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The Role Of Race In The Race For Kansas City Mayor

Michelle Tyrene Johnson
KCUR 89.3
Political group Shirleys Kitchen Cabinet hosts a candidate forum at the beauty salon. Amanda Balabon Landayan interviews mayoral hopeful Henry Klein.

Eleven candidates in the primary for Kansas City mayor.

Two women.

Four black.

One openly LGBT candidate.

Five white men, with two of them named Scott.

No candidates who are Latino, Asian or Native American.

While the field of candidates isn’t representative of the city’s demographics, that still doesn’t ignore that demographics are an element in the decision-making.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver remembers running for mayor as the city’s first black mayor. He won and served from 1991 to 1999. He says race will be a less significant factor today than it was then.

"I don’t want to relive some of the things that happened,” Cleaver says.

Cleaver remembers one resident boldly stating in an interview that she would never vote for him because he would give free housing to black people.

He thinks it will be better for the current candidates than it was for him, but says that some voters might not even be aware of their own biases.

Regardless of those biases, Cleaver says, candidates of color who win should think about how they can contribute to the progress of underrepresented communities. One example he cites is making sure that contracts for building the new airport spread the wealth more evenly.

“I don’t think that it would be out of bounds for candidates to say, ‘Ok, we need to get black and brown contractors in large numbers. And not just as sub-contractors.’ I think this is a great opportunity that we have. I would hate to see it wasted,” Cleaver says.

A new political group

Michele Watley is founder of Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, which has more than 2,000 black women as members. While the organization doesn’t endorse candidates, its mission is to make sure more black women vote and that their issues are addressed by whatever candidates representing the area are in office.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Michele Watley after speaking at the Multicultural Business Coalition about the importance of political advocacy for small business owners.

Watley says some candidates want to shy away from discussing race, but she says that is not a winning plan.

“We cannot avoid discussions about race when they are so pertinent as candidates of color,” Wately says. “Black candidates in particular can’t do that and expect to succeed and engage black and brown voters.”

Watley says she understands the importance of connecting the dots between race and voting. She was in charge of nationally mobilizing the black vote for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in 2016.

“I can’t separate as a black woman being black, being a woman and politics. Those things are inseparable,” Watley says. “They are very much intertwined and they make up who I am and they help aid in my decision-making process."

According to polls, 40 percent of Kansas City voters are undecided about their vote for mayor and Watley says that is even more of a reason to not take any vote for granted.

“You’ve got everybody and their mama running for office. Black women have become even more important because that margin to make it out of the primary becomes a lot smaller and then every vote counts. That includes black women,” Watley says.

Underrepresented but watching

Edgar Palacios is a Latinx community leader who focuses on education. His concerns are similar to Watley’s.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Edgar Palacios at his home talking about the issues that impact Latino voters.

None of the 11 mayoral candidates are Latino. Palacios says that makes their takes on race and ethnicity even more important.

“I’m happy to hold those folks accountable once they get into the office and to make sure that they really commit to our community,” Palacios says.

Palacios says from listening to his community, he believes the top issues are immigration, better paying jobs and education.

“On top of just being seen, honestly, and feeling like they are a part of our community’s fabric,” Palacios says.

Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon. She can be contacted at michelle@kcur.org.

Michelle is a reporter covering race, identity and culture and is an assistant talk show producer.
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