Editorials

‘Undecided’ is winning KC mayor’s race, Star poll shows. How can candidates break through?

Who will replace Sly James as mayor of Kansas City? Meet the candidates vying for the city’s top job.

Meet the candidates running for mayor of Kansas City.
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Meet the candidates running for mayor of Kansas City.

With just a couple weeks left before the primary election for Kansas City mayor, undecided is winning. It’s a landslide.

That’s the obvious conclusion after seeing the results of The Star poll on the Kansas City mayor’s race and other city issues. Of the 11 mayoral candidates, only one — Jolie Justus — can claim solid support in double digits.

Fully 44 percent of likely voters say they’re undecided. Even when you add in voters who are leaning toward supporting a particular candidate, nearly one in three are still studying the field.

“I haven’t done my homework yet,” said Karen Gibson of Kansas City, a participant in the poll. Nico Tarantola, a Kansas City voter, told us the same thing.

That’s understandable and defensible. The mayoral field is large. It will take time for voters to sort through the options, and many are waiting until the final days to do so. That’s common in Kansas City elections and increasingly the case nationwide.

Sadly, some voters won’t cast ballots, waiting instead for the general election in June, when there will be just two candidates on the ballot. That’s a mistake. This year’s mayoral election is extraordinarily important, and the primary may yield two finalists some voters will deem unsatisfactory options.

That’s why the large number of undecided voters is probably disappointing for the candidates themselves, who have spent months attending forums, walking door to door, talking about the issues. For whatever reason, those messages have yet to inspire many potential voters.

Within that disappointment, however, lies opportunity. This is still anyone’s race, and every candidate has time to make his or her views and ideas known.

Our poll provides a road map for that message.

Likely voters in Kansas City generally believe the city is on the right track, by a margin of 53 percent to 28 percent. They say Mayor Sly James’ most significant accomplishment is his advocacy for city revitalization.

Candidates should explain how they plan to continue that perceived progress, by extending the largely good-news story about downtown and the new airport terminal to other parts of the community. Will that be accomplished with big-ticket items such as an extended streetcar line or through incremental changes such as cleaning up vacant lots? Voters are asking that question.

Crime remains the voters’ biggest concern by far. More than one in three likely voters put crime prevention at the top of their to-do list, ahead of infrastructure (read: potholes) and schools. Affordable housing is also an issue.

The candidates who outline specific plans to address violence will deservedly grab voters’ attention. Linking those efforts to housing and education will be even more helpful.

Less important, according to the poll: jobs, tax incentives and transportation.

Our poll shows opposition is growing to the sales tax proposal for early childhood education. Most of the mayoral candidates have said they’re voting against the tax, yet there now seems to be an opportunity for candidates to offer a clear alternative to Mayor Sly James’ pre-K plan.

Voters also told us the top qualities they’re looking for in a new mayor: a strong leader who can unite the city. One of the reasons for the large number of undecided voters could be a perception that the field lacks candidates who can do both of those things.

For the record, we disagree. Most of the candidates on the April 2 ballot are qualified, articulate, and passionate about making Kansas City a better place. Our poll, however, suggests the candidates have yet convinced a mass audience of that fact.

This will be their challenge during the next two weeks.

We’ve been studying the candidates, and The Star Editorial Board will weigh in before Election Day. But as Karen Gibson said, it’s time for voters to do their homework, too. The next mayor will help determine Kansas City’s future, and voters must pick the right person for the job.

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