Just about an hour passed Tuesday evening between the first and the final unofficial election results, and months of campaigning came to an end for several candidates for local office.
For others, a new race among a smaller field of competitors began. And for a few more, it was still unclear whether they’d move on to the Nov. 2 general election.
With Tuesday’s unofficial results, voters will choose from Lisa Larsen, Bart Littlejohn, Stuart Boley, Amber Sellers, Ma’Ko’Quah Jones and Milton Scott for three seats on the Lawrence City Commission. Larsen and Boley are incumbents, running in hopes of keeping their seats.
About 600 votes separated Scott from the three candidates who were eliminated, and his spot is likely secure for the general election despite the possibility of additional votes coming in via mail ballot, plus about 100 provisional ballots to be counted at the election canvass on Aug. 19.
But the race for three openings on the Lawrence school board was much tighter. The top five candidates had leads of more than 400 votes over the others, but Elizabeth Stephens and Melissa Clissold tied for sixth place, and they were separated from the next candidate, Markus Logan, by fewer than 100 votes.
Incumbent school board member Kelly Jones, 48, won a seat on the board four years ago. She’s a licensed master-level social worker and director of field education and associate professor of practice at KU’s School of Social Welfare. Jones, who came in first Tuesday with about 19% of the vote, said she’s “really looking forward” to the general election.
“I’m excited about the candidates I’ll get to run along with,” she said. “I’ve made friendships with several of them in the time we’ve been running and I think it will be a good race for us to continue in and persist in trying to do the work that’s best for our district and students. I really appreciate the voters giving me another opportunity to continue in this race.”
For Kay Emerson, 35, AmeriCorps Kansas director for the Kansas Volunteer Commission, the campaign has been “completely humbling” and rewarding to spend time meeting community members and find purpose together in support of schools. Emerson said she feels trusted with the community’s vote and excited to be “one step closer” in helping make decisions and create policies that will positively affect students, staff and educators.
“I just want to thank everyone for their support and all the candidates for their hard work in the campaign,” she said.
Incumbent board member GR Gordon-Ross, 46, works in hospital information technology and won a seat on the board four years ago. He said he’d never before run for re-election and hadn’t anticipated the campaign would get as personal as it has at times.
“I’m grateful for all 11 people who filed to run,” he said. “I think that says a lot about our community. Over the course of the different forums we had … it really helped broaden the scope of the topics we talked about.”
Gordon-Ross said he’s “grateful, excited, happy and honored” to advance to the general election. “This last year was really hard. It was something none of us were anticipating.” And he said he questioned whether he would run for re-election. The budget difficulties and the COVID-19 pandemic remain at the top of voters’ minds, Gordon-Ross said, and the experience he and Jones have had as incumbents will serve them well if re-elected.
Nate Morsches, 34, a business owner and registered nurse, said the campaign has been unexpected in a lot of ways and advancing to the general election brought him feelings of relief. “I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned about my strengths and my weaknesses.”
He said he’s come to respect and admire his fellow candidates. “I’m humbled that I’ve made it to this point. We’ve got a lot of work to do going forward. I really have my steering committee to thank for where we are. And I’m just looking forward to all the amazing work they’re going to do and that we’re going to do together and how we’re going to impact the school district for the better.”
Andrew Nussbaum, 38, a social justice educator and former teacher for LPS, said his campaign is just beginning. He said he wanted his campaign to be centered around “truth telling, amplifying the voices and experiences of my friends, colleagues, coworkers, and all the young people who have so powerfully existed within and beyond our school district.”
“Now, hopefully alongside so many, I am ready to build out a campaign that centers the critical experiences of students, the wisdom, worth, and understanding of classified and certified staff, and envision the possibilities that so many families hope for when their children attend public schools,” Nussbaum said.
He said he believes that for far too long, district leadership has cared more about public relations than about people.
“I’m running because I believe that Black Lives Matter, and QTBIPOC students and staff must matter in our school(s). I’m running because I believe in relationship-based growth and deep systems work,” Nussbaum said. “I’m running because we need to hold our district leadership accountable and we need to speak truth to power and I’m ready to work alongside you to do that. I’m running because we need to look at equity as an actual redistribution of resources to certified and classified staff and away from district leadership and administration.”
Stephens, 40, a sales executive at Allen Press, said she’s a “firm believer that things always play out the way they’re supposed to.” Stephens said she was “incredibly humbled” that so many people voted and participated in the election.
“I think it really (shows) there’s a lot of folks who have some really valid concerns,” Stephens said. “Melissa (Clissold) is certainly very passionate and I think she’d do a great job. There’s a really fantastic group of people who’ve won.”
Clissold, 47, a business owner, cheer coach and former paraeducator for Lawrence Public Schools, said she was feeling “pretty proud” where she landed having run a small, first-time campaign by herself. “I wanted to get the narrative to focus on how our district spends money and getting our classified staff a living wage … Regardless of the outcome in the next few days, I feel very successful in helping the classified staff with their negotiations and getting the public to listen (about) what’s going on.”
“I congratulate the candidates that are guaranteed to move on,” Clissold added. “Whatever the outcome between Elizabeth (Stephens) and myself, it was a voting process. The public chose who they wanted to move on and I respect that, and I’ll go to bat for whoever in the general election if I don’t progress.”
Most of the Lawrence City Commission candidates advancing to the general election did not immediately respond to the Times’ emails seeking comment Tuesday.
But Amber Sellers, who came in fourth with almost 16% of the vote, could be the first African American woman elected to the city’s governing body, according to a statement her campaign put out on Tuesday.
“This is an emotional moment for me – it reflects the hard work of the campaign and many volunteers who believe in our movement to bring new leadership to a better Lawrence,” Sellers said in the statement. “Watching the momentum build has been amazing. As our campaign transitions to the general, we will continue to share our message of a reimagined city leadership and moving initiatives forward where all have the opportunity to live, work, and thrive together.”
— Lawrence Times reporters Tricia Masenthin and Mackenzie Clark contributed to this article.
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