Voters will soon have the opportunity to elect a lesbian mayor to office for the fourth time this year. In February, Lori Lightfoot became Chicago’s first openly LGBTQ mayor, as well as its first black and lesbian chief executive. Her win also made Chicago the largest U.S. city to put an out politician to the mayor’s desk. Two more women would join Lightfoot in making history in the coming months: Satya Rhodes Conway in Madison, Wisconsin, and Jane Castor in Tampa, Florida.
On Tuesday, Jolie Justus hopes to make it four-for-four. The city councilwoman will face off against fellow Democrat Quinton Lucas in an extremely close race to become the next mayor of Kansas City, Missorui. A recent survey from the nonpartisan Remington Research Group shows Lucas leading 42 to 39, with 19% of voters saying they are still undecided.
Justus is well-positioned to make up that three-point gap. In addition to earning the endorsement of sitting Mayor Sly James, she came in first in a six-candidate primary race in April, winning 22.8% of the vote. Lucas, who also sits on the Kansas City Council, finished in second.
When asked about the significance of Tuesday’s race for the LGBTQ community, Justus says it’s a question she’s fielded a lot over the years.
“I’ve been a ‘first’ a lot,” the 48-year-old politician tells NewNowNext. “I was the first and still the only openly gay member of the Missouri Senate. When I ran for city council, I ran as the first out candidate. When it was time to make the decision whether to run for mayor, it really wasn’t based on my sexual orientation, but instead on my desire to keep my city moving forward.”
While the fact that Justus is a lesbian has made headlines outside of Missouri, it has not factored into the Kansas City mayor race. In fact, she claims it has never been an issue in the 13 years since she was first elected to the Missouri Senate.
Justus chalks this up to the fact that Kansas City is one of the most “progressive” cities in the state of Missouri. The city of just over 488,000 has had a nondiscrimination ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation on the books since 1994 and prohibited bias against transgender people in housing, employment, and public accommodations in 2008.
Although the surrounding state voted for Donald Trump by 18 points in the 2016 election, Justus describes Kansas City as the kind of place where most people know someone who is queer or transgender. The fact that she’s married to another woman is simply no big deal to the majority of residents.
“What was an interesting journey, though, was once I got elected, I served with 33 other senators who were not as progressive,” she says.
When Justus first made the trip to Jefferson City 13 years ago, Missouri had recently passed a law banning marriage equality; it was the first U.S. state to adopt a constitutional amendment restricting the definition of marriage to one man and one woman. While taking her first tour of the state capitol building, the legislator behind that effort, state Sen. Kevin Engler (R-Farmington), described himself as the “redneck homophobe who had banned gay marriage in the state of Missouri.”
Justus says that being the first openly LGBTQ person in that body put a target on her back, at least at first. She claims most of her colleagues assumed she would “not be pleasant to work with.”
“I don’t know why they thought that, but we became allies,” Justus recalls. “They learned to trust me.”
The relationships Justus built in the legislature soon began to pay dividends. In 1998, Missouri House Rep. Steve McLuckie (D-Kansas City) introduced a statewide equivalent to Kansas City’s nondiscrimination ordinance, called the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA). Although the bill had been introduced in the House and Senate each year, it had never gained significant traction when Justus took office.
But a year after bragging about banning marriage equality in the state of Missouri, Engler surprised Justus by signing on as a cosponsor of MONA. After learning that a majority of states lack fully inclusive employment protections for LGBTQ people, he was incensed. “Jesus wouldn’t fire anyone for being gay,” Engler told her.
“Most of the guys I served with had no idea it was legal to fire someone because they’re gay,” Justus recalled. “They didn’t know that.”
The two were able to successfully advance a nondiscrimination bill in the Missouri Legislature for the first time in 2013. Despite the fact that Justus was one of only 10 Democrats in the 34-person body, the Missouri Senate passed MONA by a 19-11 vote. She says it was a testament to the friendships she built in the legislature that many of the Republicans who crossed the aisle to support the bill were the ones who sat near her in the chambers.
The day that MONA passed the Senate, Justus recalls approaching one of her most staunchly conservative colleagues and asking what she needed to say to get his vote. He responded, “You just need to ask. You have been with me on all of these other issues. I’m with you and I will vote yes.”
“That was one of the moments where I realized that no matter what happened beyond that, I’d made a difference,” she says.
After serving for four years as a member of Kansas City’s city council, Justus hopes to use the platform of the mayor’s office to finish the work she started as a state Senator. As mayor of the largest city in Missouri, she would be one phone call away from Gov. Mike Parson, who she served with in the Senate. Although he’s a conservative Republican, Parson was one of her colleagues who voted in favor of MONA.
With openly LGBTQ lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Jefferson City, Justus says the Missouri Legislature gets “a little bit closer” to passing that bill each year. Should it finally reach Parson’s desk after two decades, she plans to remind him of his earlier vote.
“Having an out mayor in the biggest city in the state of Missouri encouraging people to take a step towards equality, I think that’ll be a big deal,” she says.
— Allison Shields (@allison_swett) June 18, 2019
But before Justus has that kind of power, she has to win first. Even as polls show her in a “statistical tie” with her opponent, the longtime LGBTQ politician believes it’s her record of reaching across the aisle and building coalitions that will resonate with voters on election day. She’s run on a “Neighborhoods First” agenda, emphasizing Kansas City’s successful revitalization effort and the construction of a new airport set to be built in 2023. She was the biggest champion of that project in the city council.
No matter what happens on June 18, Justus hopes her campaign inspires the next generation of young leaders to make change in their community. While she’s claimed a great many “firsts” during her time in office, the LGBTQ community still has a lot of work left to do. Lightfoot’s election made her just the second openly LGBTQ mayor of a major city; Castor was the third.
Justus believes her win would be another step in the right direction.
“It breaks down another barrier,” she says. “You have young kids who are able to say, ‘Wow, that person’s like me and she’s the mayor. I can do that, too.’”