Yael T. Abouhalkah

Mayor Sly James will coast to re-election in Kansas City, unless …

Updated: 2014-01-30T01:42:26Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

About this time next year, Sly James will be cruising to re-election as mayor of Kansas City.

At least that’s the common wisdom. But as in all politics, circumstances can change.

Kansas Citians generally love their mayors, and the charismatic James certainly has that going for him three years into his first term. He’s a likable guy in public, with an impressive list of policy successes as well as in-progress initiatives.

The mayor succeeded in persuading voters to pass a new sales tax coming out of a recession, with the money pledged for better parks and more street repairs.

James led the first successful effort in decades to put rail in the city’s streets, with the start of the streetcar line.

And he’s been indefatigable while pumping up Kansas City during baseball and soccer All-Star games, wooing the Republican National Convention, promoting a program to improve reading by schoolchildren and getting younger people involved in initiatives at City Hall.

Meanwhile, no City Council member has been a constant thorn in James’ side, setting up as a potential opponent. And in the business community, no contenders have yet to emerge (as James himself did before the 2011 election).

However, there are reasons to hold off on the re-coronation in evaluating James’ chances to serve through the end of a two-term limit in 2019.

• History indicates voters will make even seemingly-popular mayors at least sweat a little when it comes to re-election.

It happened to Emanuel Cleaver in the 1995 primary against City Council member Dan Cofran. In the 2003 primary, Kay Barnes barely fended off lesser known Stan Glazer in the primary.

But there were understandable reasons in both cases, because neither Cleaver nor Barnes had a particularly encouraging first term in office. Both eventually earned second — and more successful — terms.

In 2011, a floundering Mark Funkhouser didn’t even make it to the general election.

James’ counter for a 2015 campaign: He had a productive first tour of duty in office.

• Bad things could happen in the next year or so to initiatives James supports.

The expensive streetcar expansion plan could go down in flames on the ballot later this year. Voters could reject costly recommendations to renovate or replace Kansas City International Airport terminals. Along the way, James’ leadership could lose some luster.

Or, it could be amplified with more victories at the polls.

• A challenger could come along to pick at issues Kansas Citians constantly are concerned about, for good reasons.

They include stubbornly high murder and violent crime rates, plus ever-surging water and sewer rates, along with troubled schools serving the city’s core.

Then again, what innovative solutions could a challenger offer?

• Finally, James could suffer more setbacks like he did last week on policy issues.

The mayor tried but failed to place two city charter changes on the April ballot, as a majority of City Council members balked at doing what he wanted. His take? He told me later he wanted to have the discussions, even though he knew politically he was going to lose.

Still, that was the second recent case that initiatives associated with a James-appointed citizens group fell by the wayside. The first occurred when a panel rejected local control of the Police Department, a move the mayor favored.

One charter change will be decided in April: Should city elections move from a February/March schedule to April/June? If that happens — and that good idea could encourage voter turnout — James would begin serving his second term next summer.

Unless …

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah.

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