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Who has power now? New elected leaders will decide how Kansas City changes

 A sandwich board with an image of a waving American flag and the words "vote here" in block lettering directs people to a polling place in Kansas City. In the background campaign signs line the sidewalk.
Celisa Calacal
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City voters elected a new city council and mayor last Tuesday. While Quinton Lucas easily won reelection, the council will welcome several new faces.

As the dust settles on another municipal election, Kansas City residents can expect a city council that will focus on housing, violence and city services. The members also reflect shifting ideas of what's important to Kansas City voters.

Last week’s city council election brought some surprising victories, narrow margins and shifts in voting patterns that suggest who holds power and political influence in Kansas City may be shifting, if ever so slowly.

The 12 council races tested the influence of longstanding political groups like Freedom Inc. and newer groups like KC Tenants Power.

Who voted, and how?

As in most municipal elections — especially those without federal or statewide offices at stake — relatively few voters turned out. In Kansas City, turnout was just 13%. In Platte and Clay counties, turnout was 13.5% and 10.5%, respectively.

North of the river, more voters opted for progressive candidates than prevailing narratives about a conservative Northland would suggest.

In the closest race, KC Tenants Power-endorsed candidate Jenay Manley came within striking distance of Lindsay French, earning 48% of the vote to French’s 52%.

Between the primary and the general election, Manley increased her support in Clay and Platte counties and earned 2,000 more votes than French south of the river.

“48% of voters said, ‘We want someone real, we want someone who's willing to fight for us. We want someone who has a new vision for what this city looks like,’” Manley said.

In the 4th at-large race, Justin Short received 2,600 more votes than Crispin Rea in Clay and Platte counties. But in the Kansas City portion of Jackson County — south of the Missouri River — Rea had a large lead, receiving 8,000 more votes than Short. Though the more progressive Rea was not as successful with voters in the Northland, his ability to net more than 60% of votes south of the river won him the race.

A blue campaign sign reading "Crispin Rea, 4th District At-Large" is staked in the grass next to a road
Mary Sanchez
A campaign sign for 4th District At-Large candidate Crispin Rea.

A common stereotype about Kansas City’s Northland is that it’s more conservative, whiter and wealthier than the rest of the city. But Jaz Hays, a member of KC Tenants Power and a Northland resident, says that’s a misconception. Hays is Manley's brother.

Manley won eight precincts in Clay County that Hays said are more demographically similar to communities south of the river.

Neighborhoods in the southern portion of Clay and Platte counties are more diverse and have more lower-income residents. The northernmost portions of the Northland — those closer to Zona Rosa and Liberty — are whiter and wealthier.

Hays said the results of the election reflect those dynamics.

“A lot of people who are well-to-do have been moving further and further out to get newer housing stock. There's more square footage, more bedrooms. Those people tend to skew white,” Hays said. “As those people flee, or as the elderly white people that once lived here die off, a more diverse, younger, more progressively voting population has come in.”

The most significant shift between the primary and general election came in the 6th in-district race, which covers southern areas like Country Club Plaza, Waldo and Brookside.

Dan Tarwater, a former Jackson County legislator, earned nearly 2,500 more votes than KC Tenants Power-backed Johnathan Duncan in the primary.

But in the general election, Duncan won 1,585 more votes than Tarwater, who did not meaningfully increase his vote share since the primary. Brandon Henderson, a field organizer with KC Tenants Power, said Duncan’s success shows politics in Kansas City could be changing.

“If this election were four or eight years ago, Dan Tarwater probably would've walked into that seat without needing to go to a single forum,” he said. “That's just how politics used to work. Johnathan's success shows that those days are over — nothing is given or granted or inevitable when it comes to these elections.”

How endorsements impacted the election


 Composite photo of two men facing each other talking at microphones inside a radio studio.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
In the 5th District council race, Michael Kelley was endorsed by KC Tenants Power and the Teamsters while Darrel Curls, who won, was backed by Northland Strong, Freedom Inc., the AFL-CIO and the FOP.

Political groups new and old endorsed candidates all down the ballot.

Freedom Inc., political organization that has represented the interests of Black Kansas Citians in federal, state and local races for more than 60 years, mainly focuses on neighborhoods in Kansas City’s 3rd and 5th districts, which encompass areas east of Troost Ave. and have the city’s largest population of Black residents.

In this election cycle, Freedom Inc. endorsed nine City Council candidates and Mayor Quinton Lucas, who easily sailed to a second term. Out of those nine candidates, seven won their races.

Rodney Bland, president of Freedom Inc., said the group’s endorsement process involves candidate screenings and collaborations with groups like neighborhood associations, local unions, Southland Progress, Northland Strong and the local Fraternal Order of Police.

Bland said Freedom Inc. chooses candidates who represent the interests of Black Kansas City residents — like improving infrastructure, and supporting public safety, jobs and affordable housing.

“Our candidates give real solutions to real issues,” Bland said.

Local unions like Teamsters Local 41 endorsed candidates who supported unions and labor rights. Most of the candidates endorsed by the local AFL-CIO, Teamsters Local 41 and the Building Trades won their race.

“Because Kansas City is growing … with the new airport and with all the warehouses around downtown, we’re trying to organize here in Kansas City,” said Roy Nixon, an organizer with Teamsters Local 41. “We’re gonna need candidates that's gonna support us in saying, ‘Hey, we want labor unions in Kansas City.’”

The Teamsters’ endorsements mostly aligned with other unions, except in two races — the Teamsters did not endorse a candidate in the 2nd at-large race between Manley and French, and they endorsed Duncan in the 6th district, breaking away from the AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Tarwater.

The Teamsters said they spoke with Duncan during the elections about his ongoing support for unions and coalitions.

“We're not shy on talking to candidates that other unions didn't support,” Nixon said. “We always stand on our own and discuss what we ought to do, what's good for our members.”

The election was the first big test for KC Tenants Power, which made housing its main focus. Four of the group’s endorsed candidates won their races. Three are incumbents — Melissa Robinson, Eric Bunch and Andrea Bough. The fourth candidate is Duncan.

The campaigning strategies that worked, and didn't work

 People wearing yellow shirts chant and hold yellow signs.
Celisa Calacal
KCUR 89.3
Members of KC Tenants Power gathered in Midtown on June 17 to canvass for the group's endorsed City Council candidates.

Campaigns and political groups used a bevy of tactics — mailers, social media advertisements, door-knocking, phone banking and attack ads — to influence voters.

Northland Strong listed public safety as a top issue, whereas KC Tenants Power focused much of its energy on affordable housing.

KC Tenants Power prioritized door-knocking, visiting thousands of homes across the city.

“Some of the precincts where Jenay increased her vote share the most were precincts that had KC Tenants Power canvassers visiting weekly, building relationships with people in those precincts,” Henderson said.

Some mailers supporting Tarwater and Curls painted their opponents, Duncan and Michael Kelley, as supporters of defunding the police.

But in Tarwater’s race, that message didn’t deliver a victory.

Darrell Curls won the 5th at-large seat, and said he did well with his core base, which is made up of Freedom Inc. constituents and people living in the urban core. The Curls family has sent members to state and local office for generations.

“That created that trust, it created that ability to know that people with the last name of Curls are people that are public servants,” Curls said.

What to expect from the new city council

Two men wearing dark work clothes and bright yellow safety vests work outdoors near a city street. In foreground are two long steel rails sitting on a bed of green rebar. In the background traffic is moving and there are many orange pylons.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Workers on the KC Streetcar Main Street Extension fit wooden forms near a section of track being installed on Main Street near Linwood Avenue on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Many voters and political organizations saw this year’s city council elections as a turning point for Kansas City. With several big ticket developments on the horizon — a women’s soccer stadium, the 2026 World Cup, the streetcar extension, a park built over the downtown loop — and persistent worries about violence and public safety, a majority newcomer city council will have to work together to meet their constituents’ needs.

For new political group KC Tenants Power, it’s a promising start.

“I feel optimistic about the direction that Kansas City is heading in,” Henderson said. “I think that a lot of people in the city were given a choice between scarcity, fearmongering-based politics or something different, and many of them chose something different.”

Bland, with Freedom Inc. says many of the core issues impacting Black Kansas Citians remain the same: better infrastructure, more business and job opportunities, addressing public safety and building more affordable housing.

Curls said his top priorities are funding basic city services and promoting economic development and growth.

“I want to try to make sure that we're bringing more businesses into the city, expanding small businesses, and creating more small businesses that'll give residents and our youth an opportunity to get a good job,” Curls said.

Duncan said he’ll work with the other KC Tenants Power candidates who won their races to build on the city’s housing trust fund and make government more accessible.

“I will push to ensure that our city government does what it can to work with the people of Kansas City, rather than work against the people of Kansas City,” he said.

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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