An elf-sized, white Christmas tree stands on the pool table at the Gusto Lounge, a cozy midtown bar that celebrates a time when Americans drank Schlitz in large, unironic quantities. Pink ornaments dangle from the tree's branches in honor of Tracy Ward, a City Council candidate whose most striking feature is the bubble-gum color of her hair.
"Every time I tried to change the color," she says, perched on a stool in the poolroom, "everybody was like, 'I like the pink. It's just you.' It was my signature thing, I guess."
It's a Saturday night in mid-December. Ward's black dress stands apart from the leather-and-denim look of the 20 or so supporters here for her first fundraiser. In addition to a suggested $5 donation at the door, proceeds from a silent auction will go toward her campaign. The items for the auction include a handmade quilt, organic heirloom seeds and the selected works of Thomas Paine — all stacked under the tree, they're a bayonet short of a survivalist's dream Christmas.
The goodies, which were donated by supporters, provide a rough outline of Ward's political narrative. She's the Kansas City director of the Liberty Restoration Project, a Ron Paul-inspired group that promotes, among other things, gun rights; an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and "food sovereignty," a movement based on the belief that corporations have too much control over our pantries.
The Liberty Restoration Project also has called for the abolition of the Federal Reserve. But voters in Kansas City shouldn't expect Ward to promote a return to the gold standard in the weeks leading up to the February 22 primary. Ward has applied the struggle for liberty to local issues, most notably the city's use of cameras to capture red-light infractions.
Ward believes that the Bill of Rights dies a little with every flash of a red-light camera. She has stood with other libertarians-in-leather on street corners, protesting the surveillance. But the cameras, which the City Council voted to install in 2009, remain in place, which is one of the reasons that Ward decided to run for the at-large seat in south Kansas City's 6th District.
"Instead of getting frustrated that she's not finding success at the city level, she's stepping up and taking responsibility for her community," says Catherine Bleish, a friend of Ward's and a founder of the Liberty Restoration Project.
Ward wants to tap into the widespread (and largely correct) opinion that the city is run by people who become more disengaged with each political race they win.
"City Hall seems to be a bunch of politicos, insiders, establishment types," she says. "We really need to start listening to the residents and doing what they ask us to do instead of what those at the top want."
It was the city's unresponsiveness, along with the $100 fines arriving in drivers' mailboxes, that inspired Ward's run for office. She says Cathy Jolly, the current 6th District at-large representative, kept canceling scheduled meetings. "Why is she scared to meet with me?" Ward asks. "I'm not a scary person. I'm actually pretty nice. I think I'm really nice."
Jolly decided not to run for re-election. But her husband, Scott Taylor, is running for the seat, and last week he snagged the coveted endorsement of the firefighters union.
A Jolly-Ward race would have been fascinating. Each is a woman in her 30s, balancing motherhood with other responsibilities. But the similarities end there. Jolly's husband is a lawyer. Ward's is the drummer in a local rock band called Federation of Horsepower. An experienced politician, Jolly seems to tremble at the idea of having to come up with an original thought; even her hand gestures seem scripted. Ward wears motorcycle sunglasses and stands outside airport terminals holding signs that say, "Refuse the human microwaves!"