Melinda Henneberger

Tiny houses, big plans: Jason Kander launches his most ambitious campaign 

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke visits Veterans Community Project

After South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, another 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke visited Veterans Community Project on Troost Avenue.
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After South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, another 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke visited Veterans Community Project on Troost Avenue.

On the June night that Quinton Lucas won the Kansas City’s mayor’s race in a landslide, Jason Kander says he was not even thinking about what might have been had he stayed in the crowded contest he left to get treatment for post-traumatic stress.

“Honestly — and I get it if people don’t believe this — I forgot” it was even Election Day, he said in an interview at the Veterans Community Project, where he recently went to work. “I mean, I voted, then much later in the day, I was running my kid around, doing stuff. I was at his basketball practice, and one of the other dads came up to me and he said, ‘So, you got any predictions for tonight?’ And I swear to you — wasn’t that during the NBA finals? — my response was, ‘I didn’t think there was a game tonight.’ And he was like, ‘No, the mayor’s race,’ and I was like, ‘Oooooh.’”

That in no way should be taken to mean that he now looks down on his former profession or its practitioners, he says, or that he sees himself as somehow having moved beyond them. And no, the former Missouri lawmaker and secretary of state doesn’t sound like that, even if his current goals may be even loftier than when he “basically ran for president for a couple of years” between his 2016 senatorial race against Republican incumbent Roy Blunt and his brief mayoral run.

In leading the planned national expansion of the VCP’s tiny houses program for homeless veterans, he says, “I have this opportunity here to make such an enormous difference. So much of my life is defined by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly Afghanistan,” where he served, “and now I have this chance to grow the VCP to the point where it could potentially serve every single person who served in those wars, every person who served in previous wars, and let’s be honest, the people who will likely serve in future wars.”

Compared to that, almost any ambition would look puny. But Kander, who is 38, has not in any sense given up on politics.

On the contrary, he’s implausibly made Kansas City a stop on the Democratic presidential campaign trail by inviting friends who are in the race to tour the rent-free tiny houses village, which offers on-site services to previously homeless vets and outreach to all veterans. “I’m here because of Jason Kander,” former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said during a stop here last week.

Kander said he intends to “do my part” in campaigning for the Democratic nominee, whoever that turns out to be. And though “there’s no part of me that has any interest in running for office right now,” that situation sounds temporary.

“I have people urging me to run for things every day,” he said.

When I ask whether life in public service is in any way hazardous to the mental health he’s worked hard to regain, he says, “No, let’s be really clear. Politics was not the source of my trauma. I used politics and my work to avoid my trauma. So they’re really not linked. I don’t feel there’s anything I can’t do.”

Meanwhile, one of the things Kander wants to do for veterans in his current role is show people who may not know much about post-traumatic stress that it’s an injury you can get better from. Pretty quickly, in his telling.

Almost as soon as he dropped out of the mayor’s race, he says, he started feeling better.

“After my announcement, I grew a beard and wore a hat everywhere. I wasn’t embarrassed. I just quickly found that going around Kansas City, where I get recognized, it went from pre-announcement, people being very supportive and asking for selfies and all that kind of stuff to post-announcement, one of two things.

“Either people would kind of look at me like a ghost, or they’d come up and say something — well-intentioned, but to try and console me” because “the perception people had was that I was in this horribly dark place. And the truth was that’s where I had been ... I would go out in public and be having a decent day, and suddenly, I had to console someone else. Some days, I just wanted to go to the grocery store and think about going to the grocery store.”

Reading Kander’s bestselling memoir, “Outside the Wire: Ten Lessons I’ve Learned in Everyday Courage” now, knowing what was coming to the man whom, as the book cover notes, Politico once called “the hottest star in Democratic politics,” is kind of like seeing a movie for the second time and noticing the foreshadowing you missed the first time.

When I tell him that, he says one do-over he’d like is the part where he wrote that if you’re upset about something — specifically, about what’s happening in our country — the answer is to stay busy. These days, he’s slowed down considerably, he says, with a daily routine that includes a lot more family time and no work emails after 5 or 6 o’clock.

But Jason Kander at half-speed still looks busy to me.

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