Published June 16th, 2023 at 6:00 AM5 minute read
The last time Kansas Citians voted for City Council members, Donald Trump was still president, renters were just beginning to organize under the working name of “KC Tenants” and many Kansas City residents had never considered wearing a face mask to the airport (still a horseshoe-shaped terminal), let alone a grocery store.
Four years later, the city has dramatically changed. Two Super Bowl wins, a worldwide pandemic and an NFL Draft later, Kansas City has acquired some bragging rights but faces friction and challenges that have come into sharper focus since 2019. Those include a worsening affordable housing crisis, rising tensions centered around the state-controlled police department and concerns about more players handing out tax incentives to developers. Also, the city is under pressure to successfully host World Cup soccer matches in 2026.
On June 20, voters will pick a new City Council to oversee the city’s budget and operations until 2027. The campaign has been somewhat low-key, partly because Mayor Quinton Lucas faces only nominal opposition from Clay Chastain.
But the slate of council candidates and their positions on issues say a lot about the city’s evolving political landscape. New players have stepped forward to challenge the traditional political structure and demand that city leaders make affordable housing a front-and-center issue.
When Kansas City election results start to roll in next week, here are three things to watch for among the 12 City Council races and mayoral race.
Since the last election, Kansas City has redrawn its City Council districts, with the most significant changes coming to the Northland and the southern outskirts of the city.
The results of the 2020 census revealed that Kansas City had surpassed half a million people for the first time since 1970, with the largest gains in the Northland suburbs.
The decision to redraw the Northland boundaries was the subject of controversy in 2021, when business and political leaders voiced opposition to the city’s plan to divide the 1st and 2nd Districts horizontally mostly along Barry Road, instead of vertically along the Clay and Platte county line.
The new boundaries separate the more affluent neighborhoods in the northern 1st District from the more renter-heavy and lower-income neighborhoods in the southern 2nd District. The 4th District now includes a larger portion of Clay County than before, covering most neighborhoods between Gladstone and North Kansas City.
South of the Missouri River, neighborhoods around the Country Club Plaza were added to the 6th District, while the southeastern corner of the city was added to the 5th District.
The 6th District election between Johnathan Duncan and Dan Tarwater has highlighted differences between the former 4th District neighborhoods around the Country Club Plaza and the southern outskirts of the city, now rolled into the same redrawn boundaries.
In Ward 5, the northernmost portion of the 6th District, Duncan won 35% of the vote in a five-person primary, compared to 12% in Ward 22, covering the southern suburbs. By contrast, Tarwater won 70% of the vote in the south and 21% in the north.
As an organizer with KC Tenants, Duncan has focused his campaign on affordable housing, a message that during the primary seemed to resonate more with renters around West Plaza, Country Club Plaza and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Tarwater, a former Jackson County legislator endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), has emphasized safety and infrastructure, and has succeeded in the southern areas lacking sidewalks and curbs.
In the Northland, voters in the 4th District have voiced opposition to incumbent Eric Bunch after a failed attempt to recall him in 2021. The recall effort was led by a pro-police political action committee called Taking KC Back, whose former treasurer is now running against incumbent Kevin O’Neill in the 1st District at-large.
Support for Bunch was strongest around midtown and downtown, but in the Clay County portions of the 4th District, Bunch lost every precinct but one, with Northland voters supporting FOP-endorsed Henry Rizzo to replace him.
Since 2019, rents in Kansas City have been rising at a faster rate than what is typical — particularly east of Troost Avenue, a historic economic and racial dividing line in Kansas City created by racist housing practices. Rents east of Troost increased by 13% between 2020 and 2021, compared to 6% in the rest of the city.
And with rising rents, affordable housing advocates have been organizing and preparing for this year’s City Council race.
KC Tenants has grown since 2019 from a small group of renters to an influential citywide tenants union. An offshoot, the Midtown Tenant Union, formed in 2021 in response to developer activity along Armour Boulevard. Last year, activists created KC Tenants Power, the sister organization that focuses on political activity.
Two KC Tenants organizers, Duncan and Jenay Manley, are running in separate City Council races, and the organization’s advocacy has left a mark on candidate platforms across the city.
Every candidate for the Kansas City election who responded to The Beacon’s candidate survey wrote that $1,200 per month is not affordable for a one-bedroom apartment, with the exception of Rizzo, who did not respond to that specific question.
Every candidate except 3rd District candidate Sheri Hall also wrote that housing developers should be required to seek a third-party “but-for” financial analysis to receive tax incentives. Hall answered “no response,” citing concerns that the third party would also have a bias.
This kind of study is conducted by an independent financial analyst to determine the amount of assistance necessary in order for a developer to break even. In other words, “but for” this level of assistance, the project would not be financially feasible.
For the June 20 Kansas City election, the candidates offer a diverse set of affordable housing policy proposals. Some, like Manley and Duncan, support establishing municipal social housing, a program that would oversee city-owned housing and community land trusts. Nathan Willett, Chris Gahagan and Lindsay French support reforming zoning and land use to support creating new housing.
During the primary, the tenants-endorsed candidates — particularly Michael Kelley, Bunch and Manley — were successful in midtown, where incentivized housing developments have popped up along Armour Boulevard, Main Street and Troost Avenue. But in the more suburban areas of the city, some of these candidates have struggled to persuade voters to support platforms that center affordable housing.
Over the past few years, tensions have grown between the city government and the state-controlled Kansas City Police Department.
The June 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd reignited calls for local control among activists, and since then, several lawsuits have emerged between city officials and advocates and the Kansas City police board.
Lucas and Urban League of Greater Kansas City President Gwen Grant have sued over state control, and the police board has sued the city over the formula it uses to calculate police funding in a lawsuit that could bankrupt the city.
Northland activists, including the Taking KC Back group, have led recall efforts against Lucas and Bunch, and the Northland Strong PAC has endorsed candidates to replace Bunch and 3rd District incumbent Brandon Ellington.
Pro-police sentiments are highest among Northland voters, who supported a Missouri constitutional amendment in November 2022 to allocate more funding to KCPD.
Only two current City Council candidates who responded to The Beacon’s questionnaire supported the current system of state control. Both hail from the northernmost 1st District: in-district candidate Willett and at-large candidate Ronda Smith.
Jill Sasse, running against incumbent Andrea Bough in the 6th District at-large, did not respond to the questionnaire but appears to support increased funding for KCPD.
Tuesday’s Kansas City election will test the political power of the growing Northland, which could impact the city’s path forward on working with its police department.