Melinda Henneberger

From homeless to Ivy League to mayoral candidate, Quinton Lucas has ‘always been like that’

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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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Yes, the education that Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas got at The Barstow School and Washington University and Cornell Law School gave him a different angle of entry into this world than a lot of others who were homeless for a few stretches growing up.

The most polished of the 11 candidates in the Kansas City mayoral race starts his story this way: “I’m the youngest of three, single mom, born here in Kansas City. She — I’ve never met my father. My mother at the time I was born was actually married to a gentleman, not my father, who was incarcerated.”

All true. But it’s also true that the 34-year-old who teaches at the University of Kansas School of Law is not as different as you might think from the third-grader who, when he started at The Barstow School, was living with his great aunt in a local nursing home. (“We just kind of snuck in,’’ he says of himself and his mother, Quintanella Bennett, who goes by Quincy. “I would just spend the day with old ladies — it was great — and they all loved me because their grandchildren and others weren’t visiting enough.”)

“He’s always been 30,” says his oldest sister, Treina Griffin. “He’s been called ‘The Professor’ since he was 10 years old. I went to Metro Tech. I’d take him to games with me, and people were like, ‘What’s wrong with your little brother? Why does he talk like that?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know. He’s always been like that.’ ’’

Before he was even in school, Griffin says, “He was making cities out of paper. Not like, ‘Here’s Grandma’s house.’ Like, ‘Here’s the infrastructure.’’’ He still color-codes the detailed notes he keeps on the Kansas City Chiefs.

His mother remembers Quinton as the kind of child who’d tell the teacher, mostly sincerely, “That’s a beautiful blue dress,” or “That was a fantastic lecture!” But then she’d also find him “consoling someone who had a nanny.” And where her first reaction was more along the lines of wondering what some rich kid had to be sad about, his was that no matter where you’re from, you’ve got problems.

It was her son who made her start voting, long before he was old enough to cast a ballot. “He would research it and tell me who to vote for. I didn’t think it mattered — I’m poor and I’m always going to be poor, so what difference does it make? — and that drives him crazy when people say that.”

When they argue, Bennett says, she reminds herself of the Quinton who when he was in middle school and saw they had no food took $15 of his own — “Quinton has always saved his money“ — and came back on his bike with some groceries. “His groceries weren’t worth a darn — he spent $5 on cheese — but that showed me who he is as a person, and when we fight, I go back to that.”

In return, he remembers the daily ballet she had to execute to get him to Barstow by 7 a.m. so she could be downtown in time for work. He’s grateful too now, “though I hated it at the time,” that she made sure his summer activities “were predominantly or almost exclusively black.”

Hated it? “Because I didn’t know anybody. And then if you’re a little bookish or something, you’ve got to go out and be aggressive and pretend you’re good at sports.”

In Lucas’ narration of his own life, his challenges as a kid just weren’t that big a deal, so what he mentions about living in a motel is how great it was to have cable and to get to watch ESPN. When search engines were still a new toy and all of his college friends were Googling themselves for the first time, what he found was a Missouri appeals case over his paternity. It was jarring, reading an opinion out of nowhere that upheld the statute of limitations on his mother seeking child support from his father. But then, that’s what inspired him to study law.

He found beautiful Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located, “weird and fake” at first. He did well, though, “without any special tutors or anything like that,” alongside “all these people whose dads were partners in New York law firms. I did not know the name of a single New York City law firm.” And here’s a difference nobody talks about: Every black student he knew there was supporting family rather than the other way around. “Not that others don’t, but all of us in law school were sending either money home or helping somebody.”

The first experience in life that knocked him back in any significant way, he says, was his 2008 work, while still at Cornell, for a death row inmate from Georgia named Curtis Osborne. Osborne was guilty; he murdered his drug dealer and the dealer’s girlfriend to avoid paying a $400 debt. But his court-appointed attorney never told Osborne that he’d been offered life in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. And he spoke about his client this way: “The little [N-word] deserves the death penalty.”

Lucas got to know Osborne as someone who’d changed since committing those crimes. He mystified him by insisting that a President Mitt Romney would be “good for American business,” and impressed him in his devotion to the daughter who’d only been a baby when he was sentenced. It was Lucas who made the appeal for clemency to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.

“And then, the amazing thing was, we lost. And when you lose” an appeal for clemency, “you really lose. So much of my life to that point was successes. I had my challenges as a little kid, but for the most part, I had had this gilded life of good schools, things I wanted to do, positive reinforcement. Everything was going on the up, and I actually lost. I lost badly.” So badly that Osborne lost his life, “and that got me away from public service for a little while.’’

He’d already seen the unseemly side of politics, too, when after graduating early from college, he’d worked on the Missouri state Senate campaign of Democrat Jeff Smith. “I was the black outreach person, which I swore to myself I’d never be again. On election night, my job was to deliver fried chicken to nursing homes in North St. Louis, the black part of St. Louis,” which to him is a scenario that sums up “literally everything that’s wrong with the Democratic Party. So I’m delivering boxes of fried chicken. Some ladies got mad at me because we ran out. I got to the victory party that was at some gigantic fancy house in St. Louis, and my fellow staff people were like, ‘Aren’t you so excited?’ No. I stayed for maybe 20 minutes, went back to our apartment and fell asleep and thought, ‘I’m absolutely never doing this again.’ ‘’

But then, after law school, he clerked for Judge Duane Benton on the Eighth District of the U.S. Court of Appeals, who steered him back to service. Benton made him the district’s death penalty clerk, and asked him why he’d “go be the millionth lawyer in Washington,” where he’d interned at WilmerHale, “when you can make a real difference in Missouri.”

He took that advice and took a job in Kansas City at German May, “one of the only firms who didn’t say, ‘You, as a smart black guy, could do all types of interesting things for us.’ I am not Clarence Thomas, but I did always want to make sure that people respected that I could practice law.”

He also started volunteering in the Kansas prison system, teaching a class at Lansing that he’d first taught while he was at Cornell and volunteering at Auburn Correctional Facility, “an old, cold damp place where all these brothers from New York City were sent to keep the economy going.” It was a course designed “not to teach them how to appeal but to teach them not to be upset at society. You can spend the rest of your life being pissed off at the state of New York, but what’s that going to do for you?”

A course in not being pissed off is one Lucas never needed to take. City Council debates can be operatic, with feelings exploding all over the place, but the most you’ll see from him is a heavy sigh, or in extremis an eye roll. When I ask about his recent DUI charge, he says he’s lucky he can afford to fight it, and that being arrested for not driving under the influence — he’d decided to sleep it off in his car instead — raises some interesting legal questions.

Since being elected to the Council in 2015, he’s proudest of pushing through some controversial ordinances. One limited the city manager’s ability to OK contracts without any oversight, and another capped incentives for tax abatements. Recently, Lucas was both booed and cheered in City Council chambers as he argued for the ordinance renaming The Paseo for Martin Luther King Jr.

In an interview, he said he still hears that “I talk white. But I never forgot where my community is. I never forgot who I am.” And why would he, when he’s been that guy all along?

This is one of a series of profiles of candidates for Kansas City mayor.

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.