Dave Helling

One of KC’s most influential political groups has disappeared. Will anything replace it?

There are whispers that the Citizens Association — once the most important political group in Kansas City — is trying to make a comeback.

Emails have been exchanged. Former members are talking. Could they make a difference in the mayor’s race? No one knows for sure.

This much is clear: With the primaries less than two months away, candidates have yet to hear from the Citizens Association about interviews or endorsements or any involvement in the upcoming election at all.

The organization may be in its final days. For Kansas Citians of a certain age, that’s pretty shocking.

The Citizens Association was founded at the height of the Tom Pendergast era. It grew out of the older Citizens League, which mounted nonpartisan campaigns to rid City Hall of robust corruption and self-dealing.

During the second half of the 20th century, the Citizens Association was among the preeminent political clubs in Kansas City. It functioned almost as a shadow government, enlisting the city’s movers and shakers to screen candidates, issue endorsements and urge professional oversight at City Hall.

Yes, it was mostly men. Yes, it was assuredly white and wealthy. That’s why other groups sprang up to challenge the Citizens Association’s hegemony, including Freedom Inc. (which has started candidate screenings) and various neighborhood groups.

No matter. For years, in close races, the Citizens Association endorsement was considered the best of all.

That began to change in the early 2000s. Kansas City voters were changing: Pendergast-phobia continued to fade, and younger voters looked to other places for their political cues. The idea of a powerful political club seemed quaint, like a lawn bowling league.

The Citizens Association soldiered on anyway, endorsing candidates four years ago, weighing in on occasional ballot issues such as the GO bonds in 2017. It sponsored a handful of town hall meetings on city issues, trying to raise interest and revenue.

But the group’s PAC hasn’t raised or spent significant funds for a long time. One officer told me Tuesday the club hasn’t met for more than a year. Mayoral candidates told me they haven’t heard anything about screenings — and seemed fine with that.

I tried calling the office Tuesday. I got a fast busy signal.

The Citizens Association may eventually issue endorsements in the mayoral and council races this year, but they won’t matter.

Should something replace the once-powerful group?

The quick answer is no. The last thing Kansas City wants is an elitist club trying to dictate election outcomes. That ship has sailed.

But the idea of younger Kansas Citians, engaging in their community through a common organization, seems as important today as it did when Pendergast was walking around. Maybe more so.

The issues aren’t corruption and vice. They’re livability, investment, subsidies, education and public safety.

There is energy and focus among young Kansas City voters, the most I’ve seen in decades. It’s possible someone will step forward to harness it for the next 50 years or so.

Kansas City’s leadership is turning the page. Long live the Citizens Association, and whatever takes its place.

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Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.
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