The Rev. Wallace Hartsfield II, pastor of the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, has done a lot for Kansas Citians without holding any public office. From feeding the hungry to fighting predatory lenders and food deserts, he’s even more of a doer than a talker. He’s the latter, too, of course, as a preacher and a professor.
But “I like to be quick to hear and slow to speak,” Hartsfield said in a joint interview with state Rep. Brandon Ellington, his opponent in the race to succeed mayoral candidate Quinton Lucas as the 3rd District at-large representative on the Kansas City Council.
That might be the biggest difference of all between 54-year-old Hartsfield, a composer and Hebrew scholar, and 38-year-old Ellington, a rapper and activist who has served in the Missouri House since 2012, and is the current minority whip.
“I’m more visible than any elected official,” says Ellington, and unlike others he could name and does, “I do it out of the pureness of my heart.” Ellington also has energy, intelligence and the will to serve — along with the certainty that other local leaders, black and white, have been doing it all wrong.
“We need people who understand politics” on the City Council, says Ellington. But when he then blasts Kansas City leaders for failing to spend more time lobbying in Jefferson City, we have to wonder if he’s one of those people.
Even when Ellington is dismissive of his opponent’s efforts, though, Hartsfield refuses to answer in kind. Hartsfield keeps hearing that he’s not going to win this thing unless he’s willing to do that. But no, he tells friends, he won’t participate in the spectacle of two African American men tearing each other down. Asked about these accounts, he says, “From the beginning, I’ve said I’m not running against Rep. Ellington; I’m running for the office. Just because I disagree with you doesn’t give me license to dehumanize you.”
He has plenty of concrete accomplishments to run on, and that’s what has earned Wallace Hartsfield II The Star’s endorsement ahead of Tuesday’s election. He was a major force behind the Healthy Homes Rental Inspections ballot initiative that authorized the health department to respond to tenant complaints and fine landlords. It passed overwhelmingly last year, but that outcome was far from assured when Hartsfield began collecting signatures, organizing volunteers, speaking out from the pulpit and knocking on doors to let low-income residents know that landlords would pay $20 a unit to help fund basic health and safety hazard inspections if the measure passed.
“When Freedom, Inc. opposed the Healthy Homes measure,’’ said neighborhood leader and affordable housing development consultant Colleen Hernandez, “he was the countervailing force on the East Side speaking out against the squalor, the deplorable living conditions and the mercenary tactics of landlords. In the vote analysis, we nearly broke even in the Freedom wards, and that was largely due to Wallace’s efforts.”
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Who decides the endorsements?
Members of The Kansas City Star editorial board interview political candidates, as well as advocates and opponents of ballot measures. The editorial board is comprised of experienced opinion journalists and is separate from The Star’s newsroom. Members of The Star editorial board are: Star publisher Tony Berg, Colleen McCain Nelson, Derek Donovan, Dave Helling, Melinda Henneberger, Toriano Porter and Michael Ryan. Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.
What does the endorsement process entail?
The Star editorial board meets with political candidates. The interviews are largely focused on public policy, and each lasts about an hour. Board members do additional reporting and research to learn as much as possible about the candidates. The editorial board then convenes to discuss the candidates in each race. Board members seek to reach a consensus on the endorsements, but not every decision is unanimous.
Is the editorial board partisan?
No. In making endorsements, members of the editorial board consider which candidates are well prepared to represent their constituents — not whether they agree with us or belong to a particular political party. We evaluate candidates’ relevant experience, their readiness for office, their depth of knowledge of key issues and their understanding of public policy. We’re seeking candidates who are thoughtful and who offer more than just party-line talking points. The editorial board will endorse both Republicans and Democrats. We make recommendations about who the best-qualified candidates for these jobs are.
Why are endorsements unsigned?
Endorsements reflect the collective views of The Star’s editorial board — not just the opinion of one writer. Board members all discuss and contribute ideas to each endorsement editorial.
His organizing and lobbying to combat the problem of food deserts helped get City Hall behind the renovation of the Linwood Shopping Center that reopened last year. He also helped write the successful one-eighth-cent sales tax proposal for the East Side.
Hartsfield, whose father is a civil rights legend in Kansas City, was only 4 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In an interview last year with longtime Star columnist Bill Tammeus, on the 50th anniversary of King’s death, Hartsfield spoke about growing up watching his father guide “a community in shock and trying to make sense out of what happened. Probably more important was the question King asked, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
The argument that followed, over how to be the needed “prophetic voice” post-MLK, still hasn’t been fully resolved, as we see in this race.
A little more than a decade ago, Hartsfield returned home to Kansas City from Atlanta, where he’d gotten his Ph.D. from Emory University and pastored a church. His father was retiring from Metropolitan Missionary Baptist, on Linwood Boulevard in the city’s urban core, and he came back to step in behind him.
He and his wife, Dr. Amy Harris Hartsfield, who later served on the school board, bought a $4,000 house — no, that’s not a typo — near the church. Then they went to work, as he says, on putting the neighbor back in the hood.
“Wallace, he reads the manual,” Amy said at a recent campaign event. He insists, in other words, on knowing what he’s talking about and how everything works.
As he sees it, violent crime is a symptom of poverty, racism and uneven development — a “problem of relationship.” Both mayoral candidates, Quinton Lucas and Jolie Justus, agree that addressing the inequality and violent crime that show up everywhere together must be at the top of the city’s agenda in the next four years. Whoever wins will need Hartsfield’s experience, maturity and manual-devouring determination to help make that happen.
The Star is partnering with the nonprofit Verify More to conduct background checks on City Council candidates, and you can see the results of that screening process at verifymore.org.