Melinda Henneberger

‘Plain-spoken and bold’ Alissia Canady isn’t like any other candidate in KC mayor’s race

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Kansas City mayoral candidate profiles

Melinda Henneberger profiles all 11 of the candidates for mayor in Kansas City ahead of the April 2 primary.

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Kansas City Councilwoman Alissia Canady was feeling great that October night after a mayoral forum at Visitation Catholic Church, where she couldn’t help thinking that she’d particularly nailed her answer to a question about violent crime.

“We can’t talk about African-American men only in the context of homicide,” she’d told the audience, without also talking about equity and economic opportunity. “When 40 percent of the men in 64130 are ex-offenders — 40 percent! — what kind of opportunities are available to them? You have to bring the issue holistically together, because it all bleeds together, literally. Frederick Douglass had the answer to this, and he died in 1895. He says it’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. We have broken men that are modeling broken behavior to broken children, and until we begin to deal with that,” she said, “with a program designed on purpose to restore them,” not much will change.

Then she walked outside the parish hall, turned her phone back on and learned that while she’d been talking about gun violence, her favorite cousin, Darrick Jackson — the one her mom had taken in and raised alongside her — had been fatally shot. Just down the street at St. Luke’s Hospital, he’d become the year’s 108th homicide victim in Kansas City.

The bullet that killed him was intended for someone else, and according to Canady, had been fired into his chest by a “guy who had been on Darrick’s couch for the week prior” after getting out of jail with nowhere to go. “He’d just bought him some socks and underwear.”

On top of everything else that terrible night, Canady’s family had found some of the staff at St. Luke’s painfully cold, she said in an interview at her law office. “I’m a councilwoman. Many of the staff knew that, and that’s how I’m treated,” so what about the average person reeling in grief? And what happens to all of the raw, unprocessed trauma of those who loved all of the 134 people murdered in Kansas City last year alone?

Canady, a 39-year-old lawyer who correctly describes herself as “plain-spoken and bold,” grew up on the city’s East Side, and used to put in eight hours making collections calls for a data system company every day after high school let out. (Yes, that was a 16-year-old urging you to pay up.) When she brags, it’s about her gold-plated work ethic and how she put herself through college as a nail tech with her own small business. It took her nine years to get that finance degree, and then she sold real estate before attending the University of South Dakota Law School, where she was one of only three African-American students. After graduation, she went to work for Jean Peters Baker in the Jackson County prosecutor’s office and saw all over again how, “if we’re not setting the agenda, we’re fighting over crumbs.”

She got into the crowded race to succeed Mayor Sly James for a few reasons: She’s had it with hearing about how nothing can be done about gun violence without new gun laws in GOP-run Jefferson City. She’s fed up, too, with watching her City Council colleagues continue to hand out all kinds of goodies to the developers who finance their campaigns.

“They bankroll the decision makers,” she said, then get incentives — money that ought to be spent instead on mental health care and schools. “We can’t keep building buildings and not building community.” And in the end, she got in this thing because her best friend from law school, Laura Isabel Alvarez, who lives here now, wrote her a check for $500.

“Then I had to stop talking about it and do it,” she told the dozen or so women who came out on an icy night for a “New Year, New Focus” campaign and motivational event. She shared tips, like “Know your why” and “People are attracted to vision. When you’re very clearly articulating yours, they want to help you.”

But she also talked about some of the struggles that aren’t yet behind her, like learning to take better care of herself than she did during her 2015 council race, when she got so stressed her hair fell out. Like taking a minute to celebrate when all that work finally pays off. And like reminding herself that there’s a reason her fundraising hasn’t been stellar, when she’s the one running against handouts to rich people, remember?

“That knocked the wind out of me,” she said of the money race. Still, “as crowded as this race is, I don’t need a bunch of money to win,” she tells the room, but also herself. “I just need to get to the other side of the primary” on April 2. “And I don’t care how much money they’ve got, they’re not going to outwork me.”

Canady is the candidate who sugarcoats nothing and does name names, even if that’s not how it’s done. At a recent City Council meeting where The Paseo, which runs through her district, was finally renamed for Martin Luther King Jr., she’s the one who stood up and said this was not a victory for the African-American community when “this action we’re taking is suppressing the voice of the African Americans that live on Paseo Boulevard that do not support it.” Then she accused Councilman Quinton Lucas, who is also running for mayor and whose early life was not so different from her own, of grandstanding and cynicism.

At the “New Year, New Focus” event, in answer to a question about why Mayor James is going around saying Councilwoman Jolie Justus is the only one of the 11 candidates in the race who’s for his pre-K plan, she said she wants quality early childhood education too, but not at the expense of affordable housing, which is where she sees this going. “It’s just like you’ve saved for a new roof, and then your husband used it to fix your neighbor’s house. The school districts have their own funding sources.”

“This mayor has been so disrespectful” to her personally, she added, “but I don’t get to lose my cool” the way he sometimes does. “This mayor has been a role model in a lot of ways, but he’s also taught me what to do better.”

When asked how she’d lead the conversation on race, she said she’s not interested in exercises with no measurable result. “I’ll be honest; I’m not talking about race. We’ve been talking about race for too long. I want to talk about green — economic development, employment opportunities, health care. As long as we keep talking about color, we’re going to keep having this conversation for another 50 years.”

One of the women at the event who had never met Canady before, Cendie Stanford, told her, “I love the way you talk; I’m super inspired by you.” And afterward, as we got up to leave, Stanford said that listening to Canady, “There was never a moment when I wondered, what is she not saying?”

This is the first installment in a series of profiles of candidates for mayor of Kansas City.

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.