We talked to new Mayor Quinton Lucas about the city’s epidemic of gun violence

He’s been on the job three days, and Quinton Lucas doesn’t have business cards.

As he makes his way around the South Plaza branch of the public library, the new mayor of Kansas City is approached by a steady stream of well-wishers, gawkers and inquisitors. The 34-year-old former University of Kansas law professor shakes their hands then scratches down his phone number on any scrap of paper that’s handy.

Call or text, he says, call or text.

Lucas has a winning smile and exudes warmth that draws people to him — if you see an older gentleman in a threadbare Randy Moss Vikings jersey, you can bet he’s going to want a word with his mayor. That preternatural likeability helped Lucas manhandle his well-funded and popular opponent, Jolie Justice, in the June election. Lucas blew out his former council colleague by a staggering 18 points.

For local political gadflies, Lucas’ rapid rise is anything but a surprise. Political reporters like Steve Kraske and Steve Vockrodt were tipping Lucas as the likely successor to Sly James back in 2015, when Lucas was just 30 years old and before popular former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander dropped out to deal with his PTSD.

As Lucas sits down for a half-hour chat with 435 Magazine — the answers that follow have been lightly edited for length and clarity — he’s already dealing with a crisis. On Friday August 2, a shooting at First Fridays in the Crossroads claimed the life of Erin Langhofer, 25, a domestic violence counselor from Overland Park. Although Kansas City had 84 homicides before this in 2019 and 134 homicides in 2018, the random nature of a shooting at an event in a “safe” downtown neighborhood sent shockwaves through the city.

Kansas City’s murder rate has consistently ranked among the top five in the nation. Reversing this trend was one of Lucas’ key campaign promises, and if he’s daunted by a spate of killings over his first weekend on the job, he’s not showing it.

Then again, if anyone can get a handle on this problem, it’s him. Raised by his mother on the east side in a poor family that at times experienced homelessness, Lucas went to the prestigious Barstow School, then got scholarships to Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell Law. Truly, Lucas could be doing anything he wanted — but on the advice of a mentor, he returned to his hometown.

Lucas begins his tenure with an enormous reservoir of goodwill, and with a daunting lineup of intractable challenges. Chatting with Lucas, it’s clear that this man will have a very successful life given his abilities and charisma. The question is how far he can shlep the rest of us.

435: So what’s it like being mayor?

Lucas: Busy. It’s an interesting time right now in Kansas City. We have so many issues ranging from crime to housing. Many of which I thought I’d get a few days or weeks to jump into but it turns out, ready or not, here we come.

435: The second day, the First Fridays shooting had to be an interesting moment for you. There are a lot of shootings in Kansas City, but it seems like this one has really been talked about.

Lucas: It has. It’s getting more follow-up than perhaps we usually get. Part of the reason I think is because certainly the victim [bystander Erin Langhofer, 25, of Overland Park]. More to the point, whenever you get these types of random things — the stray bullet — I think people are just saying, “Wait, what can we do?” We get that moment of frustration.

435: So what can we do?

Lucas: Throw a bunch of stuff at it. There’s not just one magic solution. I was just talking to the chief of police about seeing what we can do to fund more programs where we are teaching young people alternatives to picking up firearms.

Restorative justice is part of it: Making sure that we’re telling people, “We want you to actually value your own life because if you don’t value yours, you’re not going to value somebody else’s.”

I’ve been talking about gun buybacks. I know that Kansas City last tried one I think about 25 years ago. It got 2,000 guns off the streets. A lot of people saw that as a failure because it was expensive, but I say that is 2,000 guns that are not getting into the hands — particularly of our teenage assailants, which is a big issue.

My view is, what can I do to make it a little bit harder for that 16-year-old who’s picking up the first gun? Or for the person who’s able to get a $50 gun off the street? Or somebody who is handing a gun to someone when there’s a dispute?

I think our big supply is a big part of it. But I also recognize that even if we had certain types of gun control tomorrow, a lot of the crimes committed in Kansas City at least involve handguns and involve the types of shorter-barreled guns that won’t be the subject of lots of the gun control conversation.

We need more investment in witness protection programs, because right now, I think a lot of criminals are operating with impunity because they don’t think they’ll get caught. Part of the reason they won’t get caught is because people aren’t talking to the police.

Image courtesy of Jeremey Theron Kirby

435: From just talking to a few Kansas City police officers, they tell me that a lot of problems here aren’t gang activity, but grudges. You did something to my cousin or my brother, I’m going to do something to your cousin or your brother. That seems like it’s a really hard thing to combat.

Lucas: It is, but it’s not impossible. You’ve probably been slighted in life, I’ve probably been slighted in life. Bad things have happened unfortunately to lots of our families, relationships, etc. What’s the difference? We have different tools for how we’re dealing with these sorts of things.

We have things to lose, frankly. There’s something to be said for having enough people with nothing to lose and there’s something to be said for having people that have never been taught that it’s not about who’s bigger, who’s badder — this code of the streets. Instead, it’s about, “Do I want to live? Do I not want to be in prison? Do I want to make better choices?” I think creating not just opportunity for people but teaching them different ways to see these sorts of things is the key way that you actually can do it.

435: Are you talking to the police a lot now compared to when you were on city council?

Lucas: I’m on the Board of Police Commissioners now so I have a role. They gave me a badge today which was funny. I’m like, “I don’t know if y’all know what you just did.” [laughs] I am talking to them a lot more. I talked to the police before but usually it was once every annual budget conversation.

Now I’m talking about a few things. If you look at the incident from the Crossroads the other day — and, by the way, don’t let me minimize the many other tragedies that happened in our city just this weekend — if you look at the Crossroads incident, why does that man have a gun?

And there are a few different ways to process it. Why does he make that choice? I want to at least give him a different level of risk calculus in connection with that. Then the other thing is I want to make it harder for him to have found that firearm. If he’s 18 years old when was the first time he had a firearm? What have we done about making sure that that doesn’t happen?

Although D.A.R.E. isn’t the best example; frankly, we’ve been in public schools in America for decades [talking about drug use]. I want somebody to be in that middle school or high school and tell people don’t pick up a gun. If you pick up a gun you are likely to die — which is just true, right? Or you’re more likely to do prison time. Also, just true.

435: I saw an old article where you said you thought your personal story was boring and you didn’t want to talk about it. Has that changed? Do you feel like when it comes to that kind of community engagement that there’s some power to your story?

Lucas: Yes, I absolutely do. There’s some power, there’s some responsibility for me.

Yes, there is something to being from the inner city, from that life. When people talk about “Is poverty the thing?” or “Is fatherless homes the thing?” I knew both. I think it’s important to say what you can do in spite of all that.

I’m not just saying, “Hey, everybody pick yourselves

up by your bootstraps.” What I am saying is, “Okay, how was that difference made in my life? What did we do that was special for me?

435: And what did we do that was special for you?

Lucas: I was able to get a great education. Once you start to get a good education then you realize that not only do you expect things for yourself but other people are expecting things from you.

By the age of about 13, I know I’m going somewhere. I don’t know where it is. I don’t know what the big plans are, but I know that there’s more coming out of this life for me. What I want us to do is empower and embolden every young person in this city with that — and a lot of them are young black males.

We can’t miss the fact that yes, there are lots of street codes. But for me it’s what can I do to tell them, “Look, I’m expecting more from you. I don’t think that you’re just somebody who’s dropping out of school and doing all this and dealing with that mess. Instead, I think every one of you can be something.”

That’s why I have my marijuana position, pardoning marijuana offenses. I don’t want something that tripped you up years before to limit what you’re doing now. What happens when you’re limited now? When you feel like you can’t do anything then it gets a lot easier to think, “Nobody gives a damn about me” and therefore, “I’m picking up a gun to resolve a fight.” Or, “I’m not going to invest in a relationship or the children I have.” Or any other number of things. That happens too much. I want to tell people I care about them all the time.

Part of my background is teaching in prisons. I taught at maximum security prison in New York state, in Auburn. A prison originally constructed in 1817 — terrible place to be. One of the inmates one day was talking and he says, “Well, look, I’m just a criminal.” Then some of the other inmates and myself said, “No you’re not. You’re a person.” What I’m scared of sometimes is when people get that too early in life. You get the 15-year-old kids who think, “Well, I’m not anything, I’m not special.” A lot of people who think that would say, “I ain’t s—.” I want to tell people that they are something and I think that does start to make a difference.

It doesn’t change evil people. But, honestly, when you look at the facts of that Friday incident, that is an 18-year-old man who made a terrible set of choices. Well, I don’t think he came with that gun intending to kill someone. What he came intending to do is to be bold and bad. He believes that he has to secure himself in a group of teenagers by doing something like that.

435: It’s just so much pressure on you when you talk about this. That just falls back on you.

Lucas: That’s right. But here’s my thing. One of the campaign positions I put down was that I want to see Kansas City have consistently fewer than 100 homicides a year. The buck has to finally stop with somebody.

For too long, we have been shifting the blame. And it’s not just Kansas City, it’s throughout American society. Maybe I take it personally because I am from the black community. I take it personally that we have to keep dealing with this time and time again. Not that there aren’t victims of other groups, but there is just so much impact in the inner city every day.

I’m on the radio earlier today and somebody’s like, “Well, were you surprised by this? Or is it something that’s shocking?” I’m like, “No, somebody got shot on a block from me like two months ago.” That happens every year.

I don’t want it to be acceptable anymore because when it becomes acceptable, you lose value in your community. When you start to lose value in your community, you lose value in yourself.

It’s a lot of pressure. I’ll deal with that I guess as time goes on. Maybe in two years you’ll have the expose on how the guy cracked. I think for now I’ve got the energy for it and the interest.

It seems like my predecessor was a bit salty about someone of my age — well, a bit salty for a few reasons — being mayor. One reference he often made was, “I think he’s not prepared.”

I think frankly, when we look at this issue right now, this is the time that calls out for a leader with energy. It doesn’t have to be a young leader but it does need to be someone who says, “All right, I’m not just going to try to shuffle money to the same organizations. I’m not just going to say that this is something we live with in Kansas City. Now let’s go talk about a streetcar instead.”

Image courtesy of Jeremey Theron Kirby

435: Four years, how will you be judged as a success? It’s easy to judge a mayor when they build a new sports stadium or airport.

Lucas: Everybody’s happy if you’re building a stadium. Everybody’s like, “Man, things are booming, what an exciting place!” But then people are still getting shot.

Here’s my view of how it works: You look at the numerical metric they provide you. I want to be consistently below 100 homicides for what I would imagine it’s two years in a row.

If we don’t hit that metric, then why not? Is it because we weren’t creative? We weren’t innovative? We weren’t working our a—- off every day to make sure that we could actually do something? If that’s the case, then my view is I probably don’t need to come back.

Whereas, if they’re saying, “Maybe you didn’t hit the number, but man, he worked his tail off to try to make sure we were doing everything from trying to keep more kids in school and working on every kind of violence reduction strategy we have, including limiting the number of firearms present in our city” then I think that’d be success.

435: What’s the best advice your mother ever gave you?

Lucas: Stay humble. “You’re not better than anybody. You’re not doing anything special. You’re not magical.” I think one of the things that sometimes trips up particularly leaders that come from tough backgrounds is they start to believe, “Oh my God, I’m so special.” The John Edwards’ type — son of millworker, with that accent. Then all of sudden you start to believe the bulls— you’re selling. Whereas what I always want to say is, “You know what, I’m a regular dude.” I want to have four years or eight years potentially to have an impact and then I need to sit down and go do something else and let somebody else rise up.

435: Well, you talked about this, after four years we don’t know what Missouri is going to look like politically, but could you beat Senator Josh Hawley? Are you looking at the Senate?

Lucas: No, gosh, I just got this job, man, and it was damn hard to get. I’m trying to have fun with this one. I will see what happens. When I’m done with all this, I’ll be 42 years old. I’m sure I’ll figure out a way to contribute in the world. I’m not sure it would be politics. Maybe I want to make money by that point — or now that the city council gave me a pay raise, I guess maybe I’ll just be like, “Oh, this is cool.”

435: I saw people complaining about the pay raise. You weren’t there to vote on it but people get so mad about things like this. With all things the city spends money on, this is literally the dumbest expenditure to care about, but people care.

Lucas: People care a ton.

435: How do you deal with that?

Lucas: You always have to try and understand where people are coming from. There’s a former city councilwoman by the name of Carol Coe. I think she cussed me out one time or something like that and she’s like, “I’m scared you hate black folks.” Something that is actually fairly offensive if you think about it.

Instead of getting angry and it’s really easy to do that I think I said, “Where are they coming from,” and maybe if I always think about that first. If I was thinking about the city budget I would say, “Well, where are we wasting like tens of millions of dollars. Let’s try to clear that up.” That’s not relatable to people because nobody actually has tens of millions of dollars except for a few very lucky people here. But we do understand $10,000, right?

That’s your debt, or half the price of a vehicle, or what you needed as a down payment on your house. “That’s something that I know can make a huge difference in my life and you’re having it make a difference in yours.” There’s some stuff that’s just unfair and silly, and I just got through a campaign so I have several examples.

435: Six members of city council ran for mayor and obviously five lost. So you’ve got a pretty new group around you. Are you happy for the new faces? Do you miss some of the old faces?

Lucas: I miss [third place finisher] Alissia Canady. I think she was a breath of fresh air in politics in our city. I think she provided a strong voice, particularly a strong voice from the east side of Kansas City, a black woman, making a real difference and would not get bullied by the mayor, would not get bullied by business, would not get bullied by me.

We’ve got some new folks I need to get to know better. Some of our returners are certainly powerful personalities — Katheryn Shields, Teresa Loar — folks that have been around for decades. That’s the circle of life.

435: Are you of the count to seven school of Kansas City politics? That is, the mayor needs to get seven votes and that’s what the game is about?

Lucas: No, I want everybody to agree with me.

435: You want to count to 12?

Lucas: Yes, but I understand that sometimes you need seven to get something passed. I would say, if I was really going to critique myself, I’m more of a count to 9 or count to 10. You don’t want to have to bite your nails every time you have to vote. I understand sometimes people have differences, and I’d love to bring them on board but I also understand we can’t spend forever getting everybody.

435: Well, and it’s interesting because your profile is so large and you’ve got so many new people that, I mean, you really are the leader of this Council.

Lucas: It’s fun, I’m the youngest one and I get a chance to try to see how I can work with Katheryn Shields. She’s in her 70s. She may get mad at me for blowing that up, but I’m sure it’s a public record somewhere. My view is, now how can we work together. If we can work together, that’s a sign for the rest of the community.

I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’ve had a lot of pressure put on me my entire life. Sometimes I’ve been like, “Man, I just want to escape from being the brother who made it,” but at the same time, there were a lot of people who invested in me, I’m doing this and I’m going to work my tail off to make sure we can get things done for our community.

One difference I will have from Sly is — there will be several — but I think you catch a lot more bees with honey. I think we can do that here in Kansas City a lot more successfully.

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