More from the series
Kansas City mayoral candidate profiles
Melinda Henneberger profiles all 11 of the candidates for mayor in Kansas City ahead of the April 2 primary.
Four days before Phil Glynn announced his decision to run for Kansas City mayor last October, a 12-year-old knocked on his door on Ward Parkway and asked his wife Elizabeth if he could use her phone to call his mom. “And she did what Elizabeth does,” Glynn says, “and showed this kid love. She probably gave him milk and cookies.”
As things started to get weird, she told their three children to take the dog and go next door. He pulled a gun, asked for her keys and cellphone and said he was going to take her car. “She said, ‘Yes, you are, here are the keys, go.’ ”
He crashed into a tree, ran and is in some kind of juvenile facility now, “just a poor, scared kid with a lot of problems who made a super duper bad decision.” But having a weapon pulled on his wife in their kitchen summed up in one frame why Glynn is running: Because, as he puts it, “we’re coming to a crisis point in this community.” One that he feels can only be solved through fundamental rather than incremental change.
“We’re not on a good path, and it’s unacceptable to me as someone who’s raising a family here. The perception that some parts of Kansas City are doing well and others aren’t is not reality” because when some neighborhoods suffer, we all do.
Initially, 38-year-old Glynn might not strike you as a likely disruptor. He’s laid-back by nature — sunny, really — and even when he was growing up, low maintenance. The youngest of three, “he was the type of kid who if we had a babysitter, he’d put himself to bed early,” says his sister, Sarah LaSala. “He was a rule follower.”
Their mom Judy was a former Ursuline nun and teacher and their dad Kevin was according to Glynn “an old-fashioned, cigar-smoking attorney, a relationship guy,” who commanded Navy swift boats in Vietnam and wouldn’t recognize the practice of law today.
Their family life in Brookside revolved around two things: church and fun, and no, those aren’t mutually exclusive. “Church was a big part of everything, and partying. A big part of what my parents talked about was gratitude and how emotionally and financially hard their parents’ lives had been. It was a huge family, and they all loved each other,” with cousins doubling as best friends and “old ladies smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey telling the old legends. Everyone had a zest for life.”
He became an Eagle Scout, “if you need any special knots tied,” and was a decent basketball player, too, though once his team got to the state championship, “I contributed to our GPA.” In the summer, he and an army of other Glynns worked for his Uncle Jim’s foundation repair business.
A friend he knew through scouting had gone to Wake Forest, and that’s the only place he applied. A French and English major, he met his wife working on the student newspaper.
It was in the year after graduation, which he spent teaching English in the gritty French town of Dreux, west of Paris, that he figured out what he was not going to do with his life. Most of the factories there have been shuttered since the 1980s, when Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, far-right National Front scored its first significant successes in the country there, and nationalist thugs with tear gas shouted, “Arabs out!” and “France for the French!”
He arrived in 2004, when all of Europe was convulsed by the Madrid train bombings, and headscarves and other religious symbols were banned in French schools. In by then heavily Muslim Dreux, amid the ongoing national outcry against the Iraq War — remember freedom fries? — “I realized that I was an ideological person,” he says. As opposed to one who even wanted to put his own views aside for objectivity’s sake as the news reporter he’d thought he was going to become. “That wasn’t me; I was an activist.”
When the term ended, he attended Elizabeth’s Wake Forest graduation and brought her back to Kansas City with him: “This is just where I wanted to be. I was raised to love this community, and I did and I do.”
Initially, they both went to work at DST Systems Inc., but “I did my job until 5 and forgot about it,” then did political organizing. He helped start Heartland Democrats of America with his high school buddy Jason Kander, who was briefly in this mayor’s race, too, before announcing that he was getting out to focus on treatment for his PTSD.
(No, he and Kander haven’t been in touch in some time, Glynn says. “The issues in the relationship are when I told him I was running he was supportive, he was helping me, then he decided to run. I let him know I disagreed, and that’s where it stands right now.” When I remark that Kander might have accomplished more in talking about his depression than he could have as mayor, Glynn doesn’t say anything for a minute. “I’m just glad he’s getting help.”)
The work they did together years ago “was about getting more Democrats elected to the statehouse, if I’m honest,” because “the things the Republicans wanted to dismantle were what I’d been raised to believe in. And I was into the competition, the fight: This is my team, and I want to help my team win.”
Over time, his political work became something more than that. “I started to question the economics of our city — our racial and geographic divisions,” why no one walks very far and why workers don’t benefit as much as business.
While getting a master’s degree in public administration from UMKC, he went to work for his in-laws at the company they’d started, Travois, which develops affordable housing for Native American communities. Glynn’s initial assignment was to see how feasible it would be to start an economic development fund to expand early childhood education, broadband, health care, infrastructure and neighborhood retail on reservations.
“I got really, really lucky,” things went well for two years and then didn’t any more when the economy crashed in 2008, “and we lost all of our investors.” That experience, he says, “helps me with worrying about things outside my control,” though that wouldn’t seem to be a problem. He and Elizabeth have been running Travois together since her parents retired in 2016.
“I had been doing the Democratic Party thing, focused on housing and infrastructure” — he still is a Jackson County Democratic Committeeman — and slowly, “I started to believe city government had the most impact” on people’s lives.
That’s why he worked to elect Mayor Sly James, who appointed Glynn to the Tax Increment Financing Commission but eventually kicked him off for voting no too often, giving a thumbs down to incentives for companies that didn’t need them in communities that are not blighted.
As Glynn remembers it, James said, “I respect you for staying on principle, but I can’t have this and I’m pulling you off.” His “lonely no votes” and ouster did change the conversation, he says, but also “showed me I’d reached the limit of what I could accomplish as an activist.”
He’s running, he says, to address a murder rate that’s unacceptably high, affordable housing that’s in unacceptably short supply and a “transportation system that does not get people to work. If people want a continuation of the status quo, there are several other candidates to choose from.”
This is one in a series of profiles of candidates for Kansas City mayor.