‘It was over at that point’: How Lucas bested Justus in race for KC mayor

Newly elected Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas addresses his supporters

Quinton Lucas thanks supporters after defeating fellow city council member Jolie Justus to be Kansas City’s next mayor. Lucas celebrates with his mom, Quincy Bennett as he gives his speech at his watch party Tuesday night.
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Quinton Lucas thanks supporters after defeating fellow city council member Jolie Justus to be Kansas City’s next mayor. Lucas celebrates with his mom, Quincy Bennett as he gives his speech at his watch party Tuesday night.

When the early returns started to trickle in Tuesday night from Platte and Clay counties, the results showed Jolie Justus winning the Northland vote in the Kansas City mayor’s race.

But as precinct after precinct reported, her lead narrowed.

By 8 p.m., the numbers painted a bleak picture. After beating opponent Quinton Lucas in the Northland by a 2-to-1 margin in the April primary, Justus held a wafer-thin edge in Clay County — fewer than 300 votes — and had only a slightly better showing in the less-populated Platte County.

“It was over at that point,” said Ed Ford, a former Kansas City Council member and vice president of Forward KC, a Northland political advocacy group that endorsed Justus.

“As soon as I saw the return from Clay County, I knew it was done.”

Clay County was one of several things that went wrong Tuesday night for Justus, who entered the 2019 political season with what seemed to be formidable advantages: support from outgoing Mayor Sly James; a political organization that sustained her through two elections to the Missouri Senate and one to the City Council, and significant financial backing from the business and legal communities.

She made it easily through the April primary and into the June runoff for mayor, but battling Lucas proved more challenging. In places she was thought to have support, including the Northland and her own 4th council district that covers downtown, Midtown and parts of Brookside, Lucas ran with her largely neck-and-neck. At the same time Lucas, the 3rd District at-large councilman, won his home turf, the East Side, in a landslide.

The overall result was devastating. By the end of the night, voters south of the river showed a 2-to-1 preference for the now Mayor-elect Lucas.

Some of Justus’ wounds were self-inflicted; others came from circumstances she couldn’t control. It’s unclear whether the endorsement of James, the two-term incumbent credited with revitalizing the mayor’s office was an asset or a harness.

The decision by Justus and some supporters to depict Lucas as untrustworthy may have done more damage than good, in the view of some involved in mayoral politics.

And both supporters and critics alike agree Justus had difficulty competing with the personal story Lucas had to offer: a journey up from the very same troubled streets and neighborhoods he’s pledged to help as mayor.

Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League, said many voters knew and chose Justus for her experience and track record. But she struggled to overcome Lucas’ personal connection to the race.

“They knew about her track record, but for him, they were voting for him — it’s like, here’s this young man that grew up in the inner city that has overcome a lot of obstacles, so there was an emotional connection that she didn’t have,” Grant said.

A tight race up North

Going into Tuesday, Justus’ supporters and campaign staff figured she needed at least a 55-45 edge over Lucas in the Northland, and better still, a 60-40 advantage.

Some of Justus’ backers are at a loss to explain why the Northland proved to be a difficult battleground.

Others believe Lucas placed more emphasis on the Northland to overcome his weak performance in the primary. He’s also thought to have benefited greatly from endorsements by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 99 and the International Association of Firefighters Local 42, in part because many union members live there.

Mindy Brissey, a campaign operative for Phil Glynn in the April primary and council candidates in competitive June races, said said she saw evidence of a larger Lucas presence in the form of yard signs and canvassing.

“They (Northland voters) didn’t feel like she made time to come to the Northland and that she largely left it to the people who had endorsed her and the group Forward Kansas City,” Brissey said.

Lucas’ campaign manager John Stamm said, too, that Lucas supplemented the typical campaign work in the Northland — relationship networks, field work, knocking on doors — with appearances at small-scale events.

“We really relied on meet and greets,” Stamm said. “People gathering their family, friends and neighbors to make up that gap we had up there.”

Going negative

What was an amiable campaign changed tone in late May when Justus and her supporters, including a political action committee associated with the St. Louis Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, started running negative ads against Lucas.

The ads drew on a perception that extends outside Justus’ circle — that Lucas doesn’t stick to his word. It’s a charge Lucas says is incorrect and one he called “inside baseball” in a debate late in the campaign.

Lucas vowed to remain on the high road, but did so by repeatedly criticizing Justus and supporters for running what he saw as a negative campaign. The deflection appeared to have worked.

Scott Wagner, a Kansas City council member, said those ads, particularly the mailers from the carpenters, “had exactly the opposite effect of what was intended.”

“I think those negative mailers really got people to look sympathetically at Quinton and really made people look at him seriously and he was able to deflect those issue pretty easily,” Wagner said.

Justus, who stood behind the criticisms when asked on the campaign trail why she “went negative,” said she wasn’t interested in second guessing the strategy.

Jordan Overstreet, campaign manager for Justus, defended it, likening the campaign to a job application where the focus was on Lucas’ record, not personal issues.

“People need to know both sides of the story,” Overstreet said. “I don’t know if it the message landed or not, but I think it’s the responsibility to a campaign and hopefully the media to do a fair vetting of candidates and it’s part of the process.”

The issue of trustworthiness is one that Gwen Grant said will be a factor in Lucas’ ability to work with the incoming council members. But she wasn’t sure what effect the ads had on Justus’ campaign.

“It helps more than it doesn’t. That’s why people do it. That’s why campaign folks do it,” Grant said. “Negative campaigning works more often than it doesn’t. In this particular case, it didn’t work. I don’t know that it hurt her campaign.”

The Sly factor

Did Mayor Sly James help Justus with his endorsement? Depends on who you ask.

Justus said it was a boon. Overstreet said comparing James’ tenure to former Mayor Mark Funkhouser’s four years, “an overwhelming majority would tell you Kansas City is doing much better as a result of his leadership.”

“I mean, there are a lot of folks that we would hear just anecdotally at the doors who said, ‘You know, I didn’t know who to choose between the two of you, and then I found out who was supporting you and now I’m supporting you as well,’ so I think it absolutely helped me,” Justus said.

But having the endorsement of a two-term incumbent, even one credited with continued downtown revitalization, the new KCI terminal and other major projects, limited Justus’ message, according to Wagner.

“It basically put her in the position of taking the role of defending the status quo,” Wagner said. “You can’t get too critical of the past four or eight years, and any differences that you’re going to present are going to be very incremental.”

Justus’ chief message was that Kansas City was seeing success in some neighborhoods but that others had been left behind. Her message and Lucas’ were strikingly similar, but his prevailed.

Overstreet credited the story Lucas was able to tell, about growing up poor on the city’s East Side. It gave his promises to invest in stuggling neighborhoods a particular power.

“I think it probably came down to more of a personal narrative — more so than like what the particulars were,” Overstreet said. “There were very few differences on policy as far as how they were presented.”

Wagner said Lucas was able to position himself as the “outsider” despite the fact they were both first-term council members with similar records.

Others say that voters often lose interest or patience in the priorities of the existing administration. Mark Funkhouser got elected in part on the message that his predecessor, Kay Barnes, handed too many giveaways to developers.

James succeeded Funkhouser and again pursued big ticket projects long coveted by developers, like the convention hotel.

Richard Martin, director of government affairs for general contracting firm JE Dunn, said voters often look for outsiders or change agents after eight years.

“I think that’s one of the things that might have hampered Jolie’s campaign is with the endorsement from Mayor James and with the way she launched her campaign,” Martin said. “It almost seemed like Mayor James 2.0.”

Lucas said he believed this election was a year for change at City Hall and that Americans are looking to major cities to lead at a time when they see Washington, D.C. as dysfunctional.

“I think people are really looking to cities to get things done to address good social policy,” Lucas said, “and I think that’s what this electorate is saying. City Hall should not just be the chamber of commerce.”

Justus, however, said there was more to the dynamic of Tuesday’s election than the notion it was a change year.

“The messaging that I heard from the community really regardless of what part of the city I was in was that people were really excited about the direction we were headed but that they wanted more attention to other things — and that they didn’t want, though, to slow down the momentum,” Justus said.

In the end, voters decided that Lucas, not Justus, would help Kansas City get to the next level.

“Quinton presented a more compelling example or pathway to change at City Hall,” Grant said.

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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.
Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.