Quinton Lucas looks like the most promising East Side candidate for City Council in two decades

May 17 was a rare clear day during an unusually rainy month in Kansas City. At Kauffman Stadium that afternoon, legions of Royals fans filed out of the stadium buzzed on having just watched the home team dismantle the New York Yankees, 6–0.

Just across Interstate 70, a different celebration was taking place in a dimly lighted ballroom at the Adam’s Mark Hotel.

The 52 graduates of DeLaSalle Education Center’s 2015 class, cloaked in purple-and-silver commencement robes, waited through a procession of speakers to receive their diplomas. Mark Williamson, the charter school’s executive director, gave the kids a short pep talk, then introduced DeLaSalle board member Quinton Lucas, the keynote speaker.

Lucas made an ideal graduation speaker: a self-made man who grew up in poverty on Kansas City’s East Side — a background familiar to some of DeLaSalle’s graduates. But Lucas spent much of his time at the podium telling not his own story but that of another man, Curtis Osborne, who went to Georgia’s death row for a 1990 double homicide.

A professor at Cornell University’s School of Law had suggested to Lucas, a student at the New York school at the time, that he spend part of his 2008 summer helping prepare Osborne’s appeal for clemency. Osborne had support from former President Jimmy Carter and others, in part because Osborne’s trial attorney had spurned a plea deal offered by a county prosecutor. The lawyer hadn’t told his client about the offer. But he did tell the opposing counsel, “That little nigger deserves the chair.”

When Lucas visited Osborne in a Georgia lockup, the inmate spent far more time talking about his daughter than he did about his case. The girl had never seen her father outside prison walls.

“I never knew my father,” Lucas told the graduates. He recalled to them that Osborne, in contrast, wrote to his daughter constantly. “For her, it was someone who cared for her every single day.”

Lucas and the lawyers working on the case were unable to persuade authorities in Georgia to spare Osborne’s life. He was executed on June 4, 2008. Lucas told the graduates that Osborne’s family later sent him a letter of thanks for his effort.

“We serve our community every day by caring for the people next to us,” Lucas said toward the end of his address. This was his message for the teens.

Telling his own story, talking about how he broke a family’s cycle of poverty, doesn’t come as easily to Lucas. He doesn’t exactly strike a quiet demeanor but turns somewhat reticent at times when discussing his background. Raised, with his two sisters, by a single mother on a sub-median income, he earned a scholarship to the Barstow School as a third-grader, went to the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis, and then to Cornell for his law degree.

“I find those [stories] to be mildly insulting and not that interesting,” Lucas told me after the graduation ceremony. People are asking him to recount his version of that story more often now, though, because he’s running for a seat on Kansas City, Missouri’s City Council.

There are easier ways to make a living than representing the 3rd District, the east-central node of Kansas City that’s best-known for its vacant properties and its lack of opportunity. Having had a well-paying job with a top law firm in Kansas City, Lucas knows this firsthand. And he’s now on a tenure track at the University of Kansas School of Law. But if his pursuit of public office represents a financial sacrifice, it also embodies the advice he gave to the DeLaSalle graduates. Lucas, regarded by political observers as one of the city’s top prospects for higher office in the coming years, says he means to serve his community — not least by ending a run of shaky 3rd District leadership.

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Lucas’ main prior connection to City Hall was serving on the obscure Board of Zoning Adjustment. Yet his path to victory in the June 23 general election is clear.

Two recognizable challengers, Crispin Rea and Virginia “Dee” Evans, dropped out of the race before the crowded April primary. One remaining opponent, Stephan Gordon, has run for Congress twice as a Republican against Karen McCarthy, losing by wide margins in 2000 and 2002. Those campaigns, Gordon has explained, make him an experienced politician (one who still identifies himself as a Republican) with theoretically advantageous connections. Indeed, he has named some key endorsements — though not all of them can be verified.

“I did not tell Steve I would endorse him,” says Forestine Beasley, who ran in the 3rd District at-large primary and whom Gordon has listed among his endorsers. “He’s been calling me asking me. I have not told him I would endorse him.”

A close inspection of the voting canvass, which shows voting results at the precinct level, illustrates a strong following for Lucas throughout Kansas City. In East Side wards, however, Lucas fights a perception of inauthenticity and an idea that he isn’t in touch with the 3rd District.

“I think he’s a newcomer to politics,” says Carol Gatlin, an opponent of Lucas’ in the primary election. “I’m not sure of his motives for running. We’ve never seen him in the community.”

Gordon adds, “I don’t think Quinton knows the issues in the 3rd District. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t been around that much.”

Lucas is 30 years old. Much of his adult life has been spent in colleges in St. Louis and New York. Since returning to Kansas City in 2009, he has picked up appointments to the Board of Zoning Adjustment and a spot on Mayor Sly James’ Charter Review Commission.

He has also drawn criticism for his connections to Kansas City’s political establishment, which some 3rd District voices blame for the ongoing neglect of their community. His campaign was initially shepherded by local political guru Pat Gray, who died in January. Since then, longtime powerbroker Steve Glorioso has advised Lucas. And the candidate has picked up conspicuous support from companies and institutions that traditionally wield major influence in Kansas City politics. His most recent campaign-finance report shows contributions at or near the maximum $2,625 from Burns & McDonnell, JE Dunn, Kansas City Southern, and the political action committees for the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Council. Other sizable contributions have come from law firms such as Lathrop & Gage and Polsinelli.

Missing from that report: any contributions from the 3rd District.

“Would I love to have more money from the 3rd District? Yes,” Lucas tells me. He adds that residents and businesses from the impoverished district lack the discretionary income to spend on political campaigns the way those in other districts do.

He rejects the idea that his high-profile contributors will influence him. “I think an ability to fundraise broadly insulates you from one organization being able to hold you to account,” Lucas says.

He also insists that he isn’t out of touch with the residents of the district that he seeks to represent. Lucas, who has lived in an apartment at 19th Street and the Paseo since returning to Kansas City in 2009, tells a story to counter that notion. “There’s a lady in my building who said to me, ‘You wear a suit every day. What do you do?'” Lucas says. “I’m a lawyer. She says, ‘Why do you live here? That’s a terrible view.'”

He goes on: “Where you go to college, the way you sound, law school should not divorce you from who you are,” Lucas says. “I’m proud to be from Kansas City. I’m proud to be from East Kansas City.”

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Lucas’ mother, Quincy Bennett Johnson, says her son grew up in two worlds.

One world was the Barstow School, where Lucas enrolled in 1992 after earning a scholarship. The private school, at 115th Street and State Line Road, abuts the tony Hallbrook neighborhood — a long way, geographically and demographically, from the nursing homes, motels, apartments and houses of the East Side. The scholarship covered 80 percent of Lucas’ tuition; Johnson paid for the rest. His classmates were predominantly white, and they arrived at school in late-model foreign cars. Lucas got to and from Barstow in his mom’s car, sometimes as early as 6 a.m. so that Johnson could make it back downtown for her job.

At soccer practice one afternoon during his first year at Barstow, Lucas spotted a car parked on the side of State Line Road, clearly not working. He looked closer. It was his mother’s 1984 Chevy Nova. It had broken down just as she readied to pick him up from practice.

“I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s embarrassing,'” Lucas recalls.

An unreliable vehicle is a recurring theme in Lucas’ recollections of his youth. There also was the 1979 Ford Thunderbird that caught fire in 1992, not long before that soccer practice. Johnson and her three children were returning to Kansas City after five years in Hutchinson, Kansas. She had followed a boyfriend there but was now bringing her family back to KC. The four moved frequently, and Johnson at times had difficulty making ends meet. She worked as an administrative assistant and later as a tax clerk, making about $26,000 to support her three children. (Today, she works at the University of Missouri–Kansas City in its graduate studies department.)

“He saw we were struggling,” Johnson says. “One time we lived in a hotel, and it was horrible. Quinton would go in the bathroom to study.” Other times, Lucas says, he would ride his bicycle to the Lucile H. Bluford Library at 31st Street and Prospect, to take advantage of air conditioning on hot days.

“I’ve gotten to see the repo man a couple of times,” Lucas recalls of his youth. “My best meal for a lot of my life was my lunch at Barstow.”

Lucas takes his last name from Ricardo Lucas, an East Side activist who isn’t his biological father but is the father of Lucas’ older sister. Ricardo Lucas was in prison when Quinton Lucas was born, in August 1984 at Truman Medical Center. Lucas’ actual father is Thomas Wilson, whom Quinton has never met. He sees this circumstance as not uncommon among others growing up on the East Side, though Lucas was able to finish high school with three full-ride scholarship opportunities. It’s his education, he says, that allowed him to overcome the obstacles that often keep East Side residents from leaving poverty behind.

“Access to a good education made a world of difference,” Lucas says. “When you have a small class size, in an environment where people don’t let you fall, the fall you can make when you have a good base isn’t that great.”

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May 15, nearly everyone running for City Council turned into a transit activist.

That evening, the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance hosted a forum at Union Station to quiz council aspirants about how they intended to improve Kansas City’s notoriously underdeveloped transportation system. About 100 people gathered, and, inevitably, the streetcar line was soon mentioned.

Lee Barnes, running for the 5th District, interrupted the room’s transit cheerleading to express his annoyance that the East Side has been blamed for last August’s defeat of a streetcar expansion at the polls.

“There was a City Council person who said the vote on the East Side was a no vote because people didn’t understand what they were voting for,” he says. “I took some offense to that because I think people on the East Side know what they were voting for. They were voting for a tax they didn’t necessarily see that they needed. If those of us looking to become City Council folks, if we want to get information to the people, to let them know exactly how they can benefit from whatever the issue is, we must do that. We must get the information out to them. We can’t talk like the citizens aren’t informed.”

Lucas lauded Barnes’ comment when it was his turn to speak. Improved communication is one of Lucas’ key issues; he’s far from alone in saying that City Hall does a poor job of conveying itself to voters.

“We spend a lot of time talking east and west and white or black or however you really see it,” Lucas began, “and I don’t think that’s necessarily the conversation we really want for the city. Because these are solutions — whether it’s biking, whether it’s transit, whether it’s fixed rail or anything else — that we all need to be part of. If we have a whole part of a city that feels excluded, I’ll tell you what: We are going to continue to have the same problem that we have in Kansas City now that we’ve had as long as we’ve all been alive.”

Lucas’ campaign focuses heavily on what the candidate says is mistrust between taxpayers and City Hall, on a city government that he says isn’t always efficient. He says the regulatory structure at City Hall is off-putting to small businesses that can’t afford to hire well-connected lawyers to navigate the system. “For a lot of people, a trip to City Hall is a real pain,” Lucas says.

May 22, he spoke to a lunchtime crowd of mostly black seniors at the Palestine Senior Citizens Activity Center, at 33rd Street and Prospect, as they ate baked fish, macaroni and cheese, and green beans. Dominating local news that week was Kansas City’s plan to direct roughly $150 million in public money to a $300 million convention hotel, a facility that few on the East Side would use. One woman asked why the East Side remains slow to see investment. Borrowing from his work as a law professor, Lucas answered that, if elected, he planned to start an “office hours” concept: Residents could drop by and discuss issues directly with their representatives, to bridge understanding between City Hall and residents.

“We shouldn’t just have ideas that come from up on high,” Lucas said.

Beyond professorial office hours, Lucas’ goals for a first term strike a populist tone. He advocates for budgetary discipline, a city government that’s more responsive to residents, and a city government that gives as much attention to basic services as glitzy high-dollar projects.

These are the types of planks that first-time candidates often suggest but frequently forget upon assuming office. Whether Lucas breaks that pattern remains to be seen. But many political observers believe that Lucas is the man to disrupt the string of middling-to-bad representation from the 3rd District on the City Council.

They include Saundra McFadden Weaver, who survived a recall during the mid-aughts but eventually had to answer to a federal indictment for mortgage fraud during the latter years of her political career. It also includes Sharon Sanders-Brooks, who became a rare incumbent to lose her seat during her bid for re-election.

One has to go back to Charles Hazley to find a consistent, strong representative from the 3rd District. But even Hazley, who served from 1971 to 1991, had his troubles. He spent a brief stint in prison in 1988 for not filing a tax return. But he was otherwise known as an advocate for the East Side. Many of his successors have been milquetoast representatives.

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During his three years in law school at Cornell, Lucas secured the kind of experience that would lead to a lucrative job working at an East Coast law firm, the destination of choice for many Ivy League law-school graduates. He spent one summer clerking for Kansas City firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon. The following summer, he worked for Boston’s WilmerHale, one of the country’s largest law firms. And in 2009, Lucas worked for Duane Benton, a judge on the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

It was Benton, Lucas says, who pointed his protégé homeward. As Lucas tells it, Benton said: “You could go back to D.C. and be among thousands toiling away, or you could go back to your hometown and make a difference.”

Back in KC, Lucas worked for Rouse Hendricks German May, a small but powerful downtown litigation firm. There, he inched into the world of local politics with his appointment to the Board of Zoning Adjustment and, later, to the Charter Review Commission. Local politicians would come through the law firm, too, and through the high-powered Stinson Leonard Street firm just a few floors above Rouse Hendricks’ 12th Street and Walnut offices, giving Lucas access to local policymakers.

If Lucas wins his council race, he will at least have to surrender his tenure track at the KU law school and reduce his hours — a move that could lessen his $115,000 annual salary by as much as 40 percent. His council salary could plug that gap, though a failed entry into politics could short-circuit his academic career.

But few among Kansas City’s political class see a short political career for Lucas. There’s already talk in some circles that Lucas is among the leading prospects for mayor in 2019, when James is termed out. (James is all but assured of a second term, running against the invisible Vincent Lee.)

“I think every district has its ups and downs over the years,” says Polsinelli lawyer Pete Levi, former Kansas City Chamber president who counts himself among Lucas’ supporters. “I think Quinton would be a step forward for any district in the city of Kansas City.”

“So many of our politicians are in public office because they were unable to make it in the private sector,” says Brandon Boulware, a lawyer who worked with Lucas at Rouse Hendricks. “That’s not Quinton Lucas. Quinton is a guy who has thrived in the private sector and he is entering politics for all the right reasons. He’s sacrificing to run for public office.”

Politics can attract people who crave power first and decide what to do with it later. Lucas doesn’t come across as someone who needs elected office. If he were to lose in June, he could resume a promising career in law and participate from the sidelines of the political scene with his pocketbook, as so many others in his field do.

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“I could either be a part of the contributor class of Kansas City,” Lucas says, “or I could run.”

photos by sabrina staires

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