Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas had just recovered from a mild bout of Covid-19 when he announced last week he would seek reelection and then proposed requiring children to wear masks in schools.
It’s the sort of action that’s fueled five attempts to recall the first-term mayor, a Democrat who’s been in office since 2019. But during the latest effort, in November, organizers gathered just 4,000 signatures, about 30 percent of what they needed to force a new election.
Lucas, 37, is among a group of Democratic mayors across conservative states that seem to be managing Covid-19 as much as they’re jousting with Republican officials looking to force a hands-off approach to the pandemic.
The mayor says he has a good working relationship with Republican Gov. Mike Parson. The bigger challenge has been the pushback with Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who Lucas describes as “a charlatan” and a phony. (A spokesperson for the attorney general responded, “We believe in the freedom of Kansas City residents, even if their own mayor doesn’t.”)
“This man has sued every school district in Missouri, every city council, every county commission that he can. And Kansas City has been subject to that,” Lucas said in an interview last week, referring to Schmitt. “However, we’re not concerned by that. We have continued to issue orders that are responsible in most cases. We’ve continued to win every bit of challenging litigation.”
POLITICO spoke with Lucas over Zoom about running his majority-Democratic city in a Republican state, political polarization, clashes over pandemic-era restrictions and what it’s like being a Black mayor after George Floyd.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re known for going out and talking to constituents one-on-one, but you also just recovered from Covid. Will those public interactions stop as we go forward?
My wife has hated for the entire pandemic how I interact with people. It’s still a hands-on job in some ways, literally. And a lot of people will extend their hand for a handshake. You want to engage. You want to be in close proximity. My biggest fear throughout the pandemic wasn’t so much my own health but spreading anything to others. …
You’re a mayor. You continue to need to be out and about, perhaps somewhat like Mayor [Eric] Adams in New York. You can’t wallow. You have to be out there and leading and being part of things.
While Chicago debates whether to let public school children return to class, you’ve supported that idea in Kansas City and introduced an ordinance reinstating a mask mandate in schools, which the Council passed. How did you come to the decision?
God bless [Chicago] Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot. That has to be the hardest-to-govern city in America. But mine certainly presents its share of challenges a little bit differently. A lot of our health experts in Kansas City are suggesting that this wave needs mitigation tools like universal masking. I saw that my friends in the Twin Cities, Mayor Melvin Carter [in St. Paul, Minn.] and Mayor Jacob Frey [in Minneapolis], were able to reinstate that. Our view was, let’s at least make sure our school children are safe.
Part of that is because they continue to be a vulnerable group, and we don’t want to return to virtual learning. Nobody does. The way you make sure we avoid virtual learning is by making sure that there is a mask mandate in schools. And this helps us, I think, have a narrower focus in terms of who we’re trying to help and what we’re trying to do and not have to get all those huge fights with the attorney general of Missouri and other state Republicans, who don’t often come here but love to tell us what to do.
What challenges have you faced during the pandemic as a Democratic mayor in a state led by Republicans?
I have had a positive relationship with the governor. It’s respectful. I understand he has a different gig than I do. He’s said cities will do what they need to, but the state will do something different. The biggest challenge has been from other statewide elected offices, like the attorney general, who is running for U.S. Senate and who has been just an astonishing charlatan and one of the phoniest politicians that I think I’ve ever met in my life and I have met many.
It’s been exceedingly frustrating. This man has sued every school district in Missouri, every city council, every county commission that he can. And Kansas City has been subject to that as well. However, we’re not concerned by that. We have continued to issue orders that are responsible in most cases. We’ve continued to win every bit of challenging litigation, but I think, yeah, that’s been very challenging. I continue to be governed by the people of Kansas City, who by and large have, overwhelmingly throughout the pandemic, said that they want to make sure we have safeguards to protect Kansas citizens.
A lot was written about California Gov. Gavin Newsom facing a recall in part over his handling of the pandemic. You’ve faced a handful of attempted recalls yourself.
Those groups have never gotten enough signatures to even get close enough to get anywhere near a ballot issue. The last one was in [November]. It started with mask mandates for a while. They were upset that we weren’t sufficiently supportive of the police department, in their view, then back to masks, then on to other things. So I have no doubt there may be more. … But on the whole, we hear from people and I think Kansas City residents continue to like these mitigation strategies and safeguards to keep our community safe.
Do you see the divisiveness of national politics infiltrating Kansas City?
Absolutely. I mean, I think you have a few different things that are contributing to this. It used to be either the Republican or the Democratic Party. You didn’t see the extremes.
When I was younger, we had Jack Danforth as Republican senator, right? Somebody who was the furthest from an extreme. Then I remember in 2008, we saw vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin was [visiting] red states and doing all these rallies with Hank Williams Jr., the country music singer who’s known best for singing “Are you ready for some football?” And they were at a rally with Sen. [John] McCain. And Sen. John Danforth showed up, and everybody was like, “Who’s this guy?”
Then you saw it at the state level and it really has gotten down to the city level now. More council races and discussions are left vs. right politics in a way that it didn’t used to be. We’ve seen it in hearings about masks with falsehoods that are shared by the right. And to be fair, even my friends on the left have gone to the other extreme, saying “you’re a boot-licker” for X or Y issue.
Let’s switch to social justice and safety issues. The murder rate is the second-highest it’s ever been in Kansas City. Can you address the heat you took for wanting to redirect funds within the police department?
One of my goals was to change how the police department spends some of its money and investments. And that was to require $40 million of our police budget, which is about 19 percent, to be spent on things like prevention, community outreach, community service. What does that mean? That means actually neighborhood patrol officers, community interaction officers, a lot of the officers we already have present in our schools in Kansas City or KCPD social worker program. A lot of the things that we are already doing, and we have a law enforcement resource center where our police department works with local businesses, works with the bus company to see where people are selling drugs at a bus stop. And it’s been a scene of a murder.
It’s responsible, proactive, preventative policing. We need to focus on more of that rather than just showing up with a body bag. Like any change, it got a lot of pushback from Jefferson City and state Republicans. There was litigation about it. The police department prevailed, primarily because we adjusted the budget in the middle of the year.
In Kansas City, like Baltimore, the state actually runs the police department. I’m just one of five commissioners on the police department. That is a terrible colonial sort of approach to things, which I think leads directly to the terrible outcomes we have in Kansas City. I’d argue probably for the city of Baltimore as well. [It’s budget season again] and we are looking at how we lay out that budgeting again, requiring the police department to actually do a lot of that preventative work.
What challenges do you face working in a weak mayoral system?
Policing in particular is an area where you frankly need that strong position and that ability to — if the electorate votes for you — to say, “We are going to change.” So, you know, a lot of my opponents on the right like to say, “Look, this is terrible because his goal was to get us below 100 homicides a year.” That was true and it has not happened. In fact, the exact opposite has happened. We’ve seen increases.
But to me, nothing is more frustrating than when I talk to the people of Kansas City and they say, “We want you to try new efforts. We want you to try violence prevention. We want you to try outreach right and ways that you can break down gangs.” And we just sit back and say, “Oh, there’s nothing we can do.” And you know that you basically have a police superintendent that’s answerable to no one, that you have a board of commissioners that answer only to the governor of Missouri, who is not, I think, politically aligned in many ways with the people of Kansas City in addressing public safety. It’s a real problem.
As a Black mayor during this era of racial reckoning, can you talk about how that affected you and maybe how that made it easier or not to manage the crisis?
To be 100 percent honest, when I heard about the George Floyd murder, I didn’t want to watch the video. I’ve been Black my whole life. I remember being a kid and wondering why the L.A. police officers were acquitted [after the Rodney King trial]. I’ve seen too many videos of Black men either getting beaten or dying on screen. And so I was initially kind of like, “You know what, I’m not even going to [watch it].” I didn’t make a statement. I didn’t do anything. But the protests still came, because I think there was a true reckoning in my own city about justice, social justice, the criminal justice system.
In terms of what I did then, I mean, you’re looked at not just as a mayor, right, but you’re looked at as somebody who’s either standing up for your people or selling out your people. Conversations were tough, including with the police chief, who is white. I’d say, “You know, these aren’t people who are hooligans. There are a lot of people feeling like they have never been heard.”
I kept that perspective throughout. And I think it has helped me. It has helped me continue pushing at times when it’s been tough. Our police budget battle last year was challenging. And it created another recall. …
I think it helps having a background I had. I’m from the inner city. I knew homelessness growing up. I was raised by a single mother, and I say that not as a point of sadness or shame, but as a point of pride. Somebody who worked her tail off to get me and my sisters to the positions we’re in now, and it helps you communicate with people in a different way.
That means no matter the neighborhood, no matter the issue, no matter the people, it can be a room of 100 Trump Republicans who hate everything I’m about. I’ll be in that room. I will show up. I will listen. I’ll make sure we’re doing something to make a difference.
Now that you’re well into your first term, what advice do you have for mayors just getting started?
I, like Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago and a few others were elected in 2019, so we had a few months pre-pandemic. But then the whole world just shifted and you had all these plans that you weren’t able to do. I would say, one, it really is building out your staff, appointing good people around you. We have a city-manager form of government and council manager form of government, where for me, hiring a city manager was key.
Second, make sure your ear is always to the ground. I watched the protests of 2020 and I saw a lot of mayors that couldn’t necessarily go out into the crowds the same way I was able to. I think that made a world of difference. And don’t get me wrong, there are probably a chunk of people in Kansas City that don’t like me, but I hope that they all respect the fact that I’m a mayor who goes out and listens to people. I will give out a cell phone number of my own. And, you know, I think being approachable and personable is key. I mean, that ivory tower sets in very quickly. And if you are not engaged with people, then you lose track of what’s happening.