Inside the Kansas City Mayoral Race

Two members of the City Council advance to Kansas City’s general election in June, with a lot riding on that outcome—for the entire region.

So now we know: Kansas City’s next mayor will be either Jolie Justus or Quinton Lucas. Over the course of the next seven weeks, the two current members of the City Council will spar for the right to a title, but not to the kind of power that most large American cities afford their mayors. 

As something of a first-among-equals member of the City Council in a council-manager form of government, the mayor holds a few extra policy cards to play. So the effectiveness of the next mayor will be measured by the ability to persuade not just the other 12 members of the council, but residents broadly, that his or her vision should be transformed into specific actions. For Lucas, getting there means adhering to a vision.

“It was the goal of our campaign to reach voters everywhere, and we did that through grassroots outreach,” Lucas says. “Our message all along has been that every man, woman, and child in this city deserves access to a good education, a safe neighborhood, and opportunities that will bring them success and happiness, regardless of their ZIP code.” For the general election, he says, “our messaging won’t change.”

Justus, too, will stick to her strategy. “My goal in the primary was to build a truly citywide campaign operation
in order to spend time in as many Kansas City neighborhoods as possible,” Justus said. “That’s part of the reason why my supporters and I took the time to walk the entire length of Kansas City during the span of the race. It was an opportunity to renew some friendships and forge new ones.”

Her message now, she says, and her long-term vision for the city, doesn’t change for the general election. “I’m running to be Kansas City’s neighborhoods mayor.”

As the campaign unfolds, the climate will be markedly different from both 2011, when Sly James edged Mike Burke after a civil, almost polite campaign, and 2015, when James was re-elected with an impressive 84 percent voter support. For one, the national political discussion has soured dramatically. Just months after James’ re-election, the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., thrust Missouri squarely into a pain-ful and divisive argument about race.

A year later, Donald Trump was elected president, and politics nationally has been a blood sport since. Some of that has trickled down to the local level.

“The dysfunction and often-cruel rhetoric of Washington D.C. and Jefferson City has caused more people to step up and say: ‘We can’t wait for someone else to solve our problems. We need to work together here at home.’” Justus maintains. “The people I meet as I am knocking on doors and attending candidate forums around the city want to put aside our differences and work with leaders who can improve lives in every neighborhood.”

Lucas, too, sees the national climate making an impact on the local level. “If you believe like I do that all politics is local, it’s hard to make a case that people aren’t more attuned to issues of race and diversity now more than ever,” he said. “I grew up in the city’s urban core and have seen first-hand the impact issues of race can have. The very center of this campaign is about bringing equity to this city and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to succeed.”

Whichever of the candidates emerges victorious on June 18, the job description will require the skills of both politician and physician—there’s some healing that needs to be done. Given that the city’s governance structure ensures that a mayor won’t dictate policy, both Lucas and Justus will be running on vision—there’s little they can actually promise to deliver for voters in that role.

So how did they position themselves through the primary season? In a campaign that involved 11 candidates, the key was to survive and advance. Lucas and Justus took two different public approaches to that. He offered programs and initiatives to address five broad categories; she painted the broad bush strokes in four categories, and they both identified public safety, education and transportation as key areas of concern for voters.

Lucas’s campaign Web site outlines achievements during his term on the City Council and draws distinctions between his record and that of Justus, with his efforts to hire more 911 call operators for emergency services, call for $75 million to create more affordable housing and housing rehab for seniors, promote “common-sense caps on taxpayer-funded giveaways to developers,” and seek greater transparency and accountability for the renovation of Kansas City Inter-national Airport.

He is offering specific policy prescriptions on issues of criminal justice reform in the municipal court, equitable economic development, health care, housing and education. On criminal justice, he would eliminate jail time for the majority of municipal offenses, provide a municipal ID card to every resident regardless of immigration status, create and fund alternatives to incarceration for those suffering from dependency and addiction, and pardon all stand-alone municipal marijuana convictions.

Lucas’ economic development agenda involves creating a liaison at City Hall and the Economic Development Corp. to support minority and women entrepreneurs, calls for an unspecified “living wage” for all residents, including city outsourced contractors, and measures to tie incentives to new jobs at small and start-up businesses.

Lucas also would push for increased spending for mental health and treatment services; support active and healthy living by funding recreation and physical activity opportunities city-wide; promote funding for programs supporting individuals, particularly children, affected by violence at home and in their neighborhoods; lower barriers around and increase access to testing for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases; and attract grocers, growers, and vendors offering healthy food items.

Justus previously listed four key challenges or opportunities that the next mayor will have to address: Public safety, education, work-force issues and greater transparency in the growth-related challenges of transportation. They set out the broad themes, but offer little in the way of policy specifics that would advance her goals for the city. “One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of Kansas City’s efforts to sustain its momentum is the city’s unconscionably high crime rate, particularly the homicide rate,” Justus says. “While other cities are experiencing a crime reduction, Kansas City is not. We cannot allow that trend to continue.”

Learning, she says, should be a lifelong experience. “From three months old to post-retirement, it’s never too early or too late to add to your education. A strong city with strong communities ensures that everyone has access to educational opportunities.”

On the work-force front, she’s calling for measures that will yield jobs, investment and equality. “Grow-ing our economy and creating jobs are critical goals, but we can’t afford to do it in a way that creates a bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots,” Justus says.

As for growth factors, Justus says that “from expanding the city’s efforts to be more transparent and embracing 21st century transportation options, to developing a comprehensive housing plan and protecting open spaces, there is more Kansas City can do to grow smarter.”

CORRECTION: The print version of this report incorrectly stated the date of the June 18 mayoral election.


With two candidates set to face off June 18 in the quest to become Kansas City’s next mayor, Ingram’s asked each for policy prescriptions on 10 key issues facing the city. The way the city addresses those issues those will shape the quality of life for residents here, as well as the business environment. Here is what Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas had to say:

Issue: Public Safety

QUESTION: Should the state return control over the Kansas City Police Department back to the city?

LUCAS: Local control is important, but only if we can ensure that we will avoid the mistakes made in St. Louis when it obtained local control of its police department. In particular, we have to recognize local control is not a panacea to making our city safer—St. Louis again is an example. In terms of fighting crime, I think it’s crucial we bring together the community, law enforcement, and civic leaders to strengthen ties and open the lines of communication that make our neighborhoods safer. As I have said before, I will make sure that our law enforcement officers have the resources to do their jobs effectively and will prioritize a diverse and well-trained police force. I think for too long City Hall has struggled to create a plan to stop violent crime. We had a blue ribbon task force a few years back that hasn’t had an affect on our violent crime rates. As mayor, my first goal will be this: get our city out of the top 10 violent cities list and ensure greater investment and presence of neighborhood policing officers.

JUSTUS: Public safety must be a priority. We can’t let crime hold us back. I had the honor of chairing the city’s violent crime task force and, as mayor, I’m going to continue to work to put its recommendations into action. We can’t merely be tough on crime; we must be smart on crime. That means continuing the criminal justice reform work that I started as a state senator and implementing those best practices at the local level. It means increasing the number of social workers and community interaction officers in each patrol division, while also increasing the number of police officers in the streets. We need to focus on crime prevention by increasing funding for specialty court programs, re-entry services, and access to mental health and addiction services. Regarding police department administration, I support maintaining a police board, but I am open to discussing
how those commissioners are appointed.

Issue: Water Rates

QUESTION: What’s the city’s challenge with addressing rising costs for water, and how would you hope to push for solutions that provide relief?

JUSTUS: Like most people, I wince when I pay my water bill. While it is tough for my household, it is debilitating to
low-income residents and seniors on a fixed income. The city’s challenge is an unfunded mandate that requires us to make long-delayed repairs to our water and sewer systems. We cannot avoid paying for this construction, but we can do everything in our power to alleviate the increasing burden to taxpayers. I will continue to work with our federal stakeholders to seek relief from federal requirements and work with all city departments to find efficiencies that will lower our burden. I will also lead a review of best practices from other cities that would allow us to use new technologies and environmentally friendly strategies to reduce costs.

LUCAS: There are a few solutions to addressing excessive burdens on customers. Rising water rates is something I hear about all the time on the campaign trail, and it’s one of those issues we can’t afford to ignore because it will hurt everyone. To begin, we have got to really look into KC Water Services and make sure they are running efficiently and cut out any unnecessary spending so that way the people of Kansas City don’t have to pick up the cost. An additional strategy is to ensure that the city passes along storm and wastewater system repair costs to surrounding municipalities that use KCMO infrastructure. Due to high capital costs for construction of new
facilities in suburban communities, such a burden shift could be a successful manner in which to obtain additional funds, and re-evaluating those agreements could help
us find relief.

Issue: The County Jail

QUESTION: What’s your plan to address the city’s stake in administration/operation of the County Jail?

LUCAS: I’ll be reviewing the City’s agreement with the County within my first 100 days in office. I think we should always strive for transparency, and the city’s stake in the administration and operation of the County Jail should be no different. Related to this is finding ways to reduce the population of offenders being sent to the Jackson County Jail. We can do this by reducing incarceration for certain non-violent municipal ordinance violations, not unlike what the City voters passed for marijuana offenders in the spring of 2017. This stops the cycle of incarceration early for many who either aren’t career offenders or suffer from behavioral-health issues.

JUSTUS: I do not foresee Kansas City relying on Jackson County’s failed detention center after the expiration of the current contract on June 25, 2019. Well-documented and still unaddressed safety, health, and liability concerns preclude working with the county on corrections issues. Kansas City will need to develop a plan quickly to develop a jail for municipal inmates, and a decentralized plan for detainees. The city operated a municipal jail for more than 100 years before entering into the contract with Jackson County a decade ago. We can do a better job designing a facility to our specifications and using alternatives to incarceration including mental health and addiction services.

Issue: Affordable Housing

QUESTION: Critics of city incentive policies suggest that the infusion of market-rate apartments Downtown has contributed to a housing crisis. Do you agree? And whether you agree or not, what’s the city’s role in expanding access to affordable housing?

JUSTUS: Kansas City is not in a housing crisis yet, but failure to act will most certainly lead us to one. What we have is a lack of affordable housing in our city. Too often affordable housing is not located on convenient transit lines or near job centers, and our city’s eviction rates are unacceptably hitting our most vulnerable Kansas Citians. To address these issues, we must create, preserve, and stabilize housing. We must continue to use all tools available to build new housing near job centers and transit oriented developments. Rather than demolish existing housing stock, we must preserve vacant and abandoned properties and convert them into safe, affordable housing. We must hold out-of-town landlords accountable for ensuring the safety and equitable treatment of renters. Finally, we must stabilize existing housing by increasing public/private partnerships that provide home repair and legal assistance to keep individuals in their existing homes.

LUCAS: Housing legislation I’ve passed is one of my proud-est achievements. Our current Affordable Housing Plan has four important points:No longer will $2,000 (rent) be considered “affordable housing” in Kansas City. I’ve cut that number by more than half. It’s time city government lend a hand toward progress. City permits will be on a less-than-60 day timeline. Affordable housing near public transportation lines will receive additional incentives to fight emissions and promote inclusive community development. The Housing Trust Fund will bring millions of dollars to see that initiatives are brought forward and completed. This was a ground-up approach, and I’m proud of the results. Broad-based reform of housing policy is essential. I would focus on vacancy and neighborhood improvement. Most of the distressed residential property in our city is in the 3rd District and 5th District. I’d focus on getting occupants in those existing buildings as soon as possible. Stand-alone vacant parcels should be conveyed to neighbors. Our priority should be (1) Rehabilitation, (2) Infill on otherwise complete streets, (3) New neighborhoods.

Issue: Development Incentives

QUESTION: How would your administration propose to alter the use and availability of development incentives?

LUCAS: I have been the leader on City Council in the area of economic development reform, having passed the most transformative incentive reform policy—the 75% cap and the Shared Success Fund—this city has seen in decades. It is not enough to say no. If you just say no at City Council, you may make a splash and a point, but you don’t really change anything and you rarely have enough votes to defeat a project. If, however, you actually pass reforms, you change the way business is done fundamentally in our city. The “Lucas Ordinance” did just that. More is needed. My first key step as mayor would be to require the Port Authority to obtain Mayor/Council review of all city projects and to force them to comply with the current incentive cap ordinance applicable to TIF and all other agencies. I will make that one of my first priorities. I also will look to appoint a more diverse array of stakeholders and will update our economic development policy (Advance KC) so that is tied directly to improving economically distressed communities.

JUSTUS: We need to rethink the way we use development incentives in the years to come. However, we can’t unilaterally disarm as we compete for jobs and economic growth in an increasingly competitive environment. The use of development incentives has led to job creation and revenue growth for the city. As a whole, we get more out of these incentives than we put in. However, moving forward we need to be smarter and more strategic about assessing the public interest where incentive are concerned. The progress and growth we’ve enjoyed in downtown and the crossroads should allow us to redirect development incentives to neighborhoods in the city that need it so we create strong, local businesses and good, neighborhood-based jobs. We also need to end the “Border War” between Kansas and Missouri. Neither state can afford a “race to the bottom” based on public subsidies.

Issue: KCI Transparency

QUESTION: Can voters be reasonably assured that the city can live up to its promises that they will not be directly financing the redesigned KCI?

JUSTUS: I helped lead the city’s negotiating team when we sat down with the developers and the airlines and I can tell you that the city’s taxpayers are protected in this deal. The legal agreement between the city, the developer, and the airlines makes it clear that the airlines are responsible for the construction of the project. The lease agreement also reflects that the airlines are solely responsible for backing the debt. I do not believe the airlines hold a nefarious interest that will lead those stakeholders to break the agreement they made with Kansas City. The terminal modernization project at KCI is something that the airlines want, and the voters overwhelmingly approved.

LUCAS: Voters can be assured that the city is going to live up to its promises because as Mayor, I plan to be a lot more transparent about the entire process. When contracts and agreements are being made behind closed doors I think we really risk losing the trust of the city on the whole project. I am happy with the progress we have seen on the process in the last couple of months, but we need to make sure we keep the progress moving and assure the city that we are going to live up to the promise we made.

Issue: Streetcar Extension

QUESTION: Do you support expansion of the Downtown KC Streetcar?

LUCAS: First we need to make sure that we are all on the same page. I think the public for the most part supports the streetcar, and I think they would support expansion. But it has to be their choice. As mayor, I would get out there and make the case as to why I think streetcar expansion is beneficial for Kansas City. I am a strong supporter of public transportation, including creation of other streetcar routes. I would like to see further public discussion of a region-wide transit plan.

JUSTUS: Voters in the Transportation Improvement Districts (TID) where the streetcar lines are built have approved the streetcar and its expansion by impressive margins. These are the people and the businesses that are most directly impacted by the streetcar line and its construction and they see the benefits. The starter line is a national, award-winning model for downtown public transportation and I’m excited about its expansion to UMKC. I also believe a consensus exists in favor of expanding rail-based transportation and rapid transit as part of the overall transportation plan for the city.

Issue: GO Bond Progress

QUESTION: Are you convinced that the city’s use of the GO Bonds is living up to the promises made to voters to secure their approval? What changes need to be made in the pace of program execution?

JUSTUS: I vigorously campaigned for the GO Bond initiative and I am pleased to already see evidence of those general obligation bonds at work around the city. Part of the GO Bond commitment included an annual report from the city that lists how much money was spent on GO Bonds projects, on what the money was spent, and where it was spent. This report will help create transparency and ensure the city is held accountable across multiple mayoral administrations over the years. The city staff, listening to citizens and neighborhood groups across the city, is rolling out plans to do the work voters approved by a wide margin. In addition, in order to further foster transparency and accountability, increase efficiency, and reduce red tape, I propose creating a City Department of Transportation, which would consolidate numerous city staff functions related to infrastructure.

LUCAS: GO Bonds are not living up to the promises made to voters. I oppose further spending of GO Bond money on new construction. We need to focus our funds toward aging road infrastructure, and rebuild our neighborhoods. Maintenance of existing roads, sidewalks, gutters, sewers, and streetlights are the most basic promises that the city needs to keep.

Issue: Basic Infrastructure

QUESTION: What do you see as the biggest infrastructure issues, and how would you address them?

LUCAS: Kansas Citians deserve efficient and fair delivery of the services our tax dollars pay for. City Manager Schulte is currently doing important work in updating our five-year plan to address long-term maintenance needs for our city infrastructure. Our new mayor should continue to work with and trust the City Manager’s efforts to use data to address our infrastructure needs. We also need to continue to target our capital improvement sales tax funds toward infrastructure needs, rather than as the City Council sometimes does, allocating funds to other spending areas and priorities. Our citizens deserve delivery of the basic services they have repeatedly supported through the ballot.

JUSTUS: As mayor, I will create a City Department of Transportation to research, propose, and conduct efficient, effective, and transparent transportation infrastructure projects. This proposal is not a bureaucratic expansion, but a reorganization of existing entities aimed at reducing jurisdictional overlap, increasing efficiency, and cutting red tape. With cleaner lines of communication and budgeting, citizens, stakeholders and journalists will find it easier to track or report on transportation policy priorities and spending. It also would allow the city to exert a more affirmative leadership role in public transit planning at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (and) would foster a more regional approach to area transit resources.

Issue: EPA Consent Decree Costs

QUESTION: Do you believe we’re on the right track meeting our commitments under the $2.5 billion EPA consent decree to resolve the city’s water runoff issues?

JUSTUS: We have a good plan and we are on track to meet our commitments with the EPA. Because of our progress, I will continue to work with the federal government to seek an extension of the decree in an attempt to relieve the pressure on ratepayers. Additionally, we need to increase the incentives and requirements for home and business owners to improve storm water management on private property, which will assist
the city with our progress.

LUCAS: I think we are doing a decent job, but there is certainly room for improvement. The consent decree was entered in federal court so the question is how we can and should accomplish that. There are a few ways to ensure environmental equity: (1) improve our planning for regular monitoring of consequences of planned improvements and risk factors, including flooding, pollution and runoff issues; (2) greater enforcement to avoid illegal dumping and improper waste disposal; and (3) attention to abandoned and vacant parcels to avoid the previously-mentioned concerns. I’d also rely on experts in the area, both currently within staff, within the academy, and in firms with which the city is doing business on these projects, to audit plans and ongoing construction to cure city storm and wastewater control issues. It comes down to making sure we are working with local groups and organizations to make sure they have the resources to meet the commitments our city has made.