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KC still wasn’t ready to elect a black woman mayor, but Canady knocked down some barriers

BY TORIANO PORTER - Kansas City Star

APRIL 07, 2019 05:30 AM, UPDATED APRIL 07, 2019 11:14 AM

Alissia Canady at her primary election watch party April 2. JILL TOYOSHIBA THE STAR

Voters weren’t quite ready to make Alissia Canady the first African-American woman to advance to the general election for Kansas City mayor.

In the overcrowded, 11-candidate primary, Canady had a strong showing in third place. But she did not enter the primary race for mayor to lose. From the start, the 5th District City Council member planned to make history.

With limited funds and a lower profile than some of her council colleagues, Canady managed to distinguish herself in this campaign with innovative ideas and an unwavering willingness to take on the status quo. In the end, she received about 13 percent of the nearly 56,000 votes cast, according to unofficial election results.

Of course, City Councilwoman Jolie Justus’ selection as the first openly gay woman to make the runoff for the city’s top office was historic in its own right. Justus, who emerged as the top voter-getter in Tuesday’s primary, deserves credit for running an impressive campaign.

She will face City Councilman Quinton Lucas in the June election to succeed Mayor Sly James. Justus won 22 percent of the vote, and Lucas garnered 18 percent.

While Canady fell short this time, she knocked down some of the barriers that have slowed the advancement of African-American women in city politics, carving a path for the future.

“Whether I’m the next mayor or continue to finish my term as a councilwoman, I will add value to how we continue to lead Kansas City,” Canady said recently. “The work is not done.”

The private attorney and former Jackson County assistant prosecutor never used race or gender as a platform in her bid for mayor. It was a bold strategy in a city that too often is divided along racial and economic lines.

She chose instead to focus on mental health and gun violence, economic development in distressed neighborhoods, transportation and infrastructure, and quality housing for working families. Those issues transcend race.

“We’ve had black mayors. That wasn’t a big deal,” Canady said. “We’ve had women mayors. That wasn’t a big deal. But we had not seen a candidate like me in Kansas City, willing to step out on the political stage without being tied to a political establishment.”

Canady’s principled approach and her courage to tackle tough issues gave her a fighting chance when initially, it didn’t appear she had one.

“Alissia Canady is an amazing woman,” Lucas said. “Nobody was thinking about her running in this race. She ran the best damn race by anybody. I’m going to give it to her. For her to finish where she did (Tuesday) is a testament to what this community cares about.”

If Canady had made history as the first African-American woman to lead our city, Kansas City would have joined the likes of Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco among cities that have elected a black woman as mayor.

Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have also elected black women to lead.

“Cities like Kansas City will definitely see a black woman mayor (in the future),” said Andre Perry, an expert on race and a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Black women have the ability to attract support from women of all races and appeal to a range of interest groups in a way that many other candidates cannot, Perry said.

Galvanizing a voting bloc of black women isn’t enough, though. Candidates must get beyond their natural base of support and reach out to voters of all ages, colors and backgrounds, Perry said.

“You have to attract young voters,” he said. “They are issue driven and more likely to break social norms than any other group.”

Michele Watley, founder of the nonprofit political organization Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, which counts more than 2,000 black women as members, said Kansas City is close to breaking down the barriers that have hindered black female politicians in the city.

“Black women are working behind the scenes on most of the campaigns,” she said. “Black women are running out front as candidates. Black women are creating platforms to have their issues heard, and black women are driving their community to vote.”

While Tuesday’s results didn’t go Canady’s way, her fearless, no-frills campaign sent an important message that Kansas City could be on the cusp of finally making history.

Toriano Porter is an opinion writer and member of The Star’s Editorial Board. He’s received state-wide, regional and national recognition for reporting since joining McClatchy in 2012.

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