those issues going into the election.”

Justus voted in favor of building a $17.5 million garage for Three Light, but she voted against a property tax abatement for the project. Both passed.

South Plaza Neighborhood Association president Keith Spare dubbed Justus the “worst City Council representative” he has dealt with. He objected to her support for removing a traffic light at 49th and Main streets in 2016, when developers renovated an office building at that intersection. He says her “neighborhoods first” platform sounds good but that in reality she’s too cozy with developers.

“If you drive through my neighborhood....you’ll see almost no Jolie Justus signs,” Spare said.

At the time, Justus said, her research determined that a four-way stop would slow traffic on Main and provide more pedestrian safety.

Spare and Justin Sanborn-McMeen, who heads the Crestview HOA in the Northland, both complain Justus isn’t responsive enough.

“If she’s a neighborhood mayor, maybe it’s a singular neighborhood, definitely not my neighborhood and I don’t get the sense that she’s active in her district as a whole,” Sanborn-McMeen said.

Unlike Spare, Sanborn-McMeen said he’s still leaning toward voting for her even though he feels like the Northland portion of Justus’ district gets ignored.

Justus said for the first three years of her council term she held quarterly meetings with neighborhood leaders in the Northland but stopped because the participation was so sparse.

“I have been very proud of our responsiveness to the neighborhoods,” Justus said.She said she’s gone out to the community to help on issues a number of times.

“You are always going to be able to find individuals who were not happy with the outcome of something, but the reality is that there’s always someone who has the opposite opinion,” Justus said, “and I’m really proud of the neighborhood work that I’ve done.”

This is the first of two stories examining the records of the candidates for Kansas City mayor. Look for the story about Quinton Lucas later this week.

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