After the Kansas City mayor questioned the legality of a legislator doing so, his attorney is using images of police officers in her campaign for Jackson County prosecutor.
Mayor Quinton Lucas’ general counsel, Melesa Johnson, is running to succeed Jean Peters Baker, who announced in June she wouldn’t seek re-election next year.
Johnson’s campaign website features repeated images of her with police – even though Lucas indicated a year ago that such use of law enforcement images in campaigns might well be illegal.
She tells The Heartlander that her use of the images is different.
A year ago Lucas, ostensibly with Johnson’s buttressing, cited as likely illegal a political mailer sent by a third party on behalf of state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, that had included a photo of Kansas City police officers and the senator at Gov. Mike Parson’s public signing of a bill raising the minimum level of police funding in KC.
This, despite the fact that Luetkemeyer wasn’t even involved in producing the mailer, and the images in it were from a public event.
The police funding bill is now a law, validated by a companion constitutional amendment approved by voters, that Lucas vehemently opposes. In fact, he’s suing – oddly as a private citizen using city funds – to overturn it in the courts.
“Saddened to see a mailer violating the law. More disappointed KCPD played a role in this stunt. Vote No,” Lucas tweeted just before the amendment was handily approved by voters last November.
“The mayor’s outburst on Twitter,” Luetkemeyer said at the time, “is just another example of him trying to desperately deflect from his illegal actions last year when he attempted to strip $42 million from the KCPD’s budget.”
Lucas maintained last year that the Board of Police Commissioners had a discussion about the bill signing, which he said “did look more political than your typical bill signing.”
Still, how the bill signing “looked” may be irrelevant – according to the city’s own argument. The Star reported that, “Lucas’ allegation centers in part on whether police knew the images from the ceremony would be used for political purposes, according to a brief analysis of state law by the mayor’s general counsel, Melesa Johnson …”
There appears to be no such allegation with regard to the bill signing.
Moreover, if Johnson’s and Lucas’ interpretation of the law were valid, then presumably law enforcement officials could never attend another bill signing for fear of running afoul of the law.
The mayor’s office referred all questions Monday to Johnson – who quickly returned a call to The Heartlander for an interview.
Johnson says her use of police images in her campaign is different from the Luetkemeyer mailer because he affirmatively asked that the bill signing be done in a police station with uniformed officers.
“I didn’t ask anybody to do anything,” Johnson said.
“I think another distinguishing factor is, through my current everyday job, even before I decided I was running for anything, I have been photographed with the chief on numerous occasions. Does that mean that she is directly telling people to vote for me? Absolutely it does not.
“I understand the political realm that we’re operating in, and it’s kind of tit-for-tat. But I do see some distinguishing factors. But given my relationship with the chief and my relationship with the board, those pictures have been removed from my website.”
Specifically, she said images of the KC police chief attending Johnson’s campaign announcement were taken down from her website about a week ago. Other such images taken in public settings remain on the website, and she said that was perfectly legitimate.
It remains, however, that the bill signing was a public event under the auspices of the governor, attended by many in their official capacities, photos of which were in the public domain, whereas Johnson’s campaign announcement was a wholly political event. A KCPD spokesperson says Chief of Police Stacey Graves showed up after the event, posing for a photo with Johnson. The picture was on Johnson’s campaign website for a time before being deleted several weeks ago, according to Johnson.
Johnson also Monday sought to distance herself from Lucas’ opinions on the illegality of Luetkemeyer’s mailer.
“Those were the mayor’s statements,” she said. “I will not go on record saying that my boss was right or wrong. He has every right to his opinion, as do I, but those were his opinions. My opinion is that my pictures were legal, but they have been down off of the site for over a week.
“I’m running my own race, my own campaign, and I don’t think it’s fair to ask me to answer for opinions that my boss made. I am very thankful to him for allowing me to serve my community in this way, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to answer for his opinions. I have plenty of my own.”
Do officers have to know in advance their images are being used politically for there to be a problem? According to The Star, “Johnson indicated it matters whether police commissioners and officers knew candidates and those supporting them would use images from the bill signing to advance campaigns.”
Even if Luetkemeyer had some sway in the bill signing’s optics, then, there’s no evidence the officers had any indication their images at the public ceremony would be used in a political mailing.
Regardless, election and campaign finance lawyer Marc Ellinger of Jefferson City, in an interview with the Star, “struggled to find a potential violation of law by the (Luetkemeyer) mailer, based on his understanding that the images are in the public domain and were taken at an official event.”
“I don’t see anything that using that picture is illegal,” Ellinger told the outlet.