Jason Kander promises he’s not running for president anytime soon, but one would be forgiven for having suspicions. After all, when young, charismatic and popular politicians start churning out off-year memoirs, the pundits begin to wonder.
But when Kander, 37, took the stage at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Aug. 8 to discuss his book, he assured the audience that the office he has his sights on was not the one less than a mile away on Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead, the former Missouri secretary of state, Army veteran and podcast host is running for mayor of his hometown, Kansas City.
“I think when you read the book, you’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that’s not a book someone writes to run for [president], I don’t think he’d have said that,” Kander said. “Also on top of that, I’m running for mayor of Kansas City and I’m super excited.”
Kander, who is Jewish, discussed his book, “Outside the Wire.” He talked about the leadership he saw in the military, running for statewide office in the largely red Missouri, and what he thinks most Democrats need to do to be successful in the era of Donald Trump.
Typically, when young politicians lose a big race — as Kander did in 2016, when he lost to incumbent Republican Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt — the national buzz wears off. In Kander’s case, something closer to the opposite has happened.
During the campaign, he gained national attention for an ad showing him calling for background check legislation while assembling a rifle blindfolded. After his defeat, Kander formed a political action organization called Let America Vote, focused on rolling back voter identification laws and making the voting process easier. And he began hosting a podcast on the popular Crooked Media network. In July 2017 The Washington Post profiled him in an article titled “Jason Kander lost a big Senate race. In today’s Democratic Party, he’s still a rising star.”
In some ways, he showed why at Sixth & I. He comes off as affable, speaking with the kind of easy-going, natural quality that many politicians struggle with. And he offered those in attendance something of a behind-the-curtain look at today’s politics. He recounted sitting down with big national donors, terrified that at some point they’d ask him what their name was.
“It’s like speed dating. You talk for 30 minutes and ask for a donation,” he said.
At one point, it almost happened in a meeting with a donor whose name he withheld.
“He says to me, ‘Do you know John Smith?’ And I was pretty sure this was John Smith. I’m like, oh my God, it’s happening. I couldn’t come up with a better plan so I just bit the bullet and said, ‘Aren’t you John Smith?’ He looked at me like that was the dumbest thing I could ever say and goes, ‘Yeah, I’m talking about the other John Smith.’”
But Kander’s advice for politicians looking to win in Republican territory with a progressive message was fairly simple: Be yourself.
He told a story about talking to a Missouri voter while running for the state house. When the voter said he disagreed, Kander initially tried to convince him that their views weren’t all that different, bending his position to try to find common ground.
“Suddenly, we were in an argument about whether we agreed,” Kander said. “Out of lack of a better plan I just said, ‘Well, I guess we disagree but now you know where I stand.’
“And I shook his hand and turned to go the next door. And as I’m walking down his steps, I hear him say, ‘Yeah, that’s fair. I’ll vote for you and you can put a sign in my yard.’”
According to Kander, most voters don’t think about politics nearly as much as politicians do. And to win their vote, the most important thing you can do is show them where you’re coming from.
“I see a lot of politicians who make the mistake of thinking voters have some excel spreadsheet or a scorecard in front of them, and they’re going down the list like, ‘Well, I agree on this, I don’t agree on this.’ And then there’s a score at the bottom,” Kander said.
“People are sizing you up to figure out a couple of things. One: are you saying what you truly believe? Two: do you believe those things because you care about me? And three: what do I think about those things. But sometimes numbers one and two is all you need to win them over.”
Kander gave no hint of future plans outside of his hopes to win in Kansas City. But if the crowd at Sixth & I was any indication, the Missouri Democrat has a national constituency; audience members thanked him for his service in the Army as well as his voice on the national scene.
He spoke excitedly about getting back to Kansas City to help a woman with her neighborhood’s possum problem. People laughed, but he insisted he was serious — he wanted to help her with an issue that was really affecting her.
For the most part, though, his message was broad and geared toward this particularly fraught moment in national politics, when divisions are running deep.
“Republicans have the power, we have the momentum,” he said. “The reason we have it is not somebody they saw on TV, it’s their neighbor down the street who called during the Trumpcare debate and said, ‘You want to come with me to this town hall?’ And it’d be people who’d never done anything like that before.
“That’s why I’m so optimistic. If we put in the work, we can build the blue wave. It doesn’t just happen, we have to build it.” n