Northland voters may want to turn out for this one.
They have perhaps the starkest choice in the June 20 Kansas City Council election to replace term-limited Heather Hall: It’s between a grassroots activist who’s actively seeking citizen input, versus a candidate who has bizarrely and bitterly attacked people of faith.
Nathan Willett, a math teacher and third-generation Northlander, is a neighborhood activist who has been campaigning door to door in the 1st District – not just to get his word out, but to hear the words of his fellow citizens.
“I think he’s been doing it right,” Hall says of Willett, whom she has endorsed. “He’s a grassroots candidate knocking on doors, meeting with people, listening to what their concerns are and tailoring his campaign to meet the needs of the constituents, not the other way around.”
This, despite the fact that Willett already garnered a whopping 68% of the vote in the April primary.
But Willett didn’t start working to improve life in the Northland only when the campaign began. Hall says he’s already been a fixture in civic life, even requesting neighborhood improvement funds from the city’s Public Improvements Advisory Committee, through which residents can “bring attention to areas that are in need of repair, reconstruction, or development.”
Willett requested the funds to replace a hazardous section of missing sidewalk between a park and a school.
“I think he’s the right candidate for the job, and I think he should be the one who takes over after me,” Hall tells The Heartlander – stressing Willett’s lifelong residency and working life in the Northland.
Citizen activist Shannon Bjornlie has led a pro-law-enforcement group known as KC Citizens for Public Safety that endorsed a slate of council candidates this election cycle. Willett is one of them.
“Nathan is pro-police,” she says. “He’s got a lot of common sense, and we agree on everything: infrastructure; people before politics; he’s all about asking the people of his district what they want, rather than just deciding for them; he’s against the ‘business as usual’ at City Hall; he’s for taking care of the corruption, making sure money is well-spent. All the things that are important to me and to my group.”
Neither Hall nor Bjornlie are high on Willett’s opponent, Chris Gahagan – who The Heartlander has reported has a history of acid-tipped tweets about religion and religious people, writing in one that, “If you have a religion, your brain is clearly not functioning.”
Gahagan also has tweeted in recent years that “Religion is poison” and “The whole of religion needs to be re-examined. At a minimum, it’s (sic) tax exempt status needs to be challenged – over and over. Let’s put the crazies on the defensive.” When someone else tweeted a few years ago that warm weather was killing her Christmas vibe, Gahagan replied, “Good! Death to Christmas!”
About religion in the era of Trump, Gahagan tweeted, “Religion has always been first and foremost about power, control and money. It’s just more obvious now.” About religion in the era of COVID, he tweeted, “If your religion tells you not to vaccinate your children, then God forgot to give you a brain.”
Another Gahagan tweet lamented that religion can’t be eliminated or taxed.
“I don’t know why a religious person would vote for Gahagan,” Hall said this week. Earlier this year Hall told The Heartlander, “Hate has no place in Kansas City. The people of Kansas City deserve someone representing them who will be respectful of their religion – regardless of their religion. I don’t care what their religion is, you need to be respectful of that. And he’s basically saying, ‘I’m anti-religion, period.’ And that’s not OK.”
Bjornlie seconds the motion.
“Everyone has their own beliefs and I believe has the right to believe or not believe however they see fit,” Bjornlie says. “But I don’t think he has the right to criticize like he did and say if you believe in God, or you have a religion, you’re crazy. I think that’s disgusting.
“That, to me, is a very dangerous attitude to have at City Hall.”
Though the race is nonpartisan, the Clay County Republican Party took notice of Gahagan’s views and issued a statement Wednesday warning voters that “Anti-Christian Kansas City Council Candidate Chris Gahagan has an extensive history of hateful speech towards Christians and other people of Faith.”
The statement notes that Gahagan has used hashtags such as “#JesusIsAHoax,” “#DontBelieveInGhosts” and “#DontNeedACrutch.”
The statement reads in part:
We wanted to bring awareness of the bigotry of the current Democratic Chairperson of Clay County, with hate so strong, he shouldn’t be representing the Northland in any capacity, let alone on KC City Council.
The Clay County Republican Party firmly believes that people of all faith backgrounds should feel welcomed and supported in Kansas City and throughout Clay County. We do not tolerate any type of religious hate or bigotry towards people of faith, and we see our churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship as pillars in our community.
“It’s clear that Chris Gahagan is a radical bigot who does not share our Northland values,” said Clay County Republican Central Committee Chairman Gary Smedile. “I am urging all Kansas Citians residing in District 1 to vote for decency, safer communities, and economic prosperity for the Northland. Vote for Nathan Willett on June 20th.”
Willett will fight for the Northland, not against religion, Hall says.
“When we’re fighting for things for the Northland we need people who actually understand the Northland and believe in it,” she says. Willett has spent his whole life living and working in the Northland, she adds, “so he understands the Northland, he understands the people.”
Willett, who is teaching summer school mornings to help 8th graders make the transition to 9th grade, says the best endorsement he’s received thus far is the 68% majority vote in the April primary.
“I won every single precinct in District 1, both in Republican- and Democrat-leaning areas, with 68% of the vote, a 2 to 1 margin,” he said. “That’s the most important endorsement, and I’m trying to go around and keep that endorsement by continuing to knock on doors.”
The strongest endorsement he’s had from a single group, he says, is the Fraternal Order of Police, which he said is a high privilege coming from people who put their lives on the line to protect the community.
“We want to work together to lower the response times in the Northland. That’s something I’m hearing as I go door to door. What we need to do is hire more police officers and we need people on City Council who fully support our Kansas City police officers. And I’m proud to have their endorsement.”
Willett says it’s another goal of his to press for the Northland’s share of spending.
“We are 40% of the city,” he notes. “We should receive 40% of the (General Obligation) bonds and other tax dollars for our improvements and for our neighborhood needs. And then secondly, we’re the only council district in the city without a community center; all the other council districts have community centers, but we don’t. And that’s something that needs to be addressed.”
One of the main jobs he’ll have on the council is filling Hall’s shoes, he says.
“Councilwoman Heather Hall has been very supportive. She’s done a great job on City Council, being a watchdog for the Northland. And we can’t let that seat be filled with someone who’s not up to that caliber and who will not ask tough questions like she’s been asking.”
Early voting in the council election began June 6.