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A Fighting Chance: City Councilwoman-Elect Katheryn Shields

Paul Andrews
Katheryn Shields fought for the Bull Wall in the West Bottoms, a public art commission funded by 1% for Art, a program she re-instated as County Executive.

Democrat Katheryn Shields, who will take her seat on Kansas City Council on Aug. 1 after a close election win, didn't grow up dreaming of political campaigns, though the Parkville farm where she grew up as an only girl with four older brothers did teach her to be "a bit of a scrapper." 

She actually studied history in college, and assumed she'd end up teaching in a classroom some day.

The moment that set her on a political path came shortly after graduation. The year was 1972. Shields was getting ready for a date with her boyfriend when she heard him laughing. 

"I said, 'What's so funny?'" she now recalls.

It turns out the Equal Rights Amendment, guaranteeing equal rights for women under the law, had just passed in Congress. 

She remembers asking him why that was so funny, and his answer was that he'd like to see her serve in the military. The boyfriend had extremely poor eyesight and was 4F, a draft classification that meant you were medically unfit to serve. 

"I said, 'You're 4F, you can't see without your glasses and my guess is I'll be drafted sometime before you are.'"

Shields ended up joining the National Organization for Women, marrying the man she'd argued with and spending the rest of her life fighting for the principles he'd laughed at that day.

The point being, she doesn't shy away from a fight.

The fight in her has been a hallmark of her career.

Most notably, in 2007. That year, she'd just finished up a third term as Jackson County executive. She was positioning herself for the next step in her political career when she was indicted by a grand jury for possible involvement in shady real estate dealings.

She followed through with her plans to run for mayor in the shadow of that scandal. And although she was ultimately cleared of the charge with a non-guilty verdict, at the time, the controversy tanked whatever chance she might have had in a mayoral run. Even she knew that.

And yet, she still ran. She finished close to last in the primary. 

"I'm probably one of those people that you shouldn't say, 'You can't do that.' If you say that to me, I'm gonna go, 'Maybe I can do that.' Particularly when I think things are unfair, whether to myself or other people. I'm very much an advocate for the person that's down."

Even if that person is her.

Running for office, she says, is like running down the street naked. And each endorsement is like an article of clothing.

So after almost a decade out of office and out of the public eye, it's no surprise that when she decided to run for City Council, she started rebuilding her political base by returning to her core network for support.

"It goes back to having a solid footing of confidence in yourself, having a great family that surrounds you and supports you and having a great network of friends that also do the same, and political supporters that do the same. You need that support system to be able to move forward."

Although the results of the election currently point to a victory for Shields, the margin was razor-thin. Shields and her opponent, Jim Glover, are awaiting the outcome of a ballot recount. 

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with a photographic portrait by Paul Andrews.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.