Kansas City’s mayors almost always do better in their second terms than in their first.
That’s the conventional wisdom, and modern city history suggests it’s true. Emanuel Cleaver, Kay Barnes, even Dick Berkley enjoyed their greatest popularity — and success — after re-election to the city’s top job.
Mark Funkhouser would have done better in a second term. He could not have done worse.
So there was a good deal of optimism at Sly James’ re-election rally Tuesday night. He said all the right things about the city’s many challenges, and the cooperation and compromise he’ll need to meet them.
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Yet success in James’ second term won’t be a slam dunk. The city’s voters on Tuesday picked a City Council of unusual independence: Katheryn Shields and Teresa Loar have served before and are unlikely to succumb to mayoral pressure. Newly elected Heather Hall represents a prickly Northland constituency generally skeptical of James and City Hall. Jermaine Reed’s alliance with James is uneasy, at best, and freshman Quinton Lucas owes his election to his charisma and smarts, not to the mayor.
That makes Jolie Justus a key figure in the city’s new government. Insiders think the former state senator and James ally has the political chops to herd the council’s cats into workable majorities. Some believe she’ll be the next mayor pro tem, a powerful position for advancing James’ to-do list.
But wrestling with smart, independent colleagues won’t be James’ only challenge, or his most difficult. Tuesday’s poor turnout has dramatically lowered the threshold for initiative petitions in the city. In James’ second term, virtually every important council decision faces the possibility of a citywide vote if a mere 1,700 Kansas Citians want one.
A new hotel, transit, the airport, wages and earnings taxes: James, and all of Kansas City, will get a healthy lesson in direct democracy over the next several months.
That’s why James’ most important act in the first weeks of his second term may be asking voters to change the city’s charter. He might offer this deal: Raise the petition threshold to, say, 5,000 signatures. In exchange, the City Council would be entirely removed from the process: Get enough signatures, and your proposal automatically goes on the next available ballot and can’t be repealed.
The alternative? Government-by-referendum — in a city where voting is about as popular as skipping lunch. That prospect overshadows the start of James’ second term, and its chances for success.