Melinda Henneberger

Mayoral candidate Jolie Justus: Sometimes, saying nothing is the way to get something done

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

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Being the only Democrat in her family taught Kansas City mayoral candidate Jolie Justus that some things you’re better off not mentioning: “We just make a point of never discussing politics or religion and enjoying everything else.”

Being the only girl on the (otherwise) all-boy traveling soccer team in Branson, Missouri, where Justus grew up in the ‘80s, taught her that having a player slam into you growling, “Bitch, you shouldn’t be out here,” can be motivational.

But it was not only being in the minority as a legislator in Jefferson City that taught her it can be smarter to befriend than to rebuff even someone who introduces himself as a “the redneck homophobe that banned gay marriage in the state of Missouri.”

“That just might be how I’m wired,” says Justus. The City Council member most closely aligned with Mayor Sly James, Justus is quite unlike him in temperament and approach.

“We’d yell at each other on the floor, then go out to dinner,” said the guy who made that homophobe crack, former state Sen. Kevin Engler. (“That was our joke,” he says.)

Engler gives Justus enormous credit for knowing how to accept half a loaf. On one abortion bill, “she made the best possible deal on something restrictive that could have been more restrictive. I gave her 45 minutes to yell at us,” but she did so “knowing it could have been worse” had she taken a less conciliatory tack in private.

She tends to steer clear of conflict and controversy on the council, too. “What a lot of folks don’t understand is it’s better to not say anything at all if you want to get something accomplished. I’ve had people call or tweet or text and say, ‘Why aren’t you speaking up about this?’ Because it’s getting ready to pass and if I say something, it just delays the vote.”

That’s both her strategy and her nature.

And whether you think that’s great or not great depends on whether you think Kansas City needs to change incrementally or more fundamentally. (She’s running, she said at a recent campaign event, “because Kansas City is on a roll right now. We just have to make sure we keep this momentum moving forward.”) It also depends on whether you believe it’s more effective to publicly challenge the status quo or nudge it more patiently from behind the scenes.

Justus, who is 48, was born to two UMKC students, a conservatory flautist and an aspiring lawyer.

A few years ago, she met a long-forgotten preschool teacher who vividly remembered her as “a big pain in my ass,” who at 3 had tried to block the instructor from entering the room with a snack — grapes — because she was observing the Cesar Chavez boycott.

Her dad, James Justus, who moved the family to Branson so he could run for prosecutor, says she was “opinionated about everything” and enjoyed belting “I am woman, hear me roar.” But she also got along with “the athletes, the geeks — everyone liked Jolie. Did she tell you she was the prom queen?”

In third grade, she announced that she had signed her dad up to coach the new traveling soccer team she wanted to play on. He had to study up before he could coach a sport that was new to him, too. It wasn’t as though spots on the team were highly coveted, and nobody in Branson made a fuss that Jolie was playing with the boys. “We needed her because she was a body out there,” her father says.

It was only on the road that some players got nasty and that some refs tried to keep her off the field. When the Branson team started packing up the van to go home, they reconsidered, and that, too, was a political lesson.

At one junior high parent-teacher conference, James Justus and his wife were apprised that “Jolie has a talking problem” so incorrigible she had to be seated next to the teacher. That was a plus in her after-school job at the radio station, and she saw herself doing that for a living when she went off to the University of Missouri in Columbia to study journalism.

But after graduating from what’s now Missouri State University, where she’d transferred to work full-time at the local station, she realized that McDonald’s paid better. And she said yes when her dad offered her $6.50 an hour to help in his law office.

“I think she figured out you can’t make enough in radio journalism to do what she wanted to do,” he says. While working for him, she says, “I realized that this was a profession, a trade that would be good for me. He was solving problems, and I wanted to be part of that.”

After law school at UMKC, she went to work at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, where she’s director of pro bono services. In 2004, she worked unsuccessfully to defeat Missouri’s gay marriage ban.

She also came out publicly that year, two years after telling her husband. “Out of college, I married my best friend, who was a man.” And in one of the most wrenching moments of her life, sat him down and said, “There’s something I have to tell you.’ ’’

“He said, ‘You’re gay.’ And I said, ‘How did you know?’ And he said, ‘Because I love you.’ And I said, ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ And he said, ‘Because I love you.’‘’

She and her wife, Lucy Bardwell, who’s in charge of safety at the Kansas City Zoo, have been together since 2011.

From her time in the state Senate, Justus is proudest of legislation that protects victims of domestic violence from having their addresses made public, and of sponsoring an overhaul of the criminal code. One provision of the latter that horrified some of those normally on her side was a broadly written exemption for all “religious workers” from being mandatory reporters of abuse.

“I wasn’t aware” that was in there, Justus says. But it was her bill, other Democrats do say they raised the issue, and it still hasn’t been fixed.

Her GOP buddy Kevin Engler not only admires her pragmatism but wound up moving far enough in her direction to co-sponsor legislation that would have made it illegal to fire Missourians for being gay. The bill didn’t pass, but they only worked together on it, Justus says, “because I didn’t rule him out.”

“For a left-wing nut,” he says in return, “she’s got great fiscal characteristics and some common sense and can get business done.” In fact, “if I lived in Kansas City, I’d vote for her.”

Whether you think that’s a warning or an achievement might decide whether you would, too.

This is one 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.