James B. Nutter, KC businessman and political leader, dies

James B. Nutter, a titan in Kansas City’s business and political circles, died on Friday. He was 89.

Nutter, who founded home mortgage company James B. Nutter & Co. in 1951, was known as a businessman for his forward-thinking policies. James B. Nutter & Co. was among the first mortgage banking companies to offer Veterans Administration loans, extended loans in minority communities that other banks would overlook and eschewed the type of risky subprime loans that helped trigger the Great Recession.

“We lost market share because we didn’t make those horrible loans, because it was wrong,” Nutter told The Star in 2012.

Nutter also was a political power broker in Kansas City and more broadly in Missouri. Former Gov. Mel Carnahan, Sen. Claire McCaskill and Congressman Emanuel Cleaver are among many recipients of his political donations and campaign advice.

Nutter’s generosity extended to several local institutions, including Children’s Mercy Hospital and the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

“Jim Nutter was an institution in Kansas City for a reason,” McCaskill said in a statement. “He was an outstanding businessman who had a huge heart for his community. From helping Children’s Mercy or supporting the Truman Library, he never said no. I was incredibly lucky to have him as a friend and a mentor for over 30 years. He is simple irreplaceable. My love to his family.”

Aspirants for a seat on the Kansas City Council often paid Nutter a visit, not only for the prospect of a financial contribution to their campaigns, but also for his political advice.

“When I was running, old Pat Gray, who was my consultant, said ‘If you haven’t talked to Jim Nutter, you haven’t talked to the most important guy in Kansas City politics,’ ” said Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas, who was elected in 2015.

Nutter’s political involvement extends back to the 1960s, when he helped found the Committee for County Progress, a political reform group that sought to drive out the influence of organized crime in the Democrat-controlled Jackson County government.

The committee’s efforts were credited with the formation of a modern, professional form of county government.

“He played a role in purging the mafia’s control of the local Democratic party and, by extension, the Jackson County Democratic Party,” said veteran campaign consultant Steve Glorioso. “The changes it brought were (home rule) charter government, it led to the building of the sports complexes, it led to modern government. That was something Jim did.”

Nutter also was remembered for his presence in East Side communities, which have for decades suffered from neglect and disinvestment.

Nutter’s mortgage company made it a priority to help minority homebuyers obtain mortgages during times when other lenders would not take a chance on disadvantaged communities.

“A lot of our deep housing segregation was a product, in part, of lending practices to African Americans,” Glorioso said. “Jim made an effort and succeeded in allowing minorities to have financing so they could have homes.”

Community leaders credit Nutter with helping pass a 1964 municipal referendum to outlaw racial discrimination in places of public accommodation, like hotels and restaurants. Nutter helped swing votes along the predominantly white Ward Parkway corridor in favor of the public accommodation referendum.

“Jim Nutter was a huge public proponent of public accommodation, so much so that he walked his neighborhood knocking on doors in the Ward Parkway corridor explaining to people why Kansas City should not continue to exist by excluding one race of people,” said Cleaver. “The vote was predictably and factually overwhelming in the black areas, in areas where African Americans lived east of Troost. But over in the neighborhood where Jim Nutter lived … there it won. It passed in Kansas City because of a combination of what happened in Jim Nutter’s neighborhood and on the East Side.”

Nutter also helped direct investment to the Ivanhoe Neighborhood, an East Side community of 7,800 residents that had been a magnet for crime, litter and poverty.

“One of the reasons he did was the head of it, Margaret May, was doing so much on her own,” said Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. “It was bound to get his attention. He did it without fanfare, no press conferences, no announcements.”

But Nutter would receive credit anyway. The Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council named a park and a community center after Nutter for his contributions.

“He cared a lot more about life in the African American part of our city and what was happening in the inner city than a lot of others in politics and business,” Lucas said. “It’s cliche to say that he walked the walk, but he did.”

Civic leaders also recalled Nutter’s attention to environmental issues.

Anita Gorman, an influential civic activist in Kansas City, worked with Nutter on a 1976 campaign to pass a one-eighth cent sales tax in Missouri to establish a conservation department. Previous efforts had faltered, but Nutter’s involvement added strength to a campaign that resulted voters approving a constitutional amendment to support the Missouri Department of Conversation with sales taxes.

“I’ve often said if all Democrats were like Jim Nutter, we wouldn’t need another party,” Gorman said.

Nutter, who wasn’t shy about his liberal philosophies, would still help those with different political leanings. Nutter and Gorman were co-chairs of former Kansas City Mayor Dick Berkley’s campaign efforts. Kansas City’s mayor and council seats are not partisan races, but Berkley was known to be a Republican.

“Wherever he went, whether it was a convent full of nuns or a union office full of men who belongs to unions, or bank presidents, he was so highly regarded,” Gorman said. “Everybody liked him, and for good reason.”

Nutter would go on to support Cleaver on his way to becoming Kansas City’s next mayor in 1991.

“There would never have been a Mayor Emanuel Cleaver but for Jim Nutter,” Cleaver said. “No matter how much I said that, he would always minimize it. The same thing happened when I ran for Congress, he would minimize his role.”