Introducing Johnathan Duncan

“He never forgot what it’s like to be poor, to grow up mixed race in a small town, and he never forgot what happened to him when he came back from Iraq.”

By Don Bradley

Johnathan Duncan knows people might question his south Kansas City bona fides.

The new council member lives in the northern reaches of the 6th District, closer to Brookside than to Martin City. It was his first race, and he didn’t win a precinct south of Bannister Road.

So, The Telegraph provided Duncan the opportunity to better introduce himself to his constituents.

Where would he like to do this interview?

“Charlie Hooper’s,” Duncan said.

He’s not a polished politician. Nor does he try to be, nor does he want to be. He just beat an opponent with 24 years of polishing.

Now with the upset win, Kansas City has a first: a city council member who kicked down doors in Iraq, stuck a gun in his mouth when he came home, willfully interrupted eviction hearings and got into politics because of a trailer park.

Nowhere close to the city’s political power structure, Duncan came by way of community organizing. He knows some people call that “rabble-rousing.”

“I call it organizing,” Duncan said. “I knew I was going to win when the negative ads started.”

Trumpeting the cause of the working class, Duncan, along with core supporters, knocked on 8,500 doors during the campaign.

And on June 20, Duncan, backed by KC Tenants Power and other progressive groups, defeated longtime Jackson County legislator Dan Tarwater 56 to 44 percent.

Wilson Vance, political director for KC Tenants, said Duncan came to the advocacy organization looking for a community of poor and working-class people to fight for.

“He never forgot what it’s like to be poor, to grow up mixed race in a small town, and he never forgot what happened to him when he came back from Iraq,” Vance said. “We saw anger. But we also saw a deep love for neighbors and community that I want in a politician. A city council is better with Johnathan on it.

“He will change the dynamic of that room.”

Johnathan Duncan and fiancé Katie Carttar attend a trivia contest fundraiser for Community Assistance Council in the Red Bridge area. Photo by Don Bradley


Duncan, 37, arrived early at Charlie Hooper’s Brookside Bar & Grille. Iced water, button-down white shirt, black dress jeans.

He’s a busy guy. He wouldn’t be sworn in for a couple of weeks but was already well into a full slate of City Hall meetings while planning a September wedding with his fiancé.

He’d just had his last day of working a longtime job at the VFW national headquarters. His plan is to be a full-time council member.

As for losing those south precincts, “Looks like I’ve got some trust-building to do,” he said at a Hooper’s high-top table.

Blue River Road could be a place to start. The road has been closed for years south of Bannister Road due to the surface sliding down toward the river. It’s become a dumping area and fixing it has long been an issue for residents in the area.

“It’s a constant visual reminder of their concerns not being addressed,” Duncan said. “I’ve already reached out to the city’s engineers to review a study completed on Blue River Road, and I’m looking forward to organizing interested community members to create potential solutions.”

Duncan said he also wants more public transportation in the south, along with affordable housing along transit lines. He will serve on the council’s transportation and infrastructure committee.

VFW Administrative Operations Director Johnathan Duncan gave a speech in memory of those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor at the National VFW headquarters held December 7, 2022. (YouTube video)

Hard-fought journey

The story he tells of how he got to the city council lays out a clear progression; each step a cause-and-effect of the one before it.

He ran for office because of his organizing work with KC Tenants. He came to that group from working with combat vets in Lawrence. That work stemmed from his own PTSD from 18 months in Iraq. He joined the Army because he was poor himself and needed college money.

He smiles now at his road less traveled. Not because it’s funny. But because somehow he made it.

He was part of a QRF (quick response force) south of Baghdad. It was 2007, the front line of the surge. His unit looked for IEDs and kicked down doors in pursuit of high-value targets.

“Outside the wire, full battle-rattle every day,” he said. “I saw my friends die, I saw countless Iraqi civilians die. I did not think I would come home.”

And when he did in 2007 he was asked if he could handle everything re-entering civilian life.

He was 21. “Yeah, sure.”

He had no idea what waited in the shadows. Anger, couldn’t sleep, scared, night terrors. His girlfriend couldn’t sleep because of his outbursts. He would grab a pistol and shout to clear the room.

He drank to go to sleep.

“But we were told to just soldier on because that’s what soldiers do,” he said.

While enrolled at the University of Kansas, he tried to get mental health help, but grew frustrated with a muddled bureaucracy.

“I was exactly what PTSD looked like,” he said. “I went from being scared to being angry. To get sent to kill young men of color who look like me, to fight for a country that had no interest in fighting for me. We were called heroes, but I felt lied to.”

He sipped his drink then nodded. “So I made a plan to not do that anymore. I made a plan to kill myself.”

That pistol he had? It was a .45 the Army gave him when he left. It was commemorative, inscribed with his unit’s name.

“Yeah, I couldn’t get mental health assistance, but they gave me a gun,” he said.

Then he had a talk with a vet who asked him how he was doing. Duncan answered that he was fine.

The man shook his head. “I don’t think you are.”

The rest went like this:

Vet: “You still got that pistol they gave you?”

Duncan: “Yeah.”

Vet: “You clean it?”

Duncan” “Yeah.”

Vet: “Every night?”

Duncan: “Yeah.”

Vet: “You put it to your head?”

Duncan: “No.”

Vet: “No, you put it in your mouth, don’t you?”

Duncan: “Yes.”

After that, he found a home with the combat veteran community in Lawrence, many of whom were students at KU. The group helped with enrollment, getting in-state tuition and starting a study lounge for veterans.

That’s where Brooklynne Mosley, who did in-flight refueling sorties over Iraq and Afghanistan, met Duncan. She said they both knew vets who came back, “but never really came back” from the war.

“Johnathan knew we could do so much more,” Mosley said. “He’s driven by a sense of fairness that when you give people equal opportunity, the least among us is pulled up.”

Duncan’s work at KU eventually led to a job at the VFW national headquarters in Kansas City and then to doing organizing work for KC Tenants. The working class became his new community.

Vance, at KC Tenants, had put out the word about people being put out on the street during a pandemic and she wanted volunteers to disrupt county eviction hearings on Zoom.

Sixth District representatives Duncan and Andrea Bough (in white) pose with members of KC Tenants at the City Council Inaugural Ceremony on August 1. Photo by Bill Rankin

Duncan answered the call. He was more than ready to come off mute.

“Johnathan is unabashedly clear about what is right and wrong,” Vance said.

The Heart Village Mobile Home Park ordeal pushed him another step. Residents were forced out to make way for the new Jackson County jail. Some residents accused the county of mismanaging the process and complained they did not receive funds they were told they would get to relocate.

Duncan said the county’s treatment of Heart residents amounted to uncaring and disrespect.

“That’s when I decided to run for city council,” Duncan said.

 Suddenly Hooper’s went dark and the building shook. The storm that tore through Kansas City late afternoon July 14 knocked out the power, rattled the windows and upended giant trees nearby.

As rain pounded the roof, Duncan calmly reached for his phone, turned on the flashlight and checked radar. He already knew the way to the basement. Patrons at other tables looked his way.

Briefly, it was like he had another community. This one was in the dark, but Johnathan Duncan had always found his way to the light.

1 thought on “Introducing Johnathan Duncan

  1. I am so happy to have a City councilman who is responsive to his constituents. I cannot think of any better to handle the challenge of listening to all of the community and working to bring all sides together for solutions.

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