When you think about Missouri, you think of Middle America, a section of the country that lacks national media exposure—a red state that a lot of folks don’t believe can be flipped. Consequently, we dismiss a lot of the upstarts who could generate the traction of an Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Phyllis Hardwick, who is running for state representative out of Kansas City’s 19th District, is hoping to change those dynamics with her race. She is running on many of the same values of the three aforementioned members of Congress and believes that the type of revolutions around policing and healthcare that are taking Washington, D.C., to task must be done locally first. She told me during a phone interview that she embraces the “defund the police” movement’s policies of reallocating resources from the departments to social services, but, in Kansas City, local officials do not even control policing. It is managed by the state.
She wants to be at least one elected official in Jefferson City, the state’s capital, who would fight to return police departments to city control so that local people are empowered to hold officers accountable. And divestment is one of her aims.
“We’ve continuously disinvested in social services, both proactive and reactive,” Hardwick, 32, stressed. “We disinvest from the proactive ones, like after school care programs at community centers. And then we disinvested in the reactive ones like drug abuse, support, mental health, and the like. So the fact that you have police that struggle with doing safe traffic stops, responding to things that they were never equipped or prepared to do, it absolutely makes sense to try to figure out how we can better tailor support elsewhere so that we actually can hold police accountable to kind of what they’re expected to, which is [to] respond to violent crime.”
Hardwick is also dealing with the same type of establishment politics that folks like The Squad, Charles Booker in Kentucky, Jamaal Bowman in New York and other progressives face. In the aforementioned cases, the establishment, including the Black Congressional Caucus, rallied around the incumbent. In Kansas City, respected Black organizations, like Freedom Inc., are backing Hardwick’s white opponent, state Rep. Ingrid Burnett.
“I think that is something that we just don’t talk about enough,” Hardwick said of her frustration with local Black leadership’s devotion to incumbency. “We haven’t really investigated what the implicit bias is for incumbents. My district is nearly 57 percent people of color and never had a person of color represent it. When you’re running, people always will tell you, ‘You wait your turn,’ which comes with its own set of biases. Frankly, at the end of the day, we’re never going to get to a point where we have leadership and elected officials that represent the actual rank and file members of the democratic party if we continuously don’t allow primaries to be an opportunity to make sure that we’re picking someone who’s best positioned to represent the people.”
One of Hardwick’s challenges will be getting people to vote far enough down the ballot to see her name. All incumbents have this issue. It’s especially true in midterms which, statistically, produce lower turnout than presidential years, making 2020 especially advantageous for candidates like Hardwick hoping to capitalize on national momentum from the presidential election.
She has earned a number of national endorsements, including #VOTEPROCHOICE and Working Families Party, while locally, she has the backing of Our Revolution, Madam America and Moms Demand Action.
Delvone Michael, who heads Criminal Justice reform policy at Working Families Party, said his organization is using national excitement for left-leaning candidates at the top of the ticket to galvanize support for like-minded candidates at the local level. Just as important, investing in people like Hardwick will help prime them for top-ticket, national elections in the future.
“Over these last four years, the ratio of African Americans and people of color elected officials have increased markedly,” he said. “I think that’s because of all the tumult and all the craziness at the top of the ballot. The people are just giving (people like Hardwick) [the] opportunity to actually run. And two years ago, black women really burned it up and I think that trend is continuing on in 2020.”
In recent years, local and national reporting has seen residents more excited to vote down the ballot, something that Christopher Scott, director of campaigns at Collective Pac said his organization will take advantage of.
“Everything else was at the state level for the state legislator and lower,” Scott, whose organization is also endorsing Hardwick, said. “So when you’re looking at what it takes to really motivate black folks, down-ballot is a huge part of that conversation in actually getting these folks motivated to make them feel like they have that connection. Because a lot of times, they know their local person better than they know anybody that is running out the top of the ticket.”
One thing Hardwick wants you to know is that Missouri may not be blue or even purple, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be eventually. She distinguishes between, say, labeling Missourians as progressives personally versus them being progressive on the issues. For example, she cites how most residents, in 2018, voted for a minimum wage increase of $7.85 to $12 by 2023. Residents also voted down a Republican-lead right-to-work via a referendum in 2016 that sought to undermine labor unions. They also passed Amendment 1, or the “Clean Missouri” proposal, “that limits the power of lobbyists, reduce campaign finance contributions and creates a new redistricting process,” according to the Missourian.
“So we put the issues in front of the people, they’re actually in agreement that we need to get to a more just and equitable society,” Hardwick said. “But yeah, in the Midwest, if you get caught in the labels and that’s why people were quick to rush to label the squad a certain type of way because it’s a target they can respond to when people respond to the issue is a far more difficult conversation to have because most people agree.”
Kansas City-based political consultant Cecilia Belser-Patton said that Hardwick is much more optimistic about Missouri voters’ progressivism than she is, but added that if anyone could lead the state towards a purple tread, it would be her.
“She has a lot of hustle about her,” Belser-Patton said. “She has a fearless quality about her. I believe that she is able to reach across the aisle, which I think is important to hold one’s views and still collaborate when needed and really engage in communication and I’ve seen that with her. She’s committed to Kansas City and our state. Those qualities will help her.”
Originally from the Southside of Chicago, Hardwick moved to the state to attend the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2005 and began a teaching career in the Kansas City Public schools, where she taught grade levels K to eighth with the exception of second grade. She eventually married a man from Kansas City and decided to stay because of the low cost of living and the community connections she developed.
If anything symbolizes Hardwick’s run for state house, it is the belief that Missouri is ready not just for a blue wave, but for radical change. Booker lost his U.S. Senate primary by a hair, but it shattered the nation’s stereotypes about who is viable to win over white people in a very white state. She wants to pull Missouri into purple status, like Georgia. But to do that, it starts with the belief that people in her state aren’t hyper-conservative, Trump-loving people they are assumed to be.
“I think we’re actually shifting back to where Missouri could be so that we’re actually not having to go through a referendum in order for us to get common-sense bills passed,” she said. “Just 10 years ago, Obama came to Missouri the last week of his election because it was a purple state and it was in play. And now, 10 years later, we’re in a Republican [super majority]. I refuse to believe that’s because that’s where the Missouri voter is.”