Mayor Sly James suffered more than a personal defeat this month when Kansas City voters rejected his call for a nearly half-billion-dollar streetcar line expansion.
He may have picked up a political opponent for his re-election campaign next year.
Former City Council member Dan Cofran told me the results of the Aug. 5 election moved him from a “likely” candidate to “very likely.”
He’s already got a campaign theme: “Basics versus bling.”
Cofran, a 63-year-old lawyer, contends he’s the basics guy focused on meat-and-potato stuff that he believes makes a city livable: smooth streets, solid law enforcement and big-time support for kids in their earliest years.
The mayor, Cofran said, is too much about the bling, meaning big-ticket items like streetcars and a new airport terminal. An expanded streetcar system would be great, Cofran said, but remains a “modest priority.”
Kansas City is looking at spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a service that won’t appreciably improve lives, Cofran said. After all, he said, buses provide the same service and “they stop at every corner. Streetcars won’t.”
He also wants to restore Kansas City’s focus on the poor with day care, preschool and well-baby programs to ensure all kids are ready for kindergarten. Any impact on poverty would be years down the road, but it’s a step worth taking, he said.
“We have to intervene earlier,” Cofran said.
The federal government once did that. But those days are long past, he said.
Cofran’s emergence matters if only because James has enjoyed such an unimpeded ride as the city’s top elected official after Mark Funkhouser’s turbulent four years. I called him “bulletproof” politically just a few months ago.
But wins are wins. Losses are losses. James lost one this month, and no clear path forward for mass transit has emerged.
Cofran would be the underdog. He’s not as well known as he was during his council days, which ended in 1995. The same year, he lost a mayor’s race to Emanuel Cleaver 55 to 45 percent, although he carried four of six council districts.
James has more than $350,000 in the bank and bucketloads of goodwill. Coincidentally, he’ll be talking a lot next week about early childhood education.
And Kansas City voters seem to prefer mayors who bring some bling, like new convention centers or refurbished downtowns.
Cofran isn’t convinced.
“It could be that times are changing.”