Lawrence City Commission ballot might be most diverse ever; 3 candidates are Black and one is Native American

photo by: Contributed Photos

Pictured clockwise from top left are Lawrence City Commission candidates Milton Scott, Amber Sellers, Bart Littlejohn and Ma’Ko’Quah Jones.

This year’s Lawrence City Commission candidates might be the most diverse group to ever run for the city’s governing body, potentially beginning to turn the tide on decades of underrepresentation of people of color.

Of the eight candidates actively running for the three open commission seats, four are people of color. Candidate Ma’Ko’Quah Jones is a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, and candidates Bart Littlejohn, Amber Sellers and Milton Scott are Black. Neither the city clerk’s office nor the Douglas County elections office tracks the race or ethnicity of candidates, but commission members and candidates have been almost entirely white throughout the commission’s history.

Multiple local sources believe that the last Black person to run for the commission did so in 1969, meaning it has been more than 50 years since Lawrence has seen a Black candidate, let alone a Black commissioner. Other people of color have been similarly unrepresented.

Having three Black candidates on the ballot, perhaps for the first time ever, comes amid greater attention toward racial justice issues both nationally and locally. Ursula Minor, president of the local NAACP chapter, said she thought the diversity of the candidate field was a good step toward having a commission that represented the population of Lawrence, especially given recent issues.

“With all the issues surrounding the Black community this year, it’s encouraging to see Black people getting out there and trying to make a change in their community,” Minor said. “I think all the issues have got people more aware and wanting to do something to make some changes.”

Minor said she thinks the biggest issue surrounding the Black community is policing and potential reforms to how police operate. As the Journal-World has reported, following the murder of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis by a white police officer and nationwide protests against police killings of Black people and other people of color, the commission called for an outside study of the Lawrence Police Department. Consultants hired by the city recently presented their 132-page report, which includes 60 findings and 75 recommendations covering various areas, and the commission will ultimately decide what changes it would like to see.

Representation on the Lawrence City Commission — and the role of mayor, which is filled by one of the commissioners — has historically not aligned with the city’s demographics.

About 80% of Lawrence residents are white, while about 7% are Hispanic or Latino, 6.5% are Asian, 4.9% are Black and 2.7% are Native American, according to U.S. Census data. Current Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley is Hispanic, but commission members and candidates have been almost entirely white for decades. There has never been a Black mayor and, based on historical portraits of Lawrence’s mayors, it doesn’t appear that there has been a mayor who was not white.

Minor is a lifelong Lawrence resident and her family has been in Lawrence since the 1900s, and she said that the last Black person who ran for the City Commission was Jesse Milan, who narrowly lost two elections in the late 1960s.

Watkins Museum of History Research Services Coordinator Monica Davis said that according to Clark Coan’s “Lawrence Political Protests 1960-1973”, Milan, a Black physical education consultant for the school district, narrowly missed being elected to the commission in 1967. Milan ran again two years later and again barely lost to the same candidate. At that time, according to Coan, most city elections were dominated by members of the chamber of commerce, and a Black person had not been elected to the governing body “in decades.”

More recently, Caleb Stephens, who is Black, was one of 14 people who applied to fill a vacated seat on the commission in 2015. However, that position was appointed and did not involve an election, and Stephens was not chosen. When it comes to Native American, Asian and Latino or Hispanic representation, it is not clear whether there have been commissioners of those backgrounds, apart from Shipley. Dustin Stumblingbear, a member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, ran unsuccessfully for the commission in 2017 and 2019.

The City Commission election’s historically diverse field of candidates comes while the city has been considering changes to how the governing body operates.

The commission decided to create a task force in January to study alternative structures to the city’s current commission-manager form of government. One of the six values the task force used to “anchor (its) deliberations” was the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, and ensuring that groups traditionally left out of government structures and processes have a voice. The task force, consisting of a dozen residents including Minor, recommended in part that the city consider having a directly elected mayor and a six-member commission elected by districts, for a governing body of seven people total, instead of the current system in which five candidates are elected at large and the mayor is selected from among the commissioners.

Task Force Chair John Nalbandian, professor emeritus in the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs & Administration, explained that districts grew in use after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a way to increase representation for minority populations. However, he said the task force’s review of census data found that Lawrence’s minority populations were not concentrated enough to provide much guidance for district boundaries, and there would have to be more districts encompassing smaller areas for that rationale to have more impact.

However, the task force recommended districts in part because it felt the smaller geographic areas and the smaller number of residents they represent — especially as compared to the approximately 100,000 constituents for the current at-large seats — would encourage a wider range of candidates to seek office by reducing the costs and barriers of running. Districts would in turn provide better representation, engagement and an enhanced sense of place for the geographic areas represented, according to the task force recommendation.

Nalbandian, who is Armenian and served on the commission from 1991 to 1999, said he doesn’t believe the city has ever seen such a diverse group of candidates. He said it was nice to see a field of candidates that seems to speak to the value of diversity that the task force used as a lens during the consideration of its recommendation.

“If we look at the values lens, and we look at the candidates, we’re on track there,” Nalbandian said.

When it comes to other issues of representation, Nalbandian said additional considerations are the representation of various geographic areas in the city. Above all, he said it’s important for a field of candidates to represent diverse points of view, and he’s looking forward to learning about the current candidates’ platforms in depth.

For its part, the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP will be hosting candidate forums for the Lawrence City Commission, as well as the Lawrence school board, before the primary election and again ahead of the general election. Minor said the first commission candidate forum will take place July 10 from 1 to 3 p.m. via Zoom, and the NAACP will post event information on its Facebook page.

Minor said the NAACP works to do its part by having forums so that people will be able to make informed decisions about whom to vote for. But she said a diverse group of candidates is only a first step.

“This is a good step toward having a commission that represents the diverse population of Lawrence,” Minor said. “I would also say, just because you have a diverse candidate, it does not mean that they will be elected, which is why it’s important for the community to get out and vote for the candidates that they feel best represent them.”


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