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Manny Abarca poised to be Jackson County's first Hispanic legislator in almost a decade

A man wearing a white polo-style shirt sits at a restaurant table. Other chairs and tables sit empty behind him.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Manny Abarca will face Christina McDonough Hunt in November's general election for a seat on the Jackson County Legislature.

Abarca handily won the Democratic primary for the 1st District, which has the highest concentration of Hispanic residents in Jackson County.

Manny Abarca handily won the Democratic primary for Jackson County’s 1st District, which covers Kansas City’s commercial core and some of its most diverse neighborhoods.

If Abarca wins the general in November, he will be the first Hispanic member elected to the county legislature in almost a decade.

“Our victory is that of togetherness, and to make sure that we focus on a new and renewed county that people can trust and believe in,” Abarca says.

Abarca most recently worked in Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver’s office, whose district includes Kansas City. He’s also serving his second term as treasurer for the Kansas City Public School Board.

On Tuesday, Abarca won the primary with 58% of the vote, beating out two competitors: former Jackson County Democratic Party leader Geoff Gerling and community activist Justice Horn.

In November, he’ll face off against Republican Christina McDonough Hunt, who ran unopposed.

Abarca said winning by wide margins was a vindication of his campaign’s work.

“When the numbers finally came in, it was clear and I was very thankful,” Abarca says. “I was very proud of our team and all the hard work that everyone had dedicated to get me elected and those who supported me financially or through their vote even. It very much instilled in me a trust and competence that I'm ready to go to work and do my best to represent everyone.”

‘An opportunity to have a seat at the table’

The 1st District seat is being vacated by Democrat Scott Burnett, who was first elected in 1998.

It stretches from the River Market to downtown, south to Midtown and the Country Club Plaza, and also includes the Historic Northeast and West Side neighborhoods.

According to the 2020 Census, the district is 21% Hispanic, making Latinos the largest minority group in the district. But Hispanic representation in county government has been few and far between — the last Latino to serve on the Jackson County legislature was Theresa Garza, who served from 2003-2015.

Abarca, a fourth-generation Mexican-American whose great grandparents immigrated to Kansas City, understands the importance of his candidacy to the city’s Latino community.

“They have a voice, they have an opportunity to have a seat at the table,” Abarca said. “And we've already had conversations with folks talking about what the future of the county may look like. And I promise it's gonna most certainly have more Latinos included in it.”

John Fierro, president of the Mattie Rhodes Center, a Kansas City nonprofit, said Abarca’s primary win provides momentum to the community.

“It is our time,” Fierro said. “It is now our opportunity to demonstrate our leadership here in this city and in this county.”

On social media, McDonough Hunt said her campaign has a “steep climb ahead,” but hopes to win come November.

As he campaigns for the general election, Abarca said he plans to combat the Republican Party’s conservative messaging, particularly on diversity issues..

“Believe that I'm going to go and preach the progressive message and values that people wanna see in their elected officials,” Abarca said.

Property tax reform at the county level will also be another focus for Abarca.

“We need to address those things very quickly to offset the negative impact that it's having on our communities,” he said.

Candidates respond to losses

Horn came in second on Tuesday, with 28% of the vote. He declined to provide comment.

During his campaign, Horn said he hoped to become the first queer person of color elected to the county legislature. On social media, Horn said it was an “honor of a lifetime running to serve the community I love.”

Gerling said he was not surprised by Abarca’s win, though he was surprised by the race’s wide margins. Gerling received just 13% of the vote.

“It's one thing to lose by 2%,” Gerling said. “It's something else entirely to just get blown out. And it just feels like a waste right now.”

Corrected: August 3, 2022 at 6:44 PM CDT
A previous version of this headline 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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