‘You can build change’: How Quinton Lucas would govern as Kansas City mayor

Residents of Ruskin Heights were ready for Quinton Lucas.

Campaigning door-to-door in the South Kansas City neighborhood last month, the first-term councilman and mayoral candidate introduced himself to Dennis Kain, who was standing in his driveway.

“Well, good,” said Kain, “Because I vote. Here’s what I want to know.”

Kain launched into his frustration with the city’s focus on big projects, like the new terminal under construction at Kansas City International Airport. And “why do we want to build a new stadium downtown if we can’t even fix our roads?” he asked.

Lucas said he understood. “I’m somebody who cares about the basic services.”

Nearby, Michelle Owens was already leaning toward voting for Lucas when he showed up on her porch.

“I’m glad you’re here, so you can see how filthy the neighborhood is right now,” said Owens, “disgusted” with city cleanup efforts and frustrated by persistent violent crime.

Lucas’ promise to fix the basics is at the heart of his campaign message and vision for governing. It’s an outlook that emphasizes investment in long-neglected neighborhoods where infrastructure, housing and safety have been allowed to deteriorate in the shadow of a booming downtown.

Fixing the basics is a popular message at election time. Several candidates made similar promises in the primary. Councilwoman Jolie Justus, Lucas’ opponent, strikes many of the same notes, with her own “Neighborhoods First Agenda.”

For Lucas, who at 34 would become Kansas City’s youngest mayor in more than a century, the decaying condition of some communities comes from a particularly personal place. With his mother and two sisters, he moved frequently as a youngster, sometimes to motels when they were homeless and even a nursing home where his great aunt was a resident.

He said it’s hard to remember all the destinations.

“Sometimes when I’ve done that cruise, I’m like, ‘Man, that vacant lot had tires dumped on it as far back as I can remember,’” Lucas said, “so like back in ‘92. ‘Why in 2019 does it look the same way?’ and my goal is that by 2040, it won’t. And that’s the focus we need from a mayor.”

That experience, he said, combined with an elite education at The Barstow School, Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell Law School, helps him to work with fellow council members from other backgrounds.

“On a number of different ordinances, I ,a Democrat from the East Side of Kansas City, have been able to have the agreement of Heather Hall, a conservative woman from the Northland,” Lucas told the Star. “I’m proud that I, a 34-year-old black man, have great collaboration with Katheryn Shields, who’s about 30 years my senior and lives in the Country Club Plaza area.”

He said building bridges is something he’s been doing his whole life.

“I guess this is the sort of thing that happens if you’re a kid who was homeless for a little while but going to a private school across the street from Hallbrook.”

While many colleagues and constituents find Lucas’ story compelling, they also struggle with what they describe variously as a lack of reliability, trustworthiness or willingness to commit to positions. The principal exhibit for this charge is a last-minute switch on a critical KCI vote in February 2018.

Councilwoman Alissia Canady, 5th District, a mayoral primary opponent, said Lucas can be “unpredictable” and “really hard to pin down.”

“You usually find yourself somewhat surprised at the last minute at where he falls on issues,” Canady said.

Lucas contends he didn’t break any promises.

“I think I start from the idea that to over promise you have to have promised them something, and I didn’t,” Lucas said.

He likened the accusation to “inside baseball” and called it “politics fundamentally at its worst.”

‘Willing to rock the boat’

Lucas said when he arrived at City Hall in 2015, succeeding a term-limited incumbent, 3rd District at-large Councilwoman Melba Curls, it was difficult to challenge City Hall’s status quo, something he was “probably a tinge naive to.”

“At City Hall, you learn sometimes there’s a problem and people say, ‘Yeah, we’ve known about this for 10, 20, 30 years but it’s going to be very hard to change,’”he said, “and I think what I’ve learned over the last several years are the ways that you can build change, incrementally usually, but one of the most important ways to do it is to make sure you’ve done your research and that you truly collaborated.”

One key element of Kansas City’s status quo Lucas disrupted is the degree to which the city subsidizes downtown development. Hearing discontent about major tax breaks for construction, Lucas authored an ordinance that placed a 75 percent cap on taxes that can be abated or redirected as an incentive for developers to build in Kansas City.

“I think he is willing to rock the boat and he’s not afraid to do that, which can be refreshing to not necessarily do the same old, same old,” said Councilman Scott Wagner, 1st District at-large, another mayoral primary opponent.

The measure passed in Oct. 2016. Since then, several projects have won total tax abatements anyway because they were considered “high-impact,” located in distressed areas or were in the planning pipeline prior to passage.

Frustration over what some see as the law’s lack of impact led to a signature petition campaign and a proposal on the June 18 ballot, Question One, to ratchet tax breaks down to a maximum of 50 percent.

At the same time, Lucas has voted for major developments that sought incentives, including Three Light, something Canady pointed to in her primary campaign. Lucas voted to subsidize a $17 million garage for the luxury high-rise, but he missed the committee and full council votes on the tax abatement for the project.

Although she took issue with his support for the Three Light garage, Urban League CEO and president Gwen Grant offered praise overall for the work on incentives.

“That plays well in the community, especially amongst those who are working toward economic development reform,” Grant said, speaking for herself and not the organization.

Jan Parks, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Kansas City Economic Development Reform, the organization behind Question One, said she had a good relationship with Lucas. She found him responsive when her group had questions or comments.

“We didn’t always totally agree, i.e. obviously he does not agree with Question One,” Parks said.

She said her group was ready to file the petition before Lucas got his cap passed and was asked to give his proposal a chance.

“After almost two and a half years, we’re thinking it doesn’t seem to be making that much of a difference,” Parks said.

Roxsen Koch, a development attorney with Polsinelli, who is opposed to Question One, said Lucas’ ordinance needs more time.

“It’s only been two and a half years, and two and a half years in the development world is not very long,” Koch said. “You can just take a look at how long it’s taken downtown to redevelop to know.”

Pushing for housing

Lucas has also led efforts to implement the city’s first-ever affordable housing policy. The central goal of the policy, a body of proposed ordinances and resolutions rolled out in September, is to create or preserve another 5,000 affordable units by the end of 2023.

Last fall, Lucas toured the draft policy around the city getting resident feedback. At the beginning of the year, the effort to pass measures out of committee began in earnest. The initiative has produced legislation protecting victims of domestic and sexual violence and encouraging more affordable housing near transit lines.

But the core objectives of the new program remain in committee. A proposed $75 million housing trust fund to finance new and rehabilitated units is currently supported only by fees on scooters rented around downtown. There is as yet no policy governing how the money would be spent. An ordinance requiring more affordable units from developers who are granted incentives is also in limbo.

Last fall, Lucas expressed confidence that the work would be completed before the election. The slow pace of progress, after a four-year tenure as chair of the council’s housing committee, drives a principal opposition narrative about Lucas: that he can’t be trusted to follow through.

Lucas says, however, the effort demonstrates his ability to push through policy.

“I introduced the most transformative set of ordinances about long-term housing policy that this city has seen in a generation,” Lucas said. “I wrote them all myself, and I have gone through the process of getting almost all of them passed without, as I’ve noted, a significant support staff to do it — conducting a great deal of research on my own and meeting with groups continuously while doing it.”

The pending ordinance, requiring that developers granted tax incentives set aside 15 percent of a building’s units to be affordable to those making 70 percent of the area median income or less, was referred back to committee last month.

Once the measure passed committee in February, the council held the issue, at Lucas’ request, week after week. When it came to the council floor last month, Lucas was absent, appearing instead on a panel about school segregation at a Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association conference.

He said the issue is on hold because housing advocates want an exemption from the 15 percent requirement for small apartment buildings or duplexes.

Dianne Cleaver, who heads Urban Neighborhood Initiative, said she recommended the exemption and other revisions in late April. She said she wasn’t sure what the delay was about.

“We definitely would like to see it move forward, but based on working with Councilman Lucas in the past, I am confident he’s going to move it forward,” she said.

Lucas has said he’s addressing suggestions from groups like Cleaver’s. But the languishing program has become a regular target for Justus at candidate debates.

“I just think at a time where you’ve got this issue that is your signature issue that you want to move forward and there’s been no action, it’s just really frustrating,” she said in an interview.

Lucas called the critique by Justus “preposterous.”

“I’m not just bringing up affordable housing because it’s a cool wedge issue that I can run a campaign on,” Lucas said. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about my whole life. I am a tenant.” He lives in an apartment in the 18th and Vine district.

Keeping trust

As the election draws near, Lucas is fighting a perception — from community members and some council colleagues — that he doesn’t follow through on promises.

Justus’ campaign website displays a message that Kansas Citians “just can’t trust Quinton Lucas.” A political action committee associated with the St. Louis Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, which endorsed Justus and has spent heavily for her in the race, attacked him for the same thing.

No issue has drawn more questions about Lucas’ trustworthiness than his vote in favor of a preliminary agreement with Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, the Maryland-based developer building Kansas City’s $1.5 billion single airport terminal.

He voted with a council majority in December 2017 to reject the initial version of the accord. As a second vote approached in February 2018, Edgemoor opponents thought Lucas was still in their camp.

But he voted with Justus and Mayor Sly James to move forward with the agreement, called a memorandum of understanding.

Joe Hudson, political director for the carpenters, brought up the often-criticized vote at a meeting of the Tax Increment Financing Commission last month, at which advocates for and opponents of a proposed luxury hotel in the Crossroads talked about whether Lucas would be supportive. He’s not, and neither is Justus.

“As far as Councilman Lucas’ vote, I can tell you through the airport process, no telling where he’s going to vote until he actually casts it,” said Hudson, who did not delve into his specific complaint with Lucas’ record on the airport.

Hudson did not return an email requesting clarification on the airport vote, but the carpenters PAC has been calling Lucas’ trustworthiness into question based on other council decisions. The union was forced to apologize earlier this week for a negative mailer featuring a dark, grainy photo of Lucas that both candidates regarded as racist.

Lucas said he decided to vote for the second version of the MOU because legal counsel for the city and Edgemoor addressed several concerns. He had wanted to see a robust community benefits agreement, high levels of minority-and women-owned contractor participation and clarity in the what costs Edgemoor could charge to the city during the early phases of the project through its reimbursement agreement.

“The first document reflected kind of just a skeletal type of agreement,” Lucas said, adding it was a “strategic blunder” on the part of the city’s legal counsel.

He said the council was supposed to evaluate the winning bidder from the city’s selection committee, not vote according to members’ favorite contractors.

“If we start doing that, then we’re going down a really awful path, I think,” Lucas said. “You’re supposed to evaluate the winning bidder and then see if they work or not.”

But Justus and her supporters aren’t the only ones leveling the criticism. Loar, an ally, said she and other critics of Edgemoor and the KCI project believed they had Lucas’ “no” vote.

“He led us to believe we had his vote, although he probably never said, ‘You have my vote.’ We just were led to believe we did,” Loar said, adding that it hit her hard when he voted in favor of the project on the council floor.

Loar said Lucas was always in on meetings with fellow critics who wanted to find a way to get a different airport developer. Lucas’ flip, he said, would give her concerns about his leadership “except, I think, he’s learned from that vote.”

Grant, part of a coalition lobbying for better community and workforce benefits on the project, said Lucas told members of her group that he was in agreement with them. They, too, expected him to vote against Edgemoor.

“So up until the last minute — in fact, he never got back with anybody to say he changed his mind,” Grant said, “and what he tends to do is give you his word and then if he changed his mind, he doesn’t come back and tell you he changed his mind and what he’s going to do. You find out when he does it.”

Since then, Grant said, she’s heard of other community leaders who feel Lucas has told them one thing and done another. Grant said it’s difficult to ”build sustainable coalitions” and lead a City Council “when you do not keep your word.”

Lucas disputes the notion that he promised his vote to anyone.

He said his job was to “do the right thing for the people of Kansas City,” not make individual groups or council members happy.

“My job everyday is to do the right thing for the people of Kansas City, Mo. — full stop,” Lucas said. “My job is not to make Joe Hudson happy. My job is not to make Teresa Loar happy. My job is to say and to look at the facts when I’m going into that floor and to see — what is the best answer for the people of our city?”

Lucas noted he stuck with the plan to rename The Paseo for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — which he argues was not a politically popular view — because he made a promise to the city’s ministers.

Rev. Bob Hill, minister emeritus at Community Christian Church, who served on James’ MLK Advisory Group, said Quinton was an ally on that issue and issues of economic development on the east side.

“He listened, and that’s one of his better qualities,” Hill said. “He listened well to the ministerial cadre of individuals that banded together to push for the renaming of Paseo. He respected them, he honored them, and that was much appreciated.”

On controversial issues, Hill called him “available, unflappable and convivial.” He had similar regard for Justus, who he said was responsive when he approached her with issues.

In terms of what Lucas wants to see 20 years from now, he said Kansas City should do some core basic things, like improving public safety and adding more affordable housing, not just build one new project. And he hopes communities that have been left out will be better represented.

“I want to make sure those communities know that City Hall is there for them and it works for them just as much as it works for somebody who is reading your article this morning downtown.”

This is the second of two stories examining the records of the candidates for Kansas City mayor. The story about Jolie Justus ran last Monday and can be found at kansascity.com.

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