From Poverty to the Mayor's Office: The 34-Year-Old Who Won Kansas City's Race

Quinton Lucas, who rose from poverty and homelessness on Kansas City's East Side to become an Ivy League-educated lawyer and City Council member, won a decisive victory in the mayor's race Tuesday night, becoming the youngest person to win the office in more than a century.

By Allison Kite, Andy Marso, Steve Vockrodt, and Glenn Rice

Quinton Lucas, who rose from poverty and homelessness on Kansas City's East Side to become an Ivy League-educated lawyer and City Council member, won a decisive victory in the mayor's race Tuesday night, becoming the youngest person to win the office in more than a century.

Unofficial results showed Lucas, a 3rd District at-large councilman, with a commanding lead over his opponent, Councilwoman Jolie Justus, 4th District, capturing more than 58% of the vote with 90% of precincts reporting.

As a candidate, Lucas, 34, leaned into his personal story, drawing on childhood experiences to champion issues like affordable housing and public safety.

He emerged from the 11-way April primary in second place to Justus, 48, a former state senator and the council's 4th District representative, trailing by five percentage points -- 23% to 18%.

Over the next 11 weeks he was able to close that gap, expanding his support in the Northland, where he lost by better than 2-to-1 to Justus in April. On Tuesday, he trailed Justus in Clay and Platte counties by about three points.

Lucas also grew his support south of the river, where he ran up a near 2-to-1 margin over Justus.

Just as in the primary, Northland results came in quickly, showing a lead for Justus until after 8 p.m., when Jackson County results flipped the script and gave Lucas a sizable advantage that he never relinquished.

Lucas' supporters gathered Tuesday night to watch results at the Wonder Shops and Flats, an example of the economic development he said he wanted to bring to some of the more distressed areas of the city.

The apartment complex, in a refurbished Wonder Bread factory at 30th Street and Troost Avenue, features amenities rare in that neighborhood, like building-wide Wi-Fi, a coffee shop and a fitness center.

Lucas first addressed the crowd just before 8:30, when the only results in hand were from Clay or Platte counties.

He said he was excited to be running nearly even with Justus, after getting just 9% of the Northland vote in the primary.

"People asked us awhile back, 'You know, you're an East Side guy, does your message translate to every part of the city?" Lucas said. "What we're seeing is, yes it does. What we're seeing is that people liked our message about affordable housing, about public safety, about making sure that everyone in Kansas City has a voice in city hall."

About an hour later Lucas strode to the podium for a victory speech to the 1960s Four Tops anthem "Reach Out I'll Be There."

He thanked Justus for running a good campaign and for being a mentor to him. He urged his supporters to "make sure that we reach out to everyone who might not have been with us before because we have a lot of work ahead."

Lucas said the margin of victory was a mandate not for him personally, but for the issues he ran on. He promised to fight for "working men and women" and safer streets.

"Our final mandate is this: no matter who we are, no matter where you are, no matter what circumstance you find yourself in, in our Kansas City we always believe that you have an opportunity, we always believe that you can persevere," Lucas said. "In our Kansas City we believe that whatever has happened in your past does not dictate your future. In our Kansas City we believe in fairness for everyone."

As he left the stage the crowd broke out in emphatic chants of "Q! Q! Q! Q!"

Justus supporters, gathered at a watch party in the Historic West Bottoms, clapped when early results from Clay and Platte counties showed a lead, but things turned somber quickly after the first results from south of the river showed a Lucas advantage.

She conceded the race in an, at times, tearful speech to supporters whom she called the Justus League.

"These tears, they're happy tears," Justus said. "So just know that."

She recounted the themes of her campaign -- walking the span of a 319-square-mile city, seeing its warts and triumphs -- before thanking her supporters, Mayor Sly James, her family and her wife, Lucy Bardwell.

"So what is next?" Justus said. "I'm not going to disengage just because I didn't get the outcome I wanted."

She continued: "So Kansas City, I really mean it when I say this, we are on a roll right now and we're just getting started. Now let's keep walking, Kansas City."

She did not take questions from reporters afterward.

James, who endorsed Justus, a key ally on the council, said he was surprised by Lucas' victory.

"I'm disappointed Jolie didn't win, but the voters have spoken, and it's time to move on," James said. "So it's time to make sure that we're putting Quinton Lucas in the best position possible to lead the city."

Asked if he had any advice for Lucas, James said he should keep in mind that everything he does has to "be for the best of the city."

"Sometimes you have to say no, sometimes you have to take a hard position in order to get things done," James said. "Not everybody is pleaseable, and you shouldn't try to please everybody."

He added: "Do the right thing and we're all good."

The contest marked the first time in 20 years Kansas City voters sent two sitting members of the City Council into the general election for mayor. While the race is non-partisan, both are Democrats with largely the same voting records on key issues.

As candidates, they labored to distinguish themselves from one another, although their central promises -- to focus all of Kansas City's neighborhoods -- were also similar.

Despite their similarities, Lucas ran as an outsider, drawing heavily on his personal story. He was raised by a single mother along with his two sisters. They were homeless at times, staying in motels or with relatives.

That experience fueled some of his council work and election priorities, including the push for more affordable housing, more effective policing and better delivery of basic city services: street resurfacing, trash collection and code and illegal dumping enforcement.

His personal story resonated with some voters.

To Gary Weaver, 62, a retired delivery driver, Lucas was the better choice for the city's East Side.

"It seems like he is going to do something for us in bringing tax dollars back to the east side of Troost and the others haven't been doing that," Weaver said. "He is a resident of the east of Troost."

As a member of the council, Lucas often challenged long-standing city practices. He authored and shepherded to passage a cap on the city's generous tax incentives for developers. He's been critical of the way Kansas City approves economic development projects, though he has voted for some.

Justus, a pro bono attorney, has been an elected official for more than a decade. She had the backing of James and former Mayor Kay Barnes, both major advocates of revitalizing downtown Kansas City.

Her principal message was that while Kansas City is seeing economic success, it needed to be shared with residential neighborhoods in the form of better transportation, housing and anti-crime efforts.

On the council, her signature success was approval of a new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport -- first by Kansas City voters and then by the council.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Justus and Lucas' efforts to distinguish themselves created friction and frustrated some voters.

Justus and her supporters spent heavily on TV ads and mailers that depicted Lucas as untrustworthy and unreliable, which Lucas called a distortion.

The Carpenters Help in the Political Process, a political action committee associated with the St. Louis Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, spent heavily to attack Lucas. It also helped fund the City of Fountains Committee, another outside group that called Lucas' trustworthiness into question.

Justus stood behind the charges made by her campaign and others, arguing she had a record of following through where Lucas did not.

But that may have hurt her.

Lucas vowed not to "go negative" and criticized her campaign for doing so. His comments about Justus' campaigning drew large applause lines in several debates toward the end of the election cycle.

Eric Lyons, 58, who attended Lucas' election night party, said he's lived in Kansas City for about 30 years but only recently got interested in local politics.

Lyons said the Justus campaign's decision to go negative turned him off.

"The tipping point for me personally was the ads," Lyons said. "Once the other candidate came out with the negative ads I didn't care for that. So that's what tipped me to Quinton."

Lucas took some heat online over the final weekend of the campaign after numerous Kansas City voters got texts from various 816 numbers attacking Justus. Calling those numbers yielded an automatic message that instructed recipients to press 1 to unsubscribe from future Remington Research campaigns.

Both Remington Research and Axiom Strategies are owned by Jeff Roe, a national GOP operative with deep ties to Missouri who managed Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign. Roe did not respond to an email requesting comment over the weekend.

Lucas denied any connection to Remington or Axiom.

(c)2019 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.