When Erin and Alex Olson moved to the Northland from midtown Kansas City a few years ago, their friends had some strong reactions. Many of them had never spent time north of the Missouri River.
“It’s like the great unknown to a lot of people," Alex Olson says.
Despite the fact that more than 35 percent of Kansas City, Missouri's population lives north of the river, political watchers in Kansas City have long considered the Northland an elusive voting bloc, at times more conservative and skeptical of city government.
But in the last few years, it’s voted with the rest of the city on several big, progressive issues, and the demographics north of the river are beginning to change.
With a mayoral primary weeks away, Northland voters could be the ticket to the general election — if candidates can earn their votes.
The great unknown
For lifelong Northlanders, the feeling of being alienated from the rest of the city is a familiar one.
“The south thinks the north is sort of an annex up here,” said Dave Swiss, who was attending a Northland problem-solving meeting at Northland Neighborhoods Inc.
Only one mayoral candidate lives in the Northland.
Henry Clark, who was also at the meeting, said while he's seen some candidates for city council at their meetings, he hasn’t seen mayoral candidates from south of the river.
The meeting wasn't limited to Kansas City residents — people from Claycomo, Liberty and Gladstone were all there. And that's another thing that sets the Northland apart. It's made up of a lot of different municipalities with Kansas City snaking through them.
Martin Rucker lives in Riverside, but his side of the street is technically in Kansas City, Missouri. Rucker ran unsuccessfully for a Missouri state senate seat last year. He's also a co-founder of Northland Progress, a group dedicated to advancing progressive policies north of the river.
"I think that's kind of what really blends us all together, is Kansas City really is the engine that drives the whole ship," he says.
But some Northlanders are skeptical of city leaders south of the river.
Voters north of the river are used to seeing their tax money spent elsewhere
Rucker says the area is a big tax base for the city as a whole — but its residents don't always see returns on that investment.
“The Northland is really concerned about being taken care of,” Rucker says.
Dave Swiss says he voted for the $800 million in infrastructure bonds in 2017, but aside from some repairs in Pleasant Valley, he hasn't seen a lot of improvement on his roads. The new terminal at Kansas City International Airport is also a big issue for him.
Henry Clark wants a mayor who will appoint more city councilmembers from the Northland to lead boards and committees.
Longtime Northland resident David Dunlop had neighborhood preservation top of mind.
“Low-income housing is a very important issue,” Dunlop said.
Which sounded a lot like what newcomer Alex Olson was thinking about.
“Income inequality and tied to that, rent prices, rent costs,” Olson said.
First district councilwoman Heather Hall, who is not running for mayor, says those are the same issues she hears everywhere.
"There definitely isn't a typical Northland voter. We have young families, we have established families, we have people who are retired,” Hall says.
The Northland is becoming more diverse
Demographically, the Northland looks a lot like the rest of the city, says Jeff Pinkerton, senior researcher at the Mid-America Regional Council.
Pinkerton says when you look at age and education, the Northland is nearly identical to the greater Kansas City area.
It's not as diverse as the rest of the city, but Pinkerton says that's changing.
“North of the river, between 2010 and 2017, the black population has grown over 60 percent,” Pinkerton says, adding that the base was small to begin with.
The Hispanic population has increased as well.
Northland resident Oscar Osuna says he hasn’t heard or seen much about the mayor’s race. Speaking in Spanish, Osuna did say he wants whoever is elected mayor to listen to Hispanic residents and not ignore them.
Which, in the end, is what most residents north of the river want. The question is whether the ten mayoral candidates who live south of the river can earn that trust.
Rucker doesn't think living north of the river is requisite for earning Northland votes. But he says candidates can maximize the limited airtime they have in forums and town halls.
“If you can work in something about the (Buck O'Neil) bridge or something about economic development, you can work in something about workforce housing near the airport where all these jobs are going to be created,” Rucker says.
For other voters, the time to reach out on these issues may have come and gone.
“At this late stage, we don’t have that much time before the election, I don’t think they can make much of an impact,” David Dunlop says.
Dunlop adds that signs and billboards won’t do the trick. Any mayoral hopeful looking to lock down Northland votes needs to cross the river and knock on some doors.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.