Dave Helling

How much did Sly James’ support help Jolie Justus in KC mayor’s race? Very little

Will Sly James make a difference in Kansas City’s mayoral race?

That’s what campaign strategists and would-be pundits are wondering now that the Quinton Lucas-Jolie Justus general election campaign is underway.

Departing Mayor James has endorsed Justus, and she has fully embraced him: “We’re on a roll,” she has said, over and over.

Yet James may be far less helpful to Justus than she, or he, might think. She really needs to win this on her own.

To see why, let’s look at some numbers and some history.

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An African American candidate has made it to the general election in six of the last seven mayoral races in Kansas City, going back to 1991. In those races, the strategy for the black candidate has been the same: Begin with a solid base in the urban core, then reach out to the State Line corridor and north of the river for additional support.

That’s what James did eight years ago. In the 2011 mayoral primary, against a field almost as large as the one this year and after a similar turnout, James got 1,667 votes in central city wards 3, 7 and 14. Those urban votes were one key to winning the general election.

But James’ votes that year did not transfer to Justus this year. In those same wards in the April primary, Justus won just 346 votes, almost 80% fewer than what James tallied in 2011.

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Who won the wards? Quinton Lucas, of course. He picked up 1,396 votes, close to James’ total eight years ago. But remember: Jermaine Reed and Alissia Canady, also African American candidates, won another 1,615 votes in Wards 3, 7 and 14 this year.

If most of those votes go to Lucas, Justus starts the campaign at a serious disadvantage in the center city.

Justus clearly hoped James’ endorsement would bring at least some urban core support. But his popularity, which is widespread, also appears to be thin. The defeat of James’ proposal for a sales tax to fund expanded pre-K is evidence of that.

That means Justus needs to pick up new votes in the State Line corridor or north of the river — where, by the way, feelings about James are also mixed — to prevail.

Justus and James don’t have history on their side, either. In 1999, outgoing Mayor Emanuel Cleaver supported City Councilman George Blackwood. Blackwood lost. In 2007, outgoing Mayor Kay Barnes supported City Councilman Al Brooks. Brooks lost.

In 2011, Mayor Mark Funkhouser endorsed himself. He lost.

Yes, Lucas faces his own challenges. The African American vote is not monolithic, and some of those voters in the urban core — Canady’s, in particular — may migrate to Justus. Lucas also lagged far behind north of the river. He’ll have to do better there.

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Lucas will have less cash than Justus, and he starts in second place. That’s a major problem, but not insurmountable: Funkhouser was the second-place finisher in 2007 but came from behind to win the general election.

This race is wide open. And there is a path for Lucas.

For Justus, the path seems clear: Run your own race. Don’t count on much of a boost from Mayor James.

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