Melinda Henneberger

KC mayoral candidate Scott Wagner: ‘You may not like my answer, but you will get one’

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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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On Presidents Day, Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem and mayoral candidate Scott Wagner took his family on a pilgrimage to the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, where he was once a volunteer docent.

“I walk in here and have a burst of self-esteem,” said his 10-year-old son Truman, who seems to share his father’s dry sense of humor.

Wagner’s encyclopedic knowledge of “Give-’em-hell Harry” — did you know that he memorized the eye chart to get back into the military at age 33? or that he spent decades repaying his Depression-era debts because he was too noble to take bankruptcy? — in no way exceeds his deep-in-the-weeds grasp of the city’s budget.

And there’s no mystery in his attraction to the bespectacled, unfancy and chronically underestimated Missouri dirt farmer whose mother-in-law became the most surprised woman in America.

Wagner, who is 47, “but they feel like dog years,” sees something of his own experience with Mayor Sly James in the fact that, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s number two, Truman was never part of the president’s inner circle. And Truman didn’t worry too much about courting controversy, just as Wagner hasn’t masked his skepticism about Edgemoor, the city-selected developer for the new airport terminal.

It was a point of pride for Truman that he left public service poorer than he entered it. “I feel the same way,” said Wagner, whose resentments are visible because he has no poker face and does not even seem to want one.

If his role model were alive today, Wagner is sure “there would be a lot of expletives over the dismantling of so many of the things he built” — all of the institutions of our post-war alliances. He would be “using his special Missouri language” to speak his mind.

Wagner’s vocabulary is not so salty, but he is one of the most straightforward mayoral candidates, and the wonkiest. In Washington, calling yourself a wonk is the ultimate humblebrag, because that’s what everyone wants to be. In Kansas City, that’s less the case, but there’s still a Midwesterner’s version of swagger in his apologies for getting “nerdy.”

His wife Laura Wagner, who runs her own public relations firm, says that he is curious by nature about all kinds of things, and “tends to research things to death.”

“I married him because he was funny,” but “it’s harder when he’s doing city stuff to be funny.”

No kidding.

Wagner was born in Phoenix, where his ironworker father was “building stuff.” Both of his parents are from Kansas, though, and they moved here in 1975, when their son was 4, during a construction boom. His parents still live in the Gladstone home they’ve been in since 1976.

A violinist and top debater, Wagner started sacking groceries as a high school sophomore, and by the time he was in college, at William Jewell, was managing the store. That experience gave him an education in “how people want to be spoken to.” And because of his day job, he took some night classes with older students.

To save money, he lived at home while triple majoring in economics, business administration and history. So “the life that some have when they go to college, I had less of.”

He’d been accepted at the University of Southern California, but when the hoped-for financial aid didn’t come through, he couldn’t go. Would a Scott Wagner who’d graduated from a school sometimes called the University of Spoiled Children be the same guy in the plaid shirt and dad jeans?

“So many things would have been different,” he said. “I could have been a beach bum, or just a bum. My wife and I talk about it, and I say I never would have met her. Fate is a concept I don’t necessarily believe in, but you’re content and move on the best you can” and look for ways to be of service.

Less than a year out of college, he became marketing director for the City Market, which was then “still suffering from the old stories. Mob stories, that it wasn’t safe.”

He loved it, but after organizing 100 events a year for a few years thought, “I won’t even make it to 30 at this rate” and went into business for himself. He met his wife through the Public Relations Society of America, and they started renovating a 90-year-old house in Indian Mound, where he became president of the neighborhood association and got involved in everything from shutting down drug houses to lobbying for infrastructure.

There’s only so much someone in that role can do, though, and after bumping up against that ceiling a few times, he started looking into what it would take to run for City Council. One potential obstacle, ahead of the 2010 census, was not knowing whether district lines would be redrawn.

North of the river, where he’d grown up, would have to stay in the 1st District, he figured, “so we moved. The plan was always to represent my neighbors well,” even if they were different neighbors.

His votes on the council are hard to predict, and while he’s a fountain of ideas, his colleagues haven’t always embraced even the best of them. They rejected his “Healthy Homes” inspections of rental properties, financed with a per-unit fee on landlords. That died in the Housing Committee chaired by Wagner’s mayoral rival, Quinton Lucas. So Wagner helped get the petition drive started that put it on the ballot last August. And to the horror of developers, it passed overwhelmingly.

Other times, his has been the no vote — as on Lucas’ measure capping city incentives, because he thought it wouldn’t work. “And two years later, most of what we’ve done has come through the port authority.” Just as he’d feared, even for projects for which that makes no sense.

“You can set levels wherever you want, but what it boils down to is how you negotiate the deals.” In this town, there’s not enough distinction drawn between “whether you like the project and whether you like the deal.” Instead, the feeling is that if you say no, “then you don’t like Kansas City.” While as he sees it, he likes Kansas City enough to say no sometimes.

“You may not like my answer, but you will get one.’’ As from his younger son’s namesake. Who, as he points out, was written off even on election night in 1948, when only Truman himself thought he could beat Tom Dewey.

This is an installment in 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.