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Jackson County has many Hispanic residents but few in government. Could that change?

From left, Manny Abarca, Justice Horn, Geoff Gerling.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
From left, Manny Abarca, Justice Horn and Geoff Gerling, who are running in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary to represent Jackson County's 1st District.

Jackson County's 1st District has the highest percentage of Hispanic residents in the county — but that's not reflected in the county legislature.

When Jackson County redrew its district maps following the 2020 Census, it had to take into account sharp increases in the county’s Hispanic population.

So the commission redrew the 1st District to include all of Kansas City’s commercial core — from the River Market to downtown to Midtown to the Country Club Plaza.

With a population of more than 125,000 people, the district has the highest concentration of Hispanic residents in Jackson County, according to the 2020 Census. They now make up the largest minority group in the district, at 21% of the population.

But that percentage isn’t reflected in local government, particularly the nine-member Jackson County legislature.

In the Democratic primary elections on Aug. 2, Jackson County voters will have the chance to pick a Hispanic candidate, who, if elected in November, would be the first in almost a decade to serve in the legislature.

Thirty-four-year-old Manny Abarca is running to fill the seat being vacated by Scott Burnett, a Democrat first elected in 1998. Abarca recently ended his tenure working for Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, whose district includes Kansas City.

“I'm fourth-generation, Mexican-American,” Abarca says. “My great grandparents on both sides came across the Mexican border to work here in this city and their roots and foundation are what runs in my blood.”

Abarca now serves as executive director of Fair Contracting Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on working conditions in the construction industry. He’s also serving his second term on the board of Kansas City Public Schools.

His Democratic opponents are Geoff Gerling, a former leader of the Jackson County Democratic Party, and Justice Horn, a community activist and member of Kansas City’s LGBTQ Commission who is also hoping to break barriers by becoming the first queer person of color to be elected to the legislature.

“Also being a young person and a person of the LGBTQ community, I understand that our diversity is our strength, especially when we lean into it and embrace it and uplift that,” Horn says.

Horn, 24, identifies as Black, indigenous and Asian American-Pacific Islander. He says it’s important for elected officials to represent all of their constituents.

“I think the most important thing is I continue to be an ally of communities I don't represent,” Horn says.

Gerling, 39, recognizes how diverse the 1st District is and says his longtime Kansas City residency would help him in office.

“When you take a look at the 1st District, I have a very personal connection to every single part of it,” he says.

Abarca says his election would mean a lot to the area’s growing Hispanic community.

“Me running, and potentially winning, means that we have another person at another body, and I've opened a pathway for someone else in the future,” he says. “We've not had anyone in over a decade, and I would be the third ever since 1826, the foundation of the county.”

The significance of a Hispanic representing some of the region’s most heavily Hispanic neighborhoods is not lost on those supporting his campaign.

“It's clearly about the future of the Hispanic community,” said John Fierro, president of the Mattie Rhodes Center, a Kansas City nonprofit.

Hispanics were among the fastest growing population groups in Jackson County between 2010 and 2020, according to the 2020 census. Fierro says he’s been frustrated by the lack of Hispanic representation in local government.

“That just doesn't sit well with me, especially when, nationally, the Hispanic population is the largest minority in this country,” he says. “Those numbers are real. I don't know what else we have to convey to demonstrate that we need to be a part of everybody's agenda.”

The last time a Hispanic held a seat in the Jackson County Legislature was 2003, when Theresa Garza was elected. She served until 2015.

“You know that old saying, ‘If you're not at the table, you're on the menu,’” Garza says. “So I think that it's extremely important that we make sure we have the representation of what our community looks like.”

At least some members of Jackson County’s Hispanic community are banking on Abarca filling that role. Whoever wins Tuesday’s primary election will face off in November against Christina McDonough Hunt, the lone Republican in the GOP primary.

Corrected: August 3, 2022 at 6:50 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the last time Jackson County elected a Hispanic legislator.
As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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