All the adjectives about Johnson County, the darling of the Kansas City Metro, are glowing. The rapidly growing county on the Kansas side of the border has “fabulous” homes, “beautiful” parks, “outstanding” shopping, “fine” dining and “exceptional” schools.
Where the county doesn’t glow brightly is in its diversity and inclusion. Johnson County, the second largest county in Kansas City Metro, is the least diverse county in the metro area.
With a population of 609,000 residents, compared to Jackson County, with 717,000 residents, Johnson County’s population is just 5% Black (35,000) while Jackson County’s population is 23% Black (165,000).
If you divide that population among Johnson County’s 27 cities and townships, that’s an average 1,300 Black residents per city.
Despite those stats, an unheard of five Black men have stepped up and are running for local elected office in Johnson.
They may not have known the exact numbers they were up against, but they knew they couldn’t depend on the Black vote to win.
They were making a historic move. They’d never held local office before, and as far as any of them can discover, a Black person has never been elected to serve as a city council member or mayor of any city or township in Johnson County.
In 2023, a Black man running for office in Johnson County is still an anomaly and for five of them to step up and run at the same time is unexplainable. No this wasn’t a planned coup and the three we interviewed didn’t know each other before they decided to run.
Why Run in Johnson County?
Haile Sims, who’s seeking a seat on the Roeland Park City Council, and Christopher Herron, who’s running for a spot on the Lenexa council, both say they were motivated to run by the George Floyd incident. After Floyd’s death, they both got involved in their community.
“It was really heartbreaking,” said Sims, who was in high school when the Rodney King incident occurred. “Here we were 30 years later, and I found myself having these conversations with my kids.”
Since then, Sims has served on Roeland Park’s Police Policy Committee, Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee, which he now chairs, and the Planning Commission.
Christopher Herron also got involved after George Floyd. A Lenexa resident for only three years, he jumped hard into the activism water in 2022 working on the Kansas Say No Campaign against the constitutional abortion amendment. His hard work caught a few eyes and he was asked to run by the incumbent, who is leaving her seat to run for Lenexa mayor.
Jerry Williams is vying for a seat on the Fairway City Council. Fairway, a small town of 4,000 residents, has so few Blacks they don’t even register as a percentage on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website.
He’s lived in Fairway for 11 years, and his two boys graduated from the Shawnee Mission Schools. Transplants from Atlanta, the change was shocking but the change was a positive for the boys’ education.
They like to walk, and while they never had a problem when they walked as a family, a couple of times one of his sons was escorted home by the Fairway Police when he was walking by himself.
“Just to kind of make sure he lived where he said he lived. Of course, that frustrated my son,” said Williams, who said he’s running to make sure we’re not seen as different and that we belong in Fairway. “I want to be more visible and to highlight some of those situations. I think I’ll be able to make some progress.”
Representation Matters in Johnson County
When they win, the candidates agree, they wouldn’t have won because they’re Black, but because they were the best candidate. Because their message, the platform and their values resonated with voters.
But their election will secure representation for Black people in Johnson County at levels they’ve never had before.
“It’s always good when everyone is represented,” said Sims. Even though Johnson County isn’t very diverse, “I think it’s absolutely important to have that diversity represented in government, in the decision-making process.”
“Democracy is better when more people participate,” said Herron. “If you have people that feel they have a viable equity in a system, they feel that their contributions are recognized, they feel that they are a welcome part of the community.”
“I know I’m running to represent someone who doesn’t look like me,” said Sims. “Diversity of thought is always good.”
Campaigning in Johnson County
All three are working hard to win.
They have professional websites, campaign literature and yards signs. They’re shaking hands, attending debates and forums, and knocking on doors. Most evenings and weekends, that’s where you can find them. Out working in their wards, trying to earn votes.
While they joked lightly about how surprised people are to have a Black man knocking on their door, they all agreed they approach this task with a great deal of sensibility.
If there are multiple Trump stickers on a truck bumper, that might be a house they pass on and they make sure to quit door-knocking well before it gets dark.
Overall, people have been friendly and welcoming.
“I don’t meet any opposition, nobody is slamming the door in my face,” said Sims. “I’m making that connection and putting a face with a name.”
Williams said when he knocks on doors, he’s not only greeted well, but people often invite him in. “We sit and talk and talk about issues and diversity sometimes comes up.”
They’re working hard, not particularly because they’re Black, but because they’re starting from zero. That’s a particular challenge for both Sims and Williams, who are running against incumbents who are a step ahead of them.
The Issues in Johnson County
Like most candidates, they’re campaigning on issues, which are distinctly unique to each of the cities.
Roeland Park is landlocked and has no room to grow. Sims said he’s talking to people about helping the city’s tax base grow. There are empty buildings and he’s campaigning to get them filled as a way to bring additional sales tax revenue to the city.
For Fairway, which has a lot of new young families coming in, the issues are stormwater runoff and traffic calming, the practice of directing more traffic off residential roads and back onto the thoroughfares.
Lenexa is in a different position; it’s primed for growth with the new Panasonic plant coming in.
Herron hopes that if he’s elected, he can contribute positively to decisions that will help Lenexa grow in a way that minimizes the negative impact on the town and its residents.
Despite being in the suburbs, a big issue in all three cities is safety.
How Can They Win in Johnson County?
They’re not just working hard, they’re working smart.
Even though the races are non-partisan, they’re getting a lot of support from the Democratic party. With data from the party, they’ve been able to focus their effort on middle-of-the-road voters whose votes they might be able to win.
For Herron, the Democrats have hand-delivered flyers to the doors of registered Democrats and encouraged them to come out and vote. The flyers let them know he’s a Democrat, even though the races are nonpartisan.
For Hailey, who’s running against a Democrat, the Dems have helped in a number of ways, but since he’s running against a Democrat, they’ve fallen short of endorsing him.
Roeland Park and Lenexa, both located in the northeastern part of Johnson County, have residents that are much more liberal.
That should work to Sims and Williams’ advantage. Lenexa, where Herron and candidate Jermaine Jamison are running and Olathe, where Chad Carroll is running, are much more conservative.
Still, the candidates are confident about winning, and making even more history in Johnson County.
“I’m optimistic about all of us, and I think that says something good about Johnson County,” said Sims.
Want to Help
Considering making a donation to their campaign?
Donations can be made online at all of their websites.