Melinda Henneberger

Mayoral candidates Lucas and Justus have 11 weeks to explain themselves. But does KC care?

Council members Justus, Lucas win Kansas City mayoral primary, will face off in June

Councilwoman Jolie Justus and Councilman Quinton Lucas emerged victorious in Tuesday night’s Kansas City mayoral primary, prevailing over nine competitors for the chance to face off in the June general election.
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Councilwoman Jolie Justus and Councilman Quinton Lucas emerged victorious in Tuesday night’s Kansas City mayoral primary, prevailing over nine competitors for the chance to face off in the June general election.

Kansas City, you feel pretty good about you, and that mostly comes across as an appealing self-confidence. In your own mirror, you’re civic-minded, engaged and Kansas City proud, over everything from burnt ends to how alluring KC looks on “Queer Eye.” But then, only a whoop-dee-doo 16 percent of you who are registered to vote bothered to do so on Tuesday. With so much at stake, why?

“It breaks my heart,” says Phil Scaglia, the longtime political strategist. “We have so much pride, and we believe in our city, and then when it comes time to vote, they don’t.”

He’d bet that in almost any room in town, you could ask any 10 people what they thought of the recent election and a lot more folks would think you were talking about last year’s Senate race than this week’s local contests. I wouldn’t take that bet, though.

Because everywhere I went these last few weeks, I asked about the April 2 Kansas City mayoral primary in particular and got an awful lot of verbal shrugs in response.

Quinton Lucas, who made it into the runoff, along with his fellow City Council member Jolie Justus, said on Wednesday that “the sad thing is, I was almost impressed” with that pathetically low turnout, because he’d been expecting even worse. “People don’t think it matters.”

Clearly, those who see the status quo as reassuring don’t feel that much is at stake. And if the only thing this race decides is whether this or that nice person will be our city’s new head cheerleader, then sure, why bestir your comfy self?

Kansas City has the fifth highest murder rate in the country, but the pain of that loss isn’t felt equally across the city. And if you see gentrification as a positive, inequality and a lack of affordable housing aren’t going to get you to the polls, either.

Then there are those who stayed home for the opposite reason — not because they’re so soothed and snug, but because they have stopped believing any kind of meaningful transformation is even possible.

Mayoral candidate Phil Glynn said on Thursday that when he was out knocking on doors, “a lot” of Kansas Citians told him and others on his team that they’d decided not to vote — not because they were unaware of the issues or unfamiliar with the candidates, but because they no longer believe city government can or will ever address persistent problems. That’s not irrational, but it is self-perpetuating.

“In advance of every election,” said the Urban League’s Gwen Grant, “the NAACP and other groups sponsor voter registration drives. I keep stressing the fact that we have enough registered voters to elect the candidates of our choice, but it matters not because we don’t show up at the polls. I think people believe their votes don’t matter and our political systems have failed them.”

Though I have more sympathy for the hopeless than the complacent, it’s that why-bother level of discouragement that does more harm, because those voters would force change if only they forced themselves to vote.

We on The Star’s editorial board obviously saw the most likely change agents as those candidates we endorsed, Alissia Canady and Glynn. Neither was well-funded or expected to win, and neither advanced to the June 18 runoff.

In the next 11 weeks, the two who did, Justus and Lucas, will have the chance, and hopefully the inclination, to explain in detail how they intend to help us get where we need to go.

Lucas has successfully pushed for incentive reform already on the council. As someone who was couch-surfing in a Kansas City nursing home with an elderly relative while attending the Barstow School, the 34-year-old Cornell Law grad and KU Law lecturer understands where hopelessness comes from. “I still know what it’s like to be poor,” he said at his victory party. “I know what it’s like to be homeless but to also be able to succeed in our city.”

There are, as Lucas says, clear differences between him and 48-year-old Justus, a lawyer who served in the state Senate before running for City Council: “If you’re somebody who thinks we need to spend more time on affordable housing, fighting violent crime and addressing neighborhood safety, then I think you’ll be a vote for me.”

The question Lucas has to answer isn’t how much he knows or cares, but whether he’ll stand up and stand pat in the face of opposition.

For Justus, it’s exactly how she intends to bring success to every part of the city. “If we work together,” she said after her win, “we are going to have the healthy, safe, diverse, inclusive and equitable neighborhoods that all of us want.” Sign me up, but how is that going to happen?

Up until now, at least, her focus has been on her patient and inclusive process: “You bring everybody in and you take a little longer” to reach consensus. But on what? Unless voters require answers, we may never know.