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: ‘To make a real difference:’ Kansas City’s Quinton Lucas reflects on his first two years as mayor

Quinton Lucas grew up poor in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of a single mother who jumped through hoops to get him admission to a prestigious city high school and then college.

But after law school at Cornell, Lucas went back home, wanting to try to make a difference in a city struggling with a violent crime epidemic, vacant properties, and more.

In Lucas’ first year in office, the coronavirus shutdowns flattened the national economy and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked protests across the country, including in Kansas City.

At the two-year mark, Lucas’ handling of the pandemic, the protests, the police, and his work to on economic development and community involvement has brought him attention from national media and a re-endorsement from the local newspaper.

More recently, Lucas and Kansas City have made national headlines when Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit to halt the city’s mask mandate, imposed as the delta variant of the coronavirus spread.

The interview that follows has been edited for clarity:

MarketWatch: There was a great anecdote in a Kansas City Star story about you, on how you were clerking on the Eighth District of the U.S. Court of Appeals after law school and trying to figure out what you were going to do with your life, and Judge Benton asked why you would want to go and be just another lawyer in Washington DC, when you had a chance to “make a real difference in Missouri.” 

Quinton Lucas: Oh yes. 

MarketWatch: Can you talk a little about that and the decision to go back home to the city where you grew up and take on all its challenges as a leader?

Lucas: Yes. That is a real story. Judge Benton talked to me about making a difference in the world. By the time I was thinking about where to start my legal career — I had graduated from Cornell in 2009 —I saw Washington as a place that was incredibly fractured, both in the late Bush administration and in the Obama years. I thought it was kind of interesting and exciting to be around young professionals, but there was something about seeing the daily impact you could have. My issues are violent crime and economic development, particularly in historically black neighborhoods and I wanted to make a difference. But yeah, I have a lot of friends from law school that say, what were you thinking?

MarketWatch: You requested and got more money for the police department budget last year, at a time when there were a lot of calls to “defund the police” and put more money to work for other community purposes. How do you think about the balance between effective public safety spending and supporting the community, and addressing some of the social service issues in the city maybe more proactively rather than critics might say police do?

Lucas: It’s an odd time in America where nuance and balance is what we focus on. Police departments are an important part of solving our problems for the future. All of us have to say, yeah you can still have a police department but also recognize we can do better at addressing the root causes of violent crime. That is an area that is important to me. That’s where I come from on that issue. 

MarketWatch: That’s where you come from, meaning balance? 

Lucas: There are streams on the left and right, but there is a giant chunk of us in the middle, with all of us saying I want to make sure my neighborhood is safe and a kid walking home from school doesn’t have bullets flying by him. That is a thing that happens in my city. But I also want to make sure people in the community feel safe and respected.

Related: ‘You shouldn’t just let them go without a fight’: Why the U.S. can’t lose its Black middle-class neighborhoods

MarketWatch: How do you view your relationship with the police department? 

Lucas: (Laughs.) Everyone can do better, the relationship can always be better. I have gone personally and visited with rank and file. I have personally met with police officers who are detailed to schools. I know there’s a lot of concern right now in policing. Are they supported or are they not? But at the same time, I’m going to let them know, (other departments, like) Public Works also have areas they can work on but it doesn’t mean they’re not supported. 

They have a job to do and that’s to be responsive to our public. I have been clear —  and this is different than past mayors; I don’t want to be a ribbon-cutting mayor — I want to be in this position so generational issues can get fixed. Our need to become a safer community, our need to recruit more black officers. We have a weird situation. (MarketWatch note: the Kansas City Police Department operates under state control by a five-member board of police commissioners, four of whom are appointed by the governor of Missouri. The city’s mayor always has a seat on the board, but as the Kansas City Star reported, the board this spring tried to meet without Lucas.)

Quinton Lucas greets fans during the Kansas City Chiefs Victory Parade on February 5, 2020.

Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

MarketWatch: Let me ask you about another weird situation that has to do with state control, which is that you have been making efforts to keep people in the city safe from Covid, only to see a lot of those efforts essentially countermanded at the state level. 

Lucas: You know, look, the attorney general of my state is running for the US senate. My view is simply, I’m going to keep doing what’s right for Kansas City. The state legislature has made it hard to address and cure some of the issues. It is important for me to make clear to the people of Kansas City that I want to keep them safe. I’ve been doing it for a year but I think now we’re seeing real examples of it from school boards in Florida, Texas. We’re not playing with the safety of our children. 

MarketWatch: You’re getting $195 million from American Rescue Plan funds. How would you like to see that money spent, and what are you doing to encourage community involvement in deciding where it goes?

Lucas: We’ve done a number of hearings on where the money is going, and we’re also trying to be transparent about where our challenges in Kansas City are. We have real budget challenges like many American cities, so we’re try to say, all right, this is where we’re looking to fill in. Instead of me or us saying here are those ideas, we’ve been very intentional about the public getting a chance to (weigh in.)

MarketWatch: And what are those ideas, those priorities?

Lucas: We have funded the first affordable housing trust fund in the city’s history, we got funds to help support a new police recruiting class to get our numbers up, we have also managed to address a lot of the problems associated with Covid, like… paying for increased outreach on vaccines. These are the sorts of things that will contribute to the future but also the present. There are real challenges with Covid.

Read next: ‘Trying to strangle local governments’: What happens when states and their cities become adversaries? 

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