Kansas City Councilwoman
by Joey Saunders
As the pandemonium of the 2016 presidential election mercifully neared its end, I sat down with former Missouri Senator and current Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus. As the Director of Pro Bono Services for the law firm Shook, Hardy, & Bacon LLP, in addition to being a city councilperson, Justus finds herself to be a very busy person these days. At times she finds herself tired and frustrated by the waning decorum and empathy in modern politics. To get to the root of this frustration, we started our conversation with how she ended up in elected office in the first place.
Like many elected officials, Justus tells me she never intended to run for office. Her undergraduate degree was in electronic media production, radio and television.
“It’s kind of a weird path that we all take,” she said. “I started as a radio newscaster in Branson when I was 17.”
Justus returned to that Branson station after graduating from what is now Missouri State University.
“I was a radio newscaster for six or seven years, working seven days a week. I had no health insurance, no paid vacation.” She said it was a struggle for her to even buy groceries. She was married at the time to a man who worked for the local paper.
She figured she should learn a trade, but also fantasized about becoming some sort of historical tour guide. She admits with a wistful laugh, “It was preposterous.”
But when her father, a Taney County prosecutor who went on to become a judge, offered her $6.50 an hour to work at his law firm, she kept her radio job in the evenings but “jumped at the chance” to work for her dad during the day. Working at her father’s firm made her realize that she’d better go to law school if her husband was going to keep being a journalist or if they were ever going to have kids or any semblance of lower-middle-class security. She eventually received her law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“That’s how I came back to Kansas City,” Justus said. Explaining that she was born here and moved to Branson when she was five years old, after her father finished law school.
“(Between) bookends of urban experience. I think those critical years, K through 12, in Branson really gave me the ability to get along with just about anybody. By the time I ran for Senate, some of the things people would say about me that were supposed to be negative, were, ‘Oh, she’s a crazy lesbian from the inner-city’.”
When Justus was elected in 2006, she joined a 34-person Senate chamber where she was in the minority in nearly every way: she was one of only seven democrats, four lawyers and five women. And she was the first and only openly gay member. While she was running, critics would ask her how she would get along with the heavily male, rural, republican legislators in Jefferson City.
She replied, “Well, I was raised in the Ozark mountains by Republicans. I think I can probably get along with just about anybody.”
Then we get to the root of her frustration with modern politics.
“I will tell you, the older I get and the more polarized I see things becoming, it’s harder for me to stay civil in an increasingly uncivil environment. And when I see folks who say they are standing up for their values but they are disenfranchising the people and causes that are important to me, I tend to lose my… tolerance with that,” Justus said.
Justus, like any Democrat eyeing a seat in the Missouri General Assembly, knew that if she won she would be in the deep minority and would need Republican support if she was going to accomplish anything. But that seemed to be part of the appeal for her. She admits it’s cliché, but she finds great truth in the adage, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
In other words, “I saw a lack of diversity in the legislature and knew we needed those voices at the table,” she said.
In 2006, six months before the election, Justus was at a nonprofit fundraiser and her colleague mentioned that State Senator and former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler wasn’t going to run for reelection in the 10th District.
“One of my friends chimed in and dared me to run for the open seat,” she said.
She claims that she may have been joking when she accepted the challenge. She said she left the event hoping people would forget, but they didn’t.
“By the end of the day, a group of lawyers and community activists convinced me that running was the right thing to do,” she said.
Because she had good relationships with potential donors and volunteers through her personal and professional lives, she was able to quickly mount a campaign, win a relatively close primary and defeat her Republican challenger in a landslide with 72.1 percent of the votes.
Justus served as state senator from 2007 until 2015 and as minority floor leader for her last two years. Instead of running for reelection to the senate, she aimed to make a more immediate impact in local government and chose to run for a seat on the City Council, which she won with more than 76 percent of the votes.
While she never portrays any desire to shoot for a career in Washington, D.C., the political mecca plays a huge role in her identity development. In the early 2000s, Justus and her husband took her younger brother on a vacation along the East Coast. While her brother was busy, Justus and her husband went to a D.C. bar.
According to Justus, she sat her husband down and said, “’Scott, ‘I need to talk to you. I gotta tell you something,’ and he said, ‘You’re gay.’”
Justus’s husband went on to say he had known for a while, but didn’t say anything because he loved her and didn’t want their marriage to end. Justus tells me coming out to Scott was the hardest thing she ever had to do in her life. Because their bond was so strong and they were so reticent to destroy it, Justus remained married, “for two full years,” just “processing.”
While Justus maintains that the decision to run for office was a surprise, even to her, there were early signs. In late 2003, she caught wind of upcoming attempts to ban certain gay rights, like marriage equality, which Missouri passed in 2004.
Justus said she had become a pseudo-straight ally in the fight for gay rights, with one foot in the closet, one foot out. For instance, she was on PROMO’s (Promoting Equality for All Missourians) legislative committee. Many members knew that she had come out privately, but she was still married and trying to figuring things out.
PROMO sent Justus to Washington, D.C., to prepare to campaign against discriminatory legislation. While there, she trained with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Part of that entailed working polls for the presidential primary. Justus remembers working a poll in Georgetown.
“We were just supposed to be asking people as they left their polling place about gay marriage. I remember one man walked out and I asked him, ‘Would you be in favor of or opposed to banning same sex marriage,’ and he said, ‘Are you gay?’ So I just looked at him and I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And it kind of changed the dialogue that I had with him,” Justus said.
When she returned from D.C., she told her husband, “I’ve gotta come out now.”
I’m reminded of earlier, when Councilwoman Justus spoke of her favorite axiom, “If you don’t have a place at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
She realized that being visible as a gay woman is powerful. When lawmakers are debating issues, it’s much harder to dismiss large swathes of people when one of them, like an LGBTQ person, a person of color, a woman, is in the room.
As sad as it was, Justus divorced her best friend, but she still remains incredibly close to him.
In 2009, while still in the Senate, Justus’s marriage to Shonda Garrison in Iowa, attracted media attention. Because of a 2004 law, the State of Missouri refused to recognize the marriage as legal.
In retrospect, Justus said the closeness she felt with her husband was an intense kind of connection that she never quite reached with Garrison. Because Missouri did not recognize their marriage as legal, when Garrison left Justus, she was unable to get a divorce.
Instead, Justus had the marriage annulled, essentially allowing Missouri to say that the marriage was never valid because it was between two women. Justus attached a statement to the annulment, a kind of caveat, asserting that while she needed to have the marriage dissolved so she could move on with her life, she still strongly supported same-sex marriage.
Justus said she was ready to give up on dating entirely. That was until she spotted Lucy at a friend’s birthday party. Now Justus feels she’s found the level of connection with Lucy that was missing before.
“It’s almost like meeting someone I knew in a past life,” she said.
Justus has noticed, for better or for worse, a paradigm shift in the way she is portrayed in the media. Before, her name always appeared with the words “lesbian” or “openly gay” attached. Now her orientation is rarely mentioned.
She said that while she clearly thinks visibility is important, “It’s a sign of how far we’ve come in just a few short years.”
She’s glad most people understand that she’s about more than just “gay issues.” When Justus first got to Jefferson City, her number one priority was increasing the childcare assistance in Missouri.
“It seemed like a no-brainer to me. This wasn’t welfare in the way Republicans think of it. It wasn’t a ‘handout,’ it was more like a ‘hand-up’,” she said.
Justus managed to get bipartisan co-sponsorship on her bill to improve this dire situation. It failed by one vote.
She recalls when Republican Senator Chuck Purgason stood on the Senate floor and said “he would always vote against childcare assistance because the state of Missouri should not be involved in childcare because women should be at home taking care of their kids.”
Justus remembers being shocked, “a little teary-eyed, and not knowing how to respond.”
In spite of what was clearly an uphill battle, Justus fought for the bill again in a later year. That time it tied. While Justus does not have any children of her own, this issue was incredibly close to her heart. In part because while she was running for office, she became the guardian of a young Kauffman Scholar, Angel, whom she had met while volunteering as a mentor at Operation Breakthrough.
Gay issues continue to be important to Justus. She said we still have a long way to go. Much of her pro-bono work involves discrimination and violence against trans persons.
While same-sex marriage is great, she finds it deplorable that “you can get married to the person you love over the weekend, go back to work on Monday, and get fired for putting your wedding photo on your desk.”
Justus, who sponsored an anti-bullying bill while she was a Senator, is a vehement supporter of anti-discrimination laws, policies and ordinances. This is part of the reason Justus encourages LGBTQ people not just to vote, but to run for political offices.