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Jackson County Prosecutor’s race muddied by attacks of racism and anti-police bias

Melesa Johnson, a candidate for Jackson County Prosecutor, rides in the Sugar Creek Parade in Independence, Missouri, on July 4, 2024.
Peggy Lowe
/
KCUR 89.3
Melesa Johnson, a candidate for Jackson County Prosecutor, rides in the Sugar Creek Parade in Independence, Missouri, on July 4, 2024.

Melesa Johnson, who is running for Jackson County Prosecutor, has been labeled as a “bigot” and accused of trying to cut the Kansas City Police Department's budget. She believes her opponents are trying to discredit her with older white male voters.

A candidate for Jackson County Prosecutor is being falsely accused of racism and anti-police bias in a social media video and push poll.

Melesa Johnson, a Black woman who serves as Mayor Quinton Lucas' director of public safety, said she’s been maligned as a bigot because she has talked publicly about the Black community and the criminal justice system and has the “audacity to include these realities that we must confront.”

Johnson faces two other Democrats in the August 6 primary: John Gromowsky, a white Jackson County assistant prosecutor; and Stephanie Burton, a Black defense attorney. The winner of that contest will face Republican Tracey Chappell. Current prosecutor Jean Peters Baker is not running for re-election.

Three Democrats and one Republican are running in the open race for Jackson County Prosecutor. This article is part of the 2024 KC Voter Guide.

“We can’t talk about crime, prosecution, without talking about race and how to balance those scales and how to develop policies that ensure people are being treated fairly at every juncture in the road,” Johnson said. “And I, especially as a woman of color, cannot and will not shy away from the importance of that.”

A Facebook group called “Citizens for a Safer Jackson County,” which bills itself as a political group but is not registered with the Missouri Ethics Commission, which tracks campaign finance reports, posted a video that called Johnson a "bigot." Many commenters on the post accused the Burton campaign of creating the piece. Burton did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment for this story.

In a grainy video shot last fall, Johnson campaigns before a mostly Black audience at a skate party in Swope Park and says, “Nobody’s gonna save us. And unfortunately, we have reached a point in our community where we are doing exactly what these white folks want us to do.”

Johnson said the video took her words out of context.

In a recent push poll, a campaign strategy that mimics an opinion poll but uses biased question framing to try to manipulate prospective voters, people were asked if they would be likely to vote for Johnson if they knew she worked in the mayor’s administration, which the poll falsely accuses of trying to “take millions of dollars out of the police budget.”

The poll also asked if voters would be likely to vote for her because she “was a strong supporter of riots after the murder of George Floyd,” saying she called them “purposeful and warranted rage.” Johnson does not recall saying that specifically, but said she supported the protests and did not call them “riots.”

John Gromowsky, an assistant Jackson County prosecutor, campaigned on July 4 at the Sugar Creek Parade in Independence, Missouri.
Peggy Lowe
/
KCUR 89.3
John Gromowsky, an assistant Jackson County prosecutor, campaigned on July 4 at the Sugar Creek Parade in Independence, Missouri.

Gromowsky said his campaign did not issue the poll, nor has he seen it.

"Our campaign is focused on uniting all parts of Jackson County," he wrote in an email.

Gromowsky was endorsed by three local police unions, including Kansas City’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 99.

Johnson, who said she doesn’t have “the luxury to be soft on crime” because she lives in the Oak Park neighborhood on the city’s east side, believes her opponents are trying to discredit her with white male voters over age 45. She has sought support across the city, she said, and was the only DA candidate in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Pride Parade and the Juneteenth Parade.

“I’ve always been about unity,” she said. “But what I’m not about is setting aside the history and the current experiences of Black people who primarily bear the brunt of this issue so that we can all get along.”

The video, which some say Burton’s campaign posted, was especially hurtful, Johnson said.

“A couple of tears were shed, out of frustration, out of pain, out of feeling misunderstood, out of being treated unfairly,” she said. “To be met with such false and misleading and nasty race-based play from the campaign of another Black woman, it crushed me.”

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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