How A Kansas City Barber, Pastor And Firefighter Are Working Overtime To Get On City Council
On a humid May afternoon, Joseph “Joey Cuts” Thomas watches as his two young daughters bounce around his 18th and Vine barbershop, carrying baggies of cereal and hiding in the unused chairs. At one point a man walks in wearing a bright yellow Kansas City transit vest. He takes off the vest and makes himself comfortable, talking and laughing with the other customers over the sounds of razors and hairspray.
A stack of yard signs in the corner read, “Joey Cuts for Third District.”
That’s because the barbershop is more than just a popular hair salon. These days, it’s also headquarters for Thomas’ third district city council campaign.
Thomas is one of several first-time city council candidates running to replace a council that, right now, is mostly made up of lawyers. This year’s crop of candidates has its share of lawyers, but besides Thomas, it includes a well-known pastor, a full-time firefighter (who has a law degree) and several candidates with non-profit experience.
The candidates have each dealt differently with their day job while campaigning, though all of them note the importance of their work to their communities.
Third District In-District
Thomas explains that as the owner of a barbershop and initiatives such as Fresh Cut Fresh Start, which offers free haircuts to young boys before the first day of school, he plays several roles in his district.
He says he is invested in the community in a unique way. “Barbers are people that, you’re a counselor, you’re a fashion expert, you’re a babysitter, you’re a business adviser, you’re a mentor, you’re so many things within being a barber.”
At first, Thomas' campaign had to figure out how to best make use of the brand he built through his shop. According to his brother, Milton, nobody recognized the name Joseph Thomas.
“We just started saying Joey Cuts,” he says. “That’s the name that resonates in people’s heads.”
Melissa Robinson is running against Thomas in the race to replace Jermaine Reed. She has worked for decades in both the public and non-profit sectors. She participated in the Ad Hoc Against Crime program and started working there soon after high school. She is now president of the Black Healthcare Coalition and served as chair of the Kansas City Public Schools board.
It is this experience, she says, that makes her the best candidate for the third district seat.
“I think that that matters because you want to be able to have a strong foundation, and when you raise your hand to serve people, you want to be the best prepared.”
She says that in the third district, where crime and poverty rates are high, “there’s too much at stake for us to be able to afford putting someone in office that’s not uniquely prepared for the position.”
Third District At-Large
In the race for the seat now held by mayoral candidate Quinton Lucas, Rev.Wallace Hartsfield II often is asked about the role his own place of work -- the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church -- plays in the community.
“Basically I’ve been doing what a city council person has been doing, just not in the political venue but within the context of the faith community and the community at large,” he says.
But unlike Thomas’ barbershop, Hartsfield cannot use the church in his campaign. He has to be careful to keep them separate, so as not to jeopardize the church’s nonprofit status.
And while his job requires him to speak publicly, he notes that the transition from speaking as a pastor to speaking as a politician has not been easy.
“It’s been very difficult for me… to talk about myself because I’m not used to doing that, and I’ve noticed that that’s a very important quality within political life,” he says.
His opponent, Brandon Ellington, has represented parts of Kansas City in the Missouri House since 2011. He will not hit his term limit until 2020 but says he wants to fight for issues Kansas Citians face in Kansas City instead of Jefferson City.
He emphasized that, having worked in politics for the last eight years, voters can hold him accountable based on his track record.
“It’s tangible,” he says. “It’s not something that I’m saying that can’t be looked up or proven.”
Fourth District In-District
Geoff Jolley and Eric Bunch are competing for mayoral candidate Jolie Justus’ fourth district seat.
Jolley is a full-time firefighter with the Kansas City Fire Department and a former aide to Congressman Emanuel Cleaver.
Like Hartsfield, he has to keep his day job separate from his campaign. He cannot use the firehouse for campaign events because it is owned by the city. If he wins a seat on the council he will have to resign from the fire department: council members cannot work as city employees.
And like Hartsfield, Jolley says he is not fully comfortable as the face of his own campaign. “It was certainly awkward the first time I saw my name on a mailer or a T-shirt,” he says. “It’s still very hard to ask people to donate money and support me, it feels… almost egotistical.”
Bunch touts his past experience campaigning -- not for himself but for issues. He is the co-founder of the non-profit BikeWalk KC, which works to make Kansas City more pedestrian and bike-friendly. This work, he says, requires coalition-building the same way a campaign does. The difference is that it involves the people in office, rather than voters.
He argues that the work has taught him necessary policy experience as well, because he often works with city council on sidewalk-friendly legislation.
“There’s going to be a decent amount of institutional knowledge lost because six new people are joining [the council],” he says. “I’m going to bring some experience to the council that a typical new member doesn’t actually have, and that is how the process actually works.”
Emporia State political science professor, Michael Smith, noted that institutional knowledge should not be overlooked. The learning curve is steeper than people realize, he says. But new candidates, especially those considered political outsiders, can have positive effects on a race.
“When you get somebody that doesn’t fit the stereotype… it gets people excited,” he says. “Sometimes… these candidates can get people energized and revved up to get out there… and vote in local elections.”