The struggle is real for many Kansas City, Missouri, residents deciding who to vote for in the mayoral election on Tuesday, June 18.
Candidates Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas are both current city council members with similar voting records. Both are Democrats and attorneys at notable law firms.
Both say the biggest issues facing the city are crime, affordable housing and equitable development.
But while the two agree on many things, there are key differences, including how to solve the city’s most pressing issues.
Each has their own style — Justus portrays herself as a collaborator willing to reach across the aisle to work together to solve issues. On the council, she’s quieter than Lucas, preferring to meet with her colleagues privately rather than spar in public. Repeatedly, she has said Kansas City is “on a roll” and that she wants to continue that momentum.
Justus also has the endorsement of outgoing mayor Sly James, who touts her work leading the airport committee through a messy procurement process for the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
Lucas, on the other hand, has preferred public debate on the council. He characterizes himself as the candidate who would take the city in a different direction. He touts himself as more transparent and has been more vocal in his criticism of James and some of his decisions.
Lucas has questioned Justus’ willingness to go along with a no-bid deal to build a new airport terminal before public backlash prompted the city to open the procurement process.
On crime: Underlying issues vs. immediate action
Lucas and Justus agree that the Kansas City Police Department needs more community officers who work in specific neighborhoods. They both support the work of social workers embedded within the department.
But Justus says she wants to learn more about what other cities have done to reduce violent crime.
“One of the things that I would do first and foremost, is make sure that we are continuing what has started, which is sending our Kansas City Police Department with our (Jackson County) Prosecutor's Department to cities that have seen that success,” Justus says.
Justus also wants to address broader issues, like access to affordable housing, education and transportation.
As she puts it, “Focusing on the underlying systemic issues that lead to crime in the first place.”
Lucas, on the other hand, says while addressing the underlying issues is important, reducing crime needs more urgency. For one thing, he would make the social workers at KCPD full-time employees rather than contractors.
In addition to adding more police officers, which both candidates support, Lucas says the city could to a better job funding conflict-resolution programs at high schools, like one in place at Southeast High School.
Lucas says some of the students in that program were facing state criminal charges, but the program allowed those young people to resolve issues through mediation.
Now, he says, they are “learning how to actually resolve conflicts without fighting, without picking up a gun.”
Lucas says he would also ease the burden on people who have municipal convictions.
“What I will do as mayor, because mayors actually have a pardon power, is to pardon everyone who's been charged under a municipal marijuana possession offense,” Lucas says.
Lucas has the endorsement of the Kansas City, Missouri, Fraternal Order of Police.
On affordable housing: Private partnerships vs. public investment
Lucas, who grew up without a steady home, has said that affordable housing may be the issue most important to him.
As head of the city council’s housing committee, Lucas introduced a suite of ordinances to increase the city’s stock of affordable units.
While both Lucas and Justus talk about rehabbing abandoned properties, their approaches are different.
Lucas would like to leverage federal grants and identify money from the city’s general fund.
“Instead of spending money on a $2.5 million parking garage in the West Bottoms, that my opponent supported, that really just went to development that wasn't affordable and wasn't in areas of the city that need it,” Lucas says.
Justus, on the other hand, says she would seek the partnerships in the private sector to rehab abandoned properties.
“The fastest way to solve our affordable housing problem in this city is to take advantage of what we have right now, which is amazing public-private partnerships where we are actually taking abandoned properties, suing to get them back on the tax rolls, working with small developers,” Justus says.
Justus has also stressed the importance of building new housing next to transportation lines. She has the endorsements of the St. Louis- Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council and the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades.
On economic incentives: Case-by-case vs. strict limitations
Neither candidate is ready to stop awarding incentives downtown, where developers have benefitted from generous tax breaks for decades.
Justus says she considers every development project on a case-by-case basis, but she wants to shift the focus from large downtown projects to smaller businesses in other neighborhoods.
“We can be much more targeted and focused on making sure that we are doing economic development not just in one pocket of town, but all over town,” she says.
Lucas puts it more bluntly.
“You need to actually stop giving away the whole farm west of Troost,” he says.
Lucas says he would severely limit the incentives available downtown and in places like the Country Club Plaza.
“The greatest incentives should only be available — with a few exceptions — but should only be available in the East Side or in severely economically distressed parts of the city,” Lucas says.
The Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has not endorsed either candidate. Election Day is June 18.
Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and covers Kansas City, Missouri, City Hall for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.