The two candidates for Kansas City mayor struck optimistic tones in a debate on Sunday, promising a diverse, inclusive city and a better approach to reducing the city’s high rate of violent crime.
Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas, both members of the City Council, met in the last of six forums hosted by The Kansas City Star in each of the City Council districts. After advancing from a field of 11 primary candidates for mayor, they face each other in the June 18 general election.
In the final weeks of the campaign, rhetoric between the two has grown more heated. Justus has critiqued Lucas for what she describes as an inability to stick to his word. He has accused Justus of dirty campaigning and vowed not to “go negative.”
But in Sunday afternoon’s 4th District debate, held at Unity Temple on the Plaza, the candidates largely refrained from direct criticism, even when invited to ask each other a question. They did attempt to draw distinctions in their governing styles.
Justus pointed to her career in pro bono legal services and two terms in the Missouri Senate to say she’s someone who can get things done. She said working across partisan lines to represent Kansas City sometimes meant fighting, but that she wasn’t one to take to the Senate floor and talk unless there was a strategic purpose.
“I mentioned that I was the first openly gay member of the state Senate. That was not an easy space to be,” Justus said. “I had to stand up when I was all alone and I had nobody voting with me, speaking truth to power and making sure that I was standing up for the most vulnerable citizens in Kansas City and the entire state.”
She recalled being among few state senators who would stand up for the rights of refugees and migrants.
Lucas pointed to City Council debates where he’s challenged accepted practices. He said early in his tenure, he questioned why redevelopment in the East Crossroads was stopping at Highway 71 and not pushing further into the city’s East Side. He recalled being stunned when told by a city official that Highway 71 represented a natural barrier to new construction. He also cited pointed questions and pushes for transparency in the debate over a new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport, an apparent swipe at Justus, who chairs the council’s airport committee.
“I tend to lean more in the direction of say something for a very specific reason — because you elected me to do so,” Lucas said. “You elected me to speak out. You elected me to be strong. You elected me to make sure that somebody who is listening and, frankly, speaking for the many voices that are out there.”
Here are some of the issues the two candidates addressed, in response to questions from journalists, community representatives and audience members:
Ensuring equity. Justus said her “Neighborhoods First” agenda is about translating the success Kansas City has seen in its downtown to all corners of the sprawling metropolis. She said she wants a growing Kansas City population and rising median income as her legacy.
“At the end of the day, what I want to make sure is that everybody, regardless of what neighborhood you live in, feels that success of Kansas City — that you feel that momentum, that when you walk out of your house in the morning, that you have transportation to take you to your job,” Justus said. “That you have a school that’s thriving, that you have a neighborhood that’s stabilized, that you have housing opportunities that are next to a transit line or where you work.”
Lucas drew on his experience growing up in low-income neighborhoods across Kansas City. He said he wants to see children who are born into similar circumstances have access to the same opportunities that he had. He attended The Barstow School on a scholarship and went on to Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell Law School.
“The main reason I’m involved in public service is that I’ve heard too many people say, ‘Wow, you’re such an exception,’” Lucas said. “I don’t want to be an exception. I want to have a city where every child, whether born in East Kansas City, South Kansas City, anywhere else has the same opportunities that I have had to succeed, to grow a family, to start a business, to do so much important work.”
Violent crime. Both candidates said they would approach it with what they believe to be smarter enforcement and an emphasis on resources that can prevent crime. Lucas said he would like to see mentoring for young men in Kansas City who may be growing up without a father, like he did. He also advocated for more spending on mental health.
“Right now, the largest mental health institution in our city is the Jackson County Jail,” Lucas said. “I don’t think that’s right.”
Justus said she got into public service, in part, because she saw through her pro bono work that being “tough” on crime wasn’t effective.
“As I met with kids who were faced with delinquencies, as I met with parents whose children were removed from their care and put in the foster care system, I very quickly realized that cleaning up the messes in the court rooms, just being tough on crime, that’s not going to do it,” Justus said.
She said she would bring a “smart on crime” approach to the state board that oversees the Kansas City Police Department, on which the mayor serves and continue to push for neighborhood policing.
The Paseo or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Neither candidate made clear what their role might be in a campaign for or against changing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. back to The Paseo.
Both Justus and Lucas voted to change the name of the historic boulevard in January. Now, a group of petitioners upset about what they saw as a lack of outreach on the issue has gathered enough signatures to put the question to voters in November.
Asked whether they would actively campaign for or against the reversal, both said they wanted to see the two sides come together and talk about how to honor King, the late civil rights leader.
Safety in Westport. Justus and Lucas spoke out against the privatization of sidewalks in Westport, an initiative to increase safety in the bar and restaurant district. Under the deal, visitors to the core of Westport have to go through a security screening set up around the perimeter.
Lucas said those sidewalks should be regarded as public spaces and that he’d prefer options like staggering the closing times of bars and working with businesses on safety initiatives. He recounted being stopped by police as a college student in St. Louis, an experience that he said made him feel like he didn’t belong.
“What I think we need to do in connection with these issues is not so much throw up more metal detectors in spaces, but actually spend more time trying to make sure that we have public safety officers that are engaging with businesses in Westport in particular,” he said.
Justus supported engaging the Responsible Hospitality Institute for help. She said she’d also favor encouraging more residential density in and around Westport, where there are a “whole lot of 3 a.m. bars and a whole lot of night clubs,” but few residents.
“And that’s why I’ve also supported, sometimes to my political chagrin, making sure that we have more people living in Westport because one of the things we can do is create a community that is not just an evening night club atmosphere, but it’s a 24/7 ecosystem where everybody feels welcome all the time,” Justus said.