Who’s on their side? Why endorsements matter in Kansas City council elections

Most Kansas City voters have never heard of Lindsay French.

So the first-time City Council candidate is introducing herself to the electorate ahead of the April 4 primary the way so many candidates do, by touting the endorsements she’s received from union, business and political groups.

Endorsements are seen as the next best way to let voters know who they should support in nonpartisan elections, where there are no Ds or Rs next to the names on the ballot to help voters who base their choices on party affiliation.

For novice and experienced politicians alike, advertising your endorsements is a way of saying, “while you may not know much about me, you just might care who these organizations want people to vote for.”

“The theory is you get as many endorsements as you can,” said former councilman Ed Ford, who won four terms with the help of endorsements from interest groups like Northland Strong, where he now serves as treasurer.

Ford describes the group as a “pro Northland, pro police, pro development group” that put French, who is making a citywide bid to fill the open 2nd District-at-Large seat, on its slate of favored candidates.

“The average voter when they go to the polls knows very little about any of the candidates,” Ford said. “So it’s name recognition and that type of thing.”

Endorsements don’t fall on candidates’ shoulders like rose petals from on high. Candidates must seek out the support, and of the 33 people running for city council seats, French is in the top tier if not the leader in acquiring them, listing 16 group endorsements on her website.

She did not reply to requests for comment on her effort to get what amounts to the Good Housekeeping seal of approval from a host of labor unions, including the ones representing firefighters and police officers; the Black political club Freedom Inc.; and the Realtors and Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City.

As for her two opponents, Mickey Younghanz has no groups backing him, and Jenay Manley has five on her website, albeit one of them is the political action committee of the increasingly influential KC Tenants organization, of which she is a leader.

Endorsements also stand out in several other races. Among those collecting the most group endorsements in competitions for open seats with three or more candidates in the primary: Crispin Rea in the contest to fill the open 4th District-at-Large seat, Dan Tarwater in the 6th District and Darrell Curls in the 5th District-at-Large contest.

Incumbents Andrea Bough (Sixth District-at-Large) and Kevin O’Neill (1st District-at-Large) also had the most endorsements in their three-way races. Councilman Eric Bunch and challenger Henry Rizzo are neck and neck in endorsements in their three-person race to represent the 4th District, while the third candidate in that race, Crissy Dastrup, lists endorsements mainly from individuals.

In five other council contests, all the candidates will advance to the general election no matter how many votes they get on April 4. Some interest groups have already made endorsements in those races, but others will wait until after the primary to weigh in.

Among the interest groups sitting out the primary is KC BizPAC, the political action committee run jointly by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council. The group may or may not endorse for the general election, a chamber spokeswoman said.

Few vote in primary

Do endorsements give candidates a winning edge? Cause and effect are hard to prove. With possibly two exceptions, Ford said, “as a former candidate, what I always tell folks is … these endorsements don’t make a whole lot of difference.”

They help some voters. Who can blame the average person for wanting suggestions when nearly three dozen candidates are in the running for 12 council seats and mayor?

The mayoral race ought to be an easy choice. Quinton Lucas’s only opponent is perennial candidate Clay Chastain, and both are well known commodities.

Then it gets tough. All voters will have a chance to make their picks for seven of those council positions. That includes the person who will represent their district (there are six in-district council persons, but voters only get to pick one) and those who will occupy the six at-large seats (and everyone gets to vote for them).

But most people don’t bother. Typically, only one in five registered voters participate in this knock-out round, which is half as many as voted in the recent midterm election.

It’s only slightly better when it comes time to choosing between the two finalists in each race who make it to the general election in June. Then it’s one in four who vote.

It’s likely that those who do participate have been paying attention. Perhaps they’ve attended one of the many voter forums, or consulted objective voter guides like the one The Star will publish this week.

KC Tenants also has a particularly opinionated and entertaining one, where candidates are rated “Hell Yes” or “Hell No” or no rating at all.

But the candidates lucky enough to get endorsements from prominent community leaders and organized groups think it gives them an edge over their opponents when in so many cases only nuance separates them on the big issues of this campaign: homelessness, affordable housing, public safety and basic city services.

‘Chasing endorsements’

An endorsement from Freedom Inc. is a plum, not only because many Black voters carry the group’s list of picks with them to the polls, but the group also has an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation.

Of the six new members of the Jackson County Legislature elected in November, five were endorsed by Freedom.

Also adept at picking winners, and backing them with the maximum campaign donations allowed by city code, is Local 42, which represents Kansas City firefighters up to the rank of captain.

Former Jackson County legislator Dan Tarwater was endorsed by both groups and a slew of others in his campaign to fill the open 6th District seat. None of his four opponents even come close.

After seven successful runs for the legislature, Tarwater puts a lot of stock in political endorsements from labor and other groups and hopes this crop will help him become one of the two finalists in the five-candidate race.

“Yes, 100%,” he said. “They all have members. The members don’t necessarily fall in lockstep with the endorsements, but it’s good recognition, good exposure, and they know that you’re someone that is, you know, in their corner. They don’t just give an endorsement for no reason, right? Because you’ve earned it.”

O’Neill doesn’t have a comprehensive list of endorsements on his web page, but by virtue of his stands on issues and as former publisher of the local union newspaper, the Kansas City Labor Beacon, he has lots of support from labor.

He alone among the six incumbent council members seeking re-election (the other six were term limited) received an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police. He voted no in 2021 when the other five voted to restrict a portion of police department spending, which led to the statewide ballot measure forcing Kansas City to spend even more on its police force.

Brad Lemon, president of the police union, declined to discuss what role O’Neill’s vote played in the endorsement, but said in general “we look at individuals that are looking at public safety issues as primary for us, and where they’ve been previously and where they plan on being in the future.”

Candidates who come up short in the competition for endorsements claim that what they lack in support from labor, business and political groups they hope to offset with their records of public service and commitment to hard work.

But not all of them believe it when they say it..

One who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they were disappointed in their lack of endorsements and described a phone call in which representatives of one group gave her the bad news.

“When they told me I didn’t get it, they had lumps in their throats,” that candidate said. “ ‘We fought for you,’ they said.”

Theresa Galvin said she hasn’t been actively trying to get endorsements, but has gotten a few anyway.

The former Jackson County legislator and unsuccessful Republican candidate for county executive has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and Northland Strong in the 5th District-at-Large contest, she said.

She said she is relying on her eight-year record in county government to help her advance to the general election.

“There are people that are just chasing endorsements, no matter who it is, or what they stand for,” she said. “It’s like here’s my shelf of trophy endorsements, that I mean, is that really who you want to be endorsed by?”

She didn’t name names.