Melinda Henneberger

Henry Klein, Vincent Lee and Clay Chastain keep running for mayor, for different reasons

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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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Maybe you’ve seen Kansas City mayoral candidate Henry Klein’s campaign signs, which say “Fighting for Lost Causes” and “The Impossible Happens Every Day.”

But no, a vote for him in the April 2 election is not a vote for Don Quixote. Because those aren’t references to “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha,” but to the final speech from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’” “You think I’m licked,” Jimmy Stewart’s character cries. “You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause.”

Like Mr. Smith, Mr. Klein is a good guy determined to hang in there no matter what. His “lost cause” isn’t just getting elected on his third try, but trying to get people thinking about why safe neighborhoods and good public schools shouldn’t feel like goals that are out of reach.

An underdog hoping to champion other underdogs, Klein was born in Memphis. His lawyer father and designer mother divorced when he was 6. In the next dozen years, he attended 10 different schools, in Ohio, Louisiana, Maryland and Tennessee, with several returns to Memphis along the way.

He was president of his debate team and of the student body at Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside D.C., then majored in marketing at Indiana University, where “one of the things they did well was help you get a job.”

He’d never even visited Kansas City, but his first job out of college, with R.R. Donnelley, brought him here, where he knew no one, with only a few belongings beyond his 10-inch television set. “And from the moment I got off the airplane, I just loved it. It reminded me of Memphis without the southern accent.”

He did so well in sales that he could retire to make his first mayoral run in 2007. Three years ago, he went back to work for Bank of America, and runs the branch at 63rd Street and Prospect Avenue, which he calls “magical” because he loves his customers so much.

At 56, he’s as idealistic as ever, but not at all quixotic in his work mentoring developmentally disabled Kansas Citians. He’s also tutored adults learning to read and represented kids in trouble as a court-appointed special advocate. He served as board president for Habitat for Humanity Kansas City, which has since merged with Heartland Habitat, and as board vice president for the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City.

Another of those who’ve run multiple times, or has tried to, anyway, is Vincent Lee, who calls himself “the general” and is vague about his background. When I reached him by phone, he asked me to simply write, “He’s the general, and he’s been chasing this chair for 25 years. Oh, wait a minute. My campaign manager says we’ll call you back.”

That hasn’t happened, but at a recent mayoral forum at the World War I Museum, Lee said more about his views than the audience wanted to hear. At first, they seemed to take him for a comedy act, but booed when he said Kansas City is “under massive attack” from immigrants “taking your resources away from you” and “coming here to rape and rob your tax coffers ... I’m going to deal with the illegals like I deal with everything else. Like it or not, that’s the kind of person I am.”

Mayoral candidate Jermaine Reed did not like it: “This is still bothering me, and someone has to say it from the stage: We cannot tolerate hate speech.”

Light rail activist Clay Chastain, who is making his fourth mayoral run exactly 20 years after he left Kansas City, was booed at the same event. The crowd jeered when he said affordable housing should be addressed through HUD and the free market, and again when he called a question about the legacy of segregation in Kansas City “incomprehensible.”

Chastain’s life, as he explained it in an often emotional interview, has given him reason to be angry, and that’s why he’s running again.

His father was born in a tent in the Ozarks and “got a red apple for Christmas when he was 5. That’s how bad it was” for a family trying to make a living from a vegetable patch and one cow on a ridge in Arkansas where the topsoil washed away.

A World War II bomber pilot, his father later became a chief engineer who sold patents and “told me I could be president. He didn’t know I had a problem with authority.”

While Chastain was growing up in Covina, California, hearing that he could even reach the White House “was pressure, and I stumbled around and didn’t get out of the starting gate for a while” as a result. After high school, he moved back to where his father was from in Arkansas, and “wandered around on a lark for four years,” baling hay, picking peaches and working as a surveyor.

Finally, his father convinced him to go to college, and by working on a farm in return for room and board, he put himself through the University of Arkansas, where he studied electrical engineering. Chastain still cries talking about the elderly blind woman he saw begging on the street on a trip to South America while he was in school. On his return, he says, he got down and kissed the ground.

After graduation, he took a succession of jobs in his field here in Kansas City, “but I was just getting lost in the engineering world. I had to be in the freeway of life.” That’s when he became involved in a petition drive to save Union Station, which through many twists led him into advocating for a number of different light rail proposals, sometimes including gondolas.

The city’s refusal to put one of these plans on the ballot in 1994, even after a court order, is what “made me furious. I felt their boot on my neck, and that’s what changed me. That’s what made me run for mayor.”

He might have been elected that first time, in 1995, he says, because he was within striking distance of second place until The Star published a piece on his 1985 arrest for stealing a bunch of sheet rock so he could finish renovating a house he was trying to flip. “We had a baby, so I understand crime and what you do when you’re desperate.”

That story and his subsequent electoral loss “crushed me.” People ask, “So what’s he so angry about? Years and years of being mistreated!” And like an abused dog, “I started biting.”

He moved away from Kansas City in 1999 with his second wife. But that marriage, too, broke up because “I couldn’t let go of my politics,” by which he means his many lawsuits against Kansas City. At one point, he was put on a watch list at City Hall in response to perceived threats against Mayor Sly James.

He’s suffered from depression and struggled financially, but will never stop running, “because I can’t go off with my tail between my legs. My wife could not understand that.”

His father was brilliant, he says, but indelibly scarred by poverty. Whereas his own challenges came later in life, when “people started to turn on me. I’ve not been given a fair shot ever.”

When he heard the crowd booing him at the World War I Museum, he said, it summoned the old rage. “That anger is not far below the surface. That’s what fuels me.”

The stubborn and “impossible dreams” of the recurring candidates might look the same, but they are not. Klein’s is driven by altruism, Lee’s by hate, if that’s what it takes to be noticed, and Chastain’s by hurts that not even winning could heal.

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

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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.