TRAIL MIX | Jason Kander stops trying to ‘outrun’ depression

Author: Ernest Luning - October 5, 2018 - Updated: October 18, 2018

Jason Kander talks about the importance of electing Democratic secretaries of state at a campaign event for Jena Griswold, a candidate for the office in Colorado, on March 12, 2018, in Denver. On Oct. 2, Kander announced he was dropping out of the race for mayor of Kansas City to treat symptoms of depression and PTSD he’s been suffering since a tour in Afghanistan 11 years ago. (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

This column is usually about candidates running for office, but this week it’s about a candidate who stopped running.

On Oct. 2, in a remarkably candid online post, Missouri Democrat Jason Kander, the frontrunner in next year’s race for mayor of Kansas City, declared he was ending his campaign. After 11 years of “trying to outrun depression and PTSD symptoms,” wrote the former Army intelligence officer, “I have finally concluded that it’s faster than me. That I have to stop running, turn around, and confront it.”

Kander, who served a four-month tour in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, said he’d been telling himself for years that he couldn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder, “because I didn’t earn it.”

Even when he took first steps and contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs several months ago, Kander said he held back, leaving “boxes unchecked — too scared to acknowledge [his] true symptoms” out of fear the stigma could harm his political future.

The 37-year-old former state lawmaker and secretary of state — the first member of the millennial generation elected to statewide office anywhere in the country — has been a rising star on the national political scene since his narrow loss in Missouri’s U.S. Senate race two years ago, the same night Donald Trump carried the state by nearly 20 points.

Since then, Kander founded Let America Vote, a national organization dedicated to fighting voter suppression and expanding opportunities to participate in elections. Mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate — none other than Barack Obama called him the future of the Democratic Party — Kander has been a frequent visitor to Iowa and New Hampshire. He also has made several trips to Colorado — a favorite destination, he said during a recent stop in Denver, because it’s “just a quick hop on Southwest (Airlines) from Kansas City.”

Kander visited with Trail Mix in March following a fundraiser for Jena Griswold, the Democratic nominee for Colorado secretary of state, and an appearance on Fox News to offer his take on an upcoming special congressional election. Later that evening, he would headline a fundraiser for Jason Crow, a fellow veteran and the Democratic candidate in the 6th Congressional District.

Noting that he had visited 34 states over the past year — some, like Colorado, more than once — Kander could barely contain his enthusiasm for the work Let America Vote was doing in races across the country.

“It’s really about making sure that we’re minding and doing maintenance on democracy in this country,” he said. “It’s not a permanent thing you get to take for granted. You’ve got to put work into it.”

He shrugged off a question about a possible presidential run with a smile, saying that he’d given it some thought because so many people had been suggesting it. “But the most important thing I can do is fighting voter suppression through Let America Vote,” he added. “We have to make sure that we take all this energy and we harness it and give people an opportunity to make his happen.”

Before heading across the street to discuss the president’s role as leader of the Free World — Trump’s refusal to take on the mantle, he would argue, has “made our country less safe” — at an event sponsored by Foreign Policy for America, a nonpartisan group mostly made up of former diplomats, Kander paused for a moment.

“The level of enthusiasm out there is pretty remarkable. it’s not something I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said, adding: “I’m very optimistic, but we have to make sure that we run all the way through the tape, get it done.”

In June, Kander joined the crowded field for mayor of Kansas City and soon became the favorite in next spring’s election. (Just a week before dropping out, he wrote in his online post, Kander learned he’d raised more than any previous candidate for that office had in one quarter.)

In August, his memoir, “Outside the Wire: Ten Lessons I’ve Learned in Everyday Courage,” became a New York Times bestseller. Also this summer, Crooked Media debuted the second season of the popular “Majority 54” podcast — the title refers to the 54 percent of American voters who didn’t vote for Trump — featuring Kander’s lengthy interviews with activists and experts around the country.

But it turned out all the activity — productive as it was — couldn’t distract Kander from his own struggle.

“When I wrote in my book that I was lucky to not have PTSD, I was just trying to convince myself. And I wasn’t sharing the full picture. I still have nightmares. I am depressed,” he wrote in his post, adding: “Instead of dealing with these issues, I’ve always tried to find a way around them.”

After a call to the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line to discuss recurring suicidal thoughts, Kander said he decided to pull out of the mayoral race and work on treating his depression. He said he chose to go public with the reason because he wants veterans — and anyone else — with mental health issues to “realize that you don’t have to try to solve it on your own.” (Veterans and non-veterans can call the VA crisis line at 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255 for help.)

Kander’s declaration came the day before the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America placed 5,520 U.S. flags on National Mall in Washington, D.C. — each flag representing a veteran or active duty service member who died by suicide since the beginning of the year, at a rate of roughly 20 a day. A recent VA report found that the suicide rate among veterans and service members has been on the rise and continues to take place at roughly twice the rate of the American population at large.

Kander stressed that help is available.

“Most people probably didn’t see me as someone that could be depressed and have had PTSD symptoms for over decade, but I am and I have,” he wrote. “If you’re struggling with something similar, it’s OK. That doesn’t make you less of a person.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.