Kansas City voters will choose their mayor June 23, but there’s been almost no race leading up to the election. Incumbent Mayor Sly James is considered a certainty to defeat low-key challenger Vincent Lee.
Since the April 7 primary, in which James garnered 82 percent of the vote to Lee’s 11 percent, there’s been virtually no mayor’s contest — no debates, no forums or dual appearances.
James has one key benefit going for him. The blunt and bow-tied mayor remains popular throughout the city; a recent campaign poll of likely voters gave him an 81 percent job approval rating, with 68 percent saying the city is going in the right direction. He garners praise for being an energetic cheerleader for Kansas City and for pushing to improve education and reduce the homicide rate.
Supporters say he was a prime mover behind the new downtown streetcar and other downtown development.
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On the other hand, James is most frequently criticized for not doing enough for the predominantly African-American East Side.
James bristles at criticism he feels is unjustified, and he insists he’s working as hard to improve East Side conditions as in the rest of the city. And while he may ruffle some feathers with his blunt manner, he doesn’t intend to change his style if he wins a second term.
“You run into people who, it doesn’t matter what the hell you do, they’re going to be against it,” James said, acknowledging that he’s also faced complaints over his new convention hotel proposal and his handling of a higher minimum-wage initiative. Both of those probably will continue to be thorny issues in the next term.
But he remains undaunted.
“I put my heart and soul into” the job, he said. “I think I do my homework. I get people around me who know what they’re talking about. And we push it.”
Lee believes he has a realistic chance to defeat the incumbent. He’s best known for a mid-1990s plan to convert federal property at Ninth and Walnut streets into a home for juveniles.
The candidate — a business consultant who sometimes refers to himself as “General” — offered $100,001 for the structure but failed to post a required deposit. He said the money would come from Congress.
The government rejected the bid, a decision later upheld in court.
Lee is critical of James, claiming the incumbent is not approachable and too close to developers.
“Sly James has done what the average attorney would do,” he said. “Show me the money, and I’ll do what you want me to do.”
Occupation: Mayor; lawyer formerly in private practice
Education: Bishop Hogan High graduate; bachelor’s degree in English from Rockhurst College; law degree from University of Minnesota Law School.
Public service: Trustee, Urban Land Institute, April 2014 to present; Advisory Board of U.S. Conference of Mayors, June 2013 to present.
Endorsements: Citizens Association; Carpenters’ District Council; Forward Kansas City; Greater KC AFL-CIO; Fire Fighters Local 42; KC Building & Construction Trades Council.
Positions on three key issues:
KCI: I think that within the next couple of months, there will be options presented by the airlines. That will start the conversation. The airlines will tell you that doing nothing is not an option. I’m inclined to go with what they recommend, if what they recommend makes common sense. And after the amount of work they’ve done, the number of options they’ve looked at, the costs … they’re the ones that know what they’re doing.
Kemper Arena: I have no idea what the options for Kemper are. I’m very anxious to see what the (requests for proposals) produce. ... I’m hopeful that there’s somebody in this country or someplace in the world that’s looking at those RFPs and saying we have a brilliant idea. Otherwise, it’s probably going to wind up being demolished.
Streetcar expansion: It’s going to happen. I just don’t know when, and it’ll probably be south (on Main Street). The Prospect Avenue MAX (rapid bus) is going to be it (for the East Side) for the time being until they decide that they want the streetcar. Then when they decide they want streetcar, I’ll probably be out of office.
Education: Attended Manual High School in Kansas City
Previous public service: None
Major endorsements: None
Positions on three key issues:
KCI: “We do need a new airport. It’s very important to have an airport for the 21st century.” Lee proposes keeping the existing KCI and turning it into an airport for small and private aircraft, building new water-treatment facility and “water theme park” at the existing downtown airport, and building a new airport in eastern Jackson County (not Kansas City).
Kemper Arena: I want to keep Kemper. You never want to take something away that makes the city so great. ... The arena could be used all the time, year-round; we’ve just got to redesign our entertainment and convention people.
Streetcar expansion: It depends on the population of other cities around Kansas City. Who’s going to pick up the tab? I think we can do better.