Dave Helling

Did Jolie Justus go negative in the KC mayor’s race? Maybe that’s just what we need

A few weeks ago, you could hear the whispers: Jolie Justus, candidate for mayor, was about to “go negative” in her race against Quinton Lucas.

This was a surprise. Kansas City hasn’t had a truly negative mayoral campaign in decades. What would a negative campaign even look like?

We now have an answer. In a TV ad, the Justus campaign labels Lucas unreliable, in part because he co-sponsored an ordinance that called for hiring two law firms to advise the City Council on the airport mess.

Lucas took a few donations from one of the law firms and once interned at the other. “Lucas ... gave no-bid contracts to old buddies,” the commercial says.

There are more than a few things wrong with that claim. While it’s true that Lucas voted for the no-bid legal contracts, so did Justus. And at the time, Justus was a key supporter of the airport agreement with Burns & McDonnell — the biggest no-bid deal of all. Lucas’ marginal connections with the law firms pale in comparison.

The Justus ad turns out to be pretty thin gruel.

You want a real negative campaign? In the 1991 Kansas City mayoral primary, one of the candidates was accused of being a drunk and a tax cheat. Another was alleged to have earned his degree from a diploma mill. A campaign consultant was suspected of stealing documents from one candidate and giving them to another.

We’ve seen nothing like that this time around.

Here’s the thing, though. Criticism of Justus’ so-called negative campaign is also pretty thin. Negative campaigns can actually be helpful, and this mayoral race could have used more of that.

Candidates need to have the ability to contrast their records and approaches with their opponents. Justus must explain why she’s the better option, and that can include explaining why her opponent falls short. Lucas can choose to make the same argument.

Criticism must be factual, of course, and not personal. The Justus ad falls short on all of the facts, but reporters can provide context, and they have. The mere fact that she has chosen to criticize Lucas should not send us all to the fainting couch.

Interestingly, Justus has not carried her negative campaign onto the debate stage. She’s taken a few swipes at her opponent (the rhetoric escalated on both sides in Tuesday’s KMBC debate), but nothing aggressive enough to seize the headlines. Lucas has responded in classic passive-aggressive fashion: I’m not going to criticize Jolie, he’ll say, even if she puts out all this ugly, untrue stuff.

He’s pretty skilled.

Kansas City’s mayoral campaign has not actually turned negative, and voters are the worse for it. Justus and Lucas agree on most issues, so a great campaign would clarify their differences in approach and philosophy. When Justus and Lucas both give City Manager Troy Schulte a grade of A- for his work, something is up. Neither candidate wants to risk offending anyone.

Let’s hope in the closing days that the Kansas City mayoral campaign turns negative in the best sense of the word: clear contrasts, true facts, honest disagreement. Voters have a very tough choice to make, and campaigns that blur the lines make that decision more difficult than it needs to be.

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