Melinda Henneberger

No pressure: KC mayoral candidate Jermaine Reed was ‘the chosen one’ from a young age

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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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When he was still in elementary school, mayoral candidate Jermaine Reed had already been singled out by civic icon Alvin Brooks as a little kid with a big future. His high school career was so well chronicled in The Star that Reed must have felt a little like Patrick Mahomes did in Whitehouse, Texas.

A piece published his sophomore year ran under the headline, “Teen makes the most of life.” It began, “Jermaine Reed attributes his altruism to divine intervention.” In that article, he talked about counseling runaways and “joked that he’d like to be mayor when he’s 25.” Another feature published that same week reported on the clean-up effort he’d organized along a 35-block stretch of Prospect Avenue.

In 2002, the year he graduated from Northeast, a story about Reed and his KPRS radio show was called, “Prime-time mover: Northeast Senior Jermaine Reed is motivated by community service.” Another piece that year pointed out his “magnetic grin worthy of a toothpaste commercial” and quoted his principal saying, “I wouldn’t put it past him to go for vice president or president.”

No pressure, right?

Reed, 34, who became Kansas City’s youngest City Council member 8 years ago, insists that there was no particular stress involved in being what he calls “the chosen one.” Because all you have to do, he said, is never disappoint those who believe in you. Oh, that’s all?

“In my mind, it was, ‘I can’t let them down,’ so I was determined. It can appear to be a lot of pressure, but I wanted to break the cycle in my own family to do something greater,” he said. “That’s been my calling, and I haven’t veered too much.”

Even more image-conscious than the average candidate, Reed asks me more than once while I’m working on this piece if he’s said anything to me that could possibly embarrass his family. He has not, or even come close, but that question wasn’t out of nowhere, either.

Growing up poor “in a lot of different places throughout the city,” the two directives his single mother most strenuously drilled into him were 1) Get an education, and 2) Don’t talk about any problems inside the house outside the house: “If the lights were out, we were told not to go out and talk about it.”

The more relevant facts about his childhood, he says, are that his grandparents were always there for him and his four brothers, that “we had a lot of love and compassion in our home,” and that his mother, who worked at a day care center and later became a custodian, regularly “went without” while “we were eating her out of house and home.”

When Reed’s older brother Gregory started attending some of the youth programs run by the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime that Brooks had founded, their mom made him take Jermaine along.

Brooks’ first memory of Reed was that he was “mischievous in those days. Some people would use the word ‘bad,’ but I wouldn’t.”

He was only 9 then, and his misbehavior was nothing serious: “Running — ‘hey, stop that!’ or ‘stay out of that!’ — that kind of stuff.” But “I said, ‘We need to mentor Jermaine,’ and he began to hang out, and I took him under my wing.”

Reed became a volunteer, then “the inner-city guy” on a regional youth advisory board for the Kauffman Foundation. He went on the radio with Brooks and finally became the co-host of a Saturday morning call-in show, “Generation Rap,” along with his friend Melissa Robinson.

Just after Christmas when he was 14, someone knocked on the door. “Tell them I’m not here,” Reed remembers his mother whispering. “These guys literally came in and took our stuff and put it on the side of the road” in the snow.

Then and for many years, he said, “no one really knew what was happening at home. Nor would my mom think it was anyone’s business. Mr. Brooks never even knew what was going on. I was his little protégé, and never did anyone suspect.”

Or so he thought: “Sometimes I’d go to pick him up at one address,” Brooks said, “and they were no longer there. They were homeless and I knew that.” Brooks saw something in him, though — “this smile, this personality. He could work a room even before he became politically inspired.” Basically, “I saw his leadership ability.”

Reed interned for Brooks at City Hall, and through him met important people, including Bank of America executive David Ross, who asked, “Are you going to college?” Oh sure, Reed told him. . “Mizzou?” Of course, Reed said again.

Even after Ross made clear he meant to help him, Reed’s high school counselor was discouraging: “You don’t have the grades, and you’re not smart enough.” At least, that’s the way he remembers it.

“I’m not the smartest guy in the room,” he said, and he doesn’t feel he needs to be, since “the mayor’s role is to be a convener, and I’ve been doing that all my life. I want to be the cheerleader.”

After a year of community college, he did move on to Columbia, where he often sat in the front row in class, just as his mentors had advised him. He served in student government and became the first in his family to graduate from college.

Then, “I wanted to find out are all the things people have said about me true? I wanted to go where I didn’t have Al Brooks to walk me in.”

In Washington, D.C., he worked for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and when that contract ended, he did go to work for one of Brooks’ daughters, who brought him into city government. After three years on the East Coast, Brooks and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver “and a few other folks mentioned, ‘You might have an opportunity’” to run for Kansas City Council. “‘But you better get home.’’’

In his first race, in 2011, he came in third in the primary but advanced anyway after one of his opponents was disqualified for living out of state. “People laughed me out of the room, but I had enough oomph to stick to it” and went on to defeat the incumbent.

“He never gives up no matter what anybody says,” says his friend Melissa Robinson. “He always has a positive outlook on what could be.”

Since then, he’s gotten a reputation for promptly answering calls from constituents in the 3rd District. He was the chief City Council sponsor for the “ban the box” measure that prohibits city employers from asking about criminal history on initial job applications. And he can rightly claim credit for getting grocery stores built in former food deserts on the East Side — the Aldi on Prospect Avenue and Sun Fresh in the Linwood Shopping Center.

As for all the stuff The Star used to write about his presidential prospects, he said, “I totally don’t want to be president. I want to serve wherever I’m needed.” He sees himself as an underdog once again, but “I’m the guy people want to go to the bar and have a drink with.” Which he knows, he said, because they so often tell him, “I’ve been knowing you since you were a kid.”

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.