Looking to Lead

Steve Miller recruits some heavyweight endorsements for his mayoral campaign, and moves to secure the backing of women in regional business.

National politics and local concerns of women in business leadership positions intertwined on Feb. 4 in an assembly called to mark the official launch of Steve Miller’s campaign for mayor of Kansas City.

It’s often been said that the Kansas City region, by virtue of the state line that divides it, has access to four members of the U.S. Senate. And while residents here may not technically be constituents, Virginia’s Tim Kaine is by default very nearly a fifth set of Senate ears—Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential running mate in 2016 is a hometown product who became a Virginian by marriage more than 30 years ago.

But his personal ties, if not legislative concerns, remain strong in this region, as evidenced by a day of campaigning on behalf of his high-school buddy, Steve Miller. That was the backdrop for a gathering of two dozen high-profile women who are executives, investors, philanthropists and agents for civic initiatives in Kansas City. They met at the law offices of Dentons overlooking the Country Club Plaza, and for about an hour discussed the factors that are holding back female participation in the American promise of wealth creation.

Some of those factors are matters of American culture; some are grounded in local policymaking. To the extent that a sitting U.S. senator is able to synthesize those local concerns and potentially apply them to federal policymaking, the women in attendance very nearly did have another entree to the Senate at their disposal.

Kaine, who has also been governor of Virginia, appeared with his wife, Anne Holton, that state’s former education secretary and herself the daughter of a Virginia governor. Their introductory comments covered matters of local ties, common themes of raising families and the challenges that women in business face today.

The session started a few minutes late, but Kaine had a pretty good reason: He was delayed by a phone call from HRC herself, offering moral support for a fellow Democrat whose home state was being rocket by allegations of racial insensitivity and sexual predation confronting its three top elected officials. Saying that he and Kaine were there to listen to concerns of those at the table, Miller declared that “Tim and I are not about to spend much time as the only males in the room talking about leadership or anything else.” 

With the niceties out of the way, local issues came straight to the fore. Mary McNamara, owner of commercial roofing contractor Cornell Roofing, raised concerns about Kansas City’s new restrictions on eligibility for contracts through its women-owned and minority-owned criteria.

Last year, the City Council voted to alter longstanding practices, making an owner’s personal wealth a factor in eligibility and, in effect, giving greater priority to companies that qualify as disadvantaged businesses. 

Karen Fenaroli, who runs an executive recruiting firm in Kansas City, spoke directly about the need for women not to simply secure an equal status in matters of business leadership and finance, but to assert dominance in those areas.

Telling Miller that he was making an intelligent move to muster support from such an influential group of women, she noted that two dozen was just scratching the surface. “I want to bring together another 1,000 women who aren’t in this room,” Fenaroli said. And she encouraged women in the community to start marshaling support of regional mayors and pushing them to align with Kansas City’s next mayor to adopt a more unified regional approach to governance.

Participants also talked about what they see as a playing field that remains tilted in favor of men because of the way personalities and leadership characteristics are filtered through a lens of sexism. A couple of familiar examples: The longstanding complaint that strong women are perceived as adversarial and emotional, rather than merely assertive, in ways that men are not. And Miller himself cited the 2016 election outcome as one fraught with implications over the role of gender. The Democratic ticket—which earned 3 million more votes than Trump’s—suffered because a significant number of voters weren’t prepared to see a woman in the White House, he said. 

Several at the table mentioned challenges with women in business trying to access capital; even in 2019, there are instances where female loan applicants attending meetings with lenders on their own w ill b e a sked “where’s your husband?”

Other topics of discussion involved the need to promote more women into leadership positions on the boards of both for-profit corporations and nonprofits, as well as in the executive suites. Others addressed the need to accommodate working mothers’ careers so they don’t lose ground during maternity leave or because of issues related to raising their children.

Not all of the discussion was grounded in gender-based challenges; also in the mix were issues of access to transportation to help residents of low-income neighborhoods access available jobs in the region, and the need for this community to come to grips with continuing racial disparities; and calls for more effective diversity initiatives in both the public and private sectors.

“I hope this conversation we started today is one we continue while I’m on the campaign, and one I promise to continue if elected mayor,” Miller said. “These are not easy issues.”