Official Kansas City is muttering about its two most important elected officials, Mayor Sly James and Jackson County Executive Frank White.
The public remains enamored with both men. James is a popular mayor, and White’s long career with the Royals provides a nearly inexhaustible wellspring of support.
But business and political elites are starting to chatter with each other, and with reporters. They’re worried the recent jail scandal shows White is less than prepared for a county crisis, and can be pushed around by legislators. James’ recent council defeat on development policy, some argue, reflects a growing impatience with the mayor’s sometimes aggressive and self-centered approach to politics.
Former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver lost just one significant council vote during his eight years in office. Former Mayor Kay Barnes never lost an important vote. James and White have lost votes, and may lose more.
That isn’t entirely their fault, of course. Barnes had a compliant City Council and a good sense of compromise. Cleaver simply outmaneuvered potential opponents, some of whom were later tainted by scandal.
And James and White have had their share of successes. But both struggle sometimes, and for the same reason: both are relatively new to elective politics, to their detriment.
White spent just a few months as a county legislator before his appointment to the executive’s post. James is considered a political veteran now, but he had never held elective office before he won the mayor’s race in 2011 and re-election last year.
It’s easy for voters, and pundits, to mock politicians who have been in office for decades. Longtime office holders can become ossified, too powerful to defeat but too compromised to pursue the public interest. That’s the theory behind term limits.
But rookie politicians carry their own risks. Politics is an art, not just a science — it involves arguing, pleading, cajoling and convincing colleagues. Ordering a colleague to reach a certain decision is rarely successful. Compromise is essential.
Newcomers don’t always grasp this, to their chagrin. Just ask former KC mayor Mark Funkhouser.
Political scientists will spend decades dissecting Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, trying to figure out exactly what happened and why. But we can all agree that at least some of Trump’s challenges have come from his deep unfamiliarity with politics, and the way campaigns are run.
If you’ve never run for office before, elections can seemed rigged. They aren’t.
Some voters like the outsider approach, of course. Kansas congressional candidate Jay Sidie lacks any political experience, which he uses as a selling point. Ditto for Eric Greitens, running for Missouri governor. Josh Hawley, the GOP candidate for attorney general in Missouri, has never run before.
And a long resume isn’t always a guarantee of success (see Brownback, Sam). Some see Hillary Clinton’s experience as disqualifying, a guarantee of politics as usual. This year, the worst thing a candidate can say on his or her resume is “incumbent.”
Throwing the bums out is an attractive campaign approach because too many elected officials deserve it.
As we approach Election Day, though, most voters realize the best way to judge candidates is on the whole record, not just their experience, or lack of it. Handing government to someone who has never done it before can be just as dangerous as leaving it completely in the hands of career politicians.