YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

Will mayor avoid these potholes on road to 2015?

Updated: 2013-04-10T23:53:11Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

Two years can fly by quickly. Just think, Kansas Citians elected Sly James as mayor barely 24 months ago in early 2011.

With the 2015 elections only two years away, it’s a good time to review James’ chances of winning another term.

Start with this rather basic question: Who in the world is going to challenge him?

No politician is universally beloved, of course, and the city still faces many problems. But no strong contingent of neighborhood, business or civic leaders has yet emerged to criticize James on any major issues.

Voters have embraced his positive vision for the city’s future. They easily approved a half-cent sales tax increase for better parks and roads in 2012, then last week overwhelmingly renewed a property tax for indigent care and ambulance service.

As for political rivals, no current City Council member comes close to matching the wattage of James’ personality or his ability to influence policies and programs at City Hall. He has nothing to fear in those ranks, at least not yet.

In other words, re-election in 2015 should be a slam dunk for Sly James.

Unless …

Voters dumped the last incumbent mayor — Mark Funkhouser — in the 2011 primary. Sure, there are many differences between the records of the upbeat James and of the dour Funkhouser in the city’s top office. But the point is, an incumbent can lose.

And the previous incumbent mayor — Kay Barnes — posted an unconvincing victory in the 2003 primary, even though she faced a trio of undistinguished candidates and had begun promoting her downtown revival plan. Barnes easily won the general election.

The lesson here is that James can’t rest on his laurels, must keep pushing for positive change, and has to avoid actions that smack of overspending or kowtowing to influential groups inside or outside City Hall.

Which brings us to the challenges ahead.

• James is a big supporter of the new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport. Eventually, it appears he will have to try to convince voters to approve a huge bond issue to back construction of the terminal. However, if it remains as unpopular as it seems with a large contingent of Kansas Citians, James could face a possible defeat on a major issue.

• The mayor appears ready to embrace local control of the Police Department. He has set up a commission to review the idea, and a report due in October could lead James to visit Jefferson City in 2014 to lobby for the end of state control. But if the panel balks at local control — or the legislature gives James the cold shoulder next year — the mayor could lose out on a key issue of how taxpayers finance public safety.

• James recently brought up the notion that Kansas City once again should look into building a large, downtown convention hotel. But there’s little compelling evidence that a publicly subsidized hotel would jump-start a resurgence in visitors or conventions.

• The mayor still has several long-standing pledges to make good on.

One is to have far more success in repairing water and sewer lines. These expenses are driving up bills for residential and commercial customers, so they deserve progress.

He is still working to reform the unsustainable pensions for firefighters, police officers and other city employees — almost 18 months after a citizens commission delivered a how-to report on the issue in late 2011. The cost to taxpayers for retirement benefits has reached $60 million annually, up from $54 million two years ago.

In betting parlance, it makes sense right now to take James vs. the field in the 2015 mayoral elections. Then again, political fortunes can change quickly, something Sly James fully knows.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. He blogs at voices.kansascity.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah. He appears on “Ruckus” at 7 tonight on KCPT, Channel 19.

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