Kansas City Mayor Sly James was getting warmed up.
Perched at the lectern of an Oct. 6 Kansas City Council meeting, he started an impassioned speech. As he often does, he delivered his remarks with the posture and tone of a lawyer, imploring the council to hold off on approving a measure to rein in economic development incentives.
“If we get this wrong, we may as well put up a sign that says Kansas City is once again closed for business,” he argued. Before he was mayor five years ago, he said, “people weren’t working. Things weren’t getting built. The attitude of the people in this city was morose.”
In the past, James’ forcefulness worked. This time, the council dealt him a 9-4 defeat.
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Kansas City mayors rarely lose votes. Steve Glorioso, former chief of staff to Mayor Kay Barnes, said she tried to avoid them: “There’s blood in the water. Council people who are not closely aligned with a mayor begin to think if it happens once, it can happen again.”
As James, who turned 65 Friday, approaches the last two years of his second and last term, he’s in a different position than when he handily won re-election after an accomplished first term.
In contrast to the kumbaya consensus with the council that served from 2011 to 2015, James quickly developed a strained relationship with his new council.
In the same election James won for his second term, voters installed nine new council members. Many had past political experience and brought strong personalities, independent thinking and agendas of their own.
“It did get off to a rocky start,” said Northland Councilman Dan Fowler. “I think he prejudged some of our new council people, and some of our new council people prejudged him and did not work together well. I think it has improved; I don’t think it’s where it needs to be yet.”
Most council votes still are unanimous. But on the biggest city priorities — revamping Kansas City International Airport, a downtown convention hotel, economic development and infrastructure spending — council members are more divided.
Those who are usually reliable votes in James’ camp remain the other second-termers: Scott Taylor, Scott Wagner and Jermaine Reed. Among the first-termers, Jolie Justus and Kevin McManus often vote with the mayor. Then there’s a toss-up group: Fowler, Alissia Canady, Heather Hall, Lee Barnes, Quinton Lucas, Teresa Loar and Katheryn Shields.
Perhaps in recognition of a more fractious council, James has sometimes pulled back from his first-term, forward-leaning stance on issues.
“I know for a fact in private meetings he’s told groups that you don’t want me in front of this issue,” said Jay Hodges, a former adviser to James. “...You’ve got a council now where if he steps out and says the sky is blue and God is good, they’re going to come out against him on that. He’s taken a step back from that.”
He has also turned his attention to other responsibilities outside Kansas City.
He is president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors and the African American Mayors Association. He spent considerable time traveling to other states campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Sources at City Hall and within the business and civic community wondered if James had sought a cabinet position.
In an interview with The Star about his second term, James’ aggressive rhetorical style was on display. He acknowledged the speculation, but denied that he pursued a Clinton administration post:
“I ran for the job I wanted, I got the job I wanted, and I’ve been doing the job that I wanted, and I want to continue to do the job that I wanted until I finish the job I was elected to do.”
But he at times tempered his responses. As for the council, he merely acknowledged a “different feel.”
“I’m uncomfortable with this new dynamic thing because I’m not trying to engage in friction or give the impression that there’s some problem when I don’t believe that there is.”
He also downplayed friction with the City Council.
“I don’t feel like it’s been an uphill battle; I think we’ve managed to do the things we set out to do for the most part, and sometimes you just have to back up a little bit and realize the other side, folks don’t have all the information you have at your disposal because they simply weren’t there. So I think there’s some education that needed to go on.”
Second term challenges
A portrait of James at this juncture emerged from interviews with every council person, plus civic and business leaders and neighborhood activists. The conversations point to a mayor well-liked by the public — and the council — who has guided a city that is in many ways flourishing.
Many agree, either publicly or privately, that he has run into difficulty adjusting to the more independent council members. He has also run into a tougher time trying to navigate an agenda that has hit snags.
On KCI, he failed to convince the Kansas City public of the merits of a new airport. In an example of his stepping back, he has now called on the business community to lead that debate.
Similarly, a citizens’ group no longer willing to wait for City Hall is now carrying the load for streetcar expansion south from downtown.
The downtown convention hotel’s delays have some on the council and in the business community openly doubting whether it will happen.
His relationship with some East Side advocates remains icy.
The incentive reform measure, the one in which he implored his council colleagues to reconsider in October, passed over his objections, even though it was an effort he had once pursued himself but dropped amid backlash.
James still enjoys a reputation as an amiable, effervescent spokesman for Kansas City. Polling suggests his approval rating is at 75 percent or higher.
“I think Mayor James has reopened Kansas City for business in his tenure,” said Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. “That’s clear.”
It’s also clear even to critics that James has gone to bat for the city when he thinks its future is on the line.
He earned credit when he traveled to Jefferson City this year to confront state lawmakers aiming to repeal the earnings tax through legislation. The 1 percent tax on the earnings of workers and residents of Kansas City funds a huge part of the city’s general fund budget.
Seated next to former Missouri Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a chief antagonist of the earnings tax, James bluntly told the Senate Ways and Means Committee about the dire effects of getting rid of the tax.
“I’m not here asking you for a penny,” he said. “I’m simply asking you to leave us alone.”
And they did. Legislators backed away, and voters approved the tax easily in April.
Sometimes, his aggressive commentary can still backfire, as when he sharply denounced state legislators over a veto override that loosened state gun laws. In a September tweet-storm, he said the General Assembly was preparing to “double down on stupid.” Kansas City gun-control advocates loved it, but Missouri lawmakers were furious — Rep. Caleb Jones, a Columbia Republican, told James to “quit acting like a toddler.”
With more than two years left on his term, James still has a window of political opportunity. But it will start to close as council members thinking of running for mayor in 2019 posture for the limelight.
“I think, frankly, that this being his last term and God only knows how many people on the council want to sit in that office, only leads to that tension,” said Fowler, who is not thinking of a mayoral bid.
There are two chances, observers say, to cement James’ legacy. One is the downtown convention hotel — if it proceeds.
The other is an $800 million bond package he and City Manager Troy Schulte are marshaling support for. The money would pay for a vast infrastructure program to fix streets, sidewalks, sewers and flood control. It’s headed for an April election, but still under fierce council debate.
Following the Funk
There may never again be an easier act to follow in Kansas City government than Mayor Mark Funkhouser.
For those four years, as the national economy imploded, Funkhouser and the City Council wasted few opportunities to quarrel. Voters showed Funkhouser the door in 2011 and handed James the keys.
In James, they had a Marine veteran and a successful trial lawyer. Bereft of political experience, James bested Mike Burke, a former councilman and a real estate attorney.
James showed a knack for telling a good joke, flashing a wide smile for selfies and offering a firm handshake — all in stark contrast to his predecessor.
The ambitious new mayor wanted to get to work, and he had an eager City Council at hand.
“As a council, we were frustrated at how little we had achieved with Funkhouser, and the recession,” said Ed Ford, a political veteran who served on the council under Barnes, Funkhouser and James. “So we were anxious to have a productive term, and we had a mayor we could work with that shared our goals and priorities. So it was a really good marriage.”
The honeymoon included trips to the bowling alley with the council. They held joint news conferences as a show of solidarity.
James’ agenda flourished. The initial streetcar won approval from downtown voters. Development projects and a new inner-city police campus sprang up. Companies like Burns & McDonnell and Cerner expanded their offices and promised thousands of new jobs. Kansas City’s reputation as fertile ground for tech startups took root.
The May 2015 announcement of an 800-room convention hotel capped James’ list of first-term accomplishments just prior to his re-election as mayor. The city long has sought a new hotel to again attract large conventions.
The timing of the announcement provided just enough time for the previous council to sign off on it at its final meeting in July 2015.
But what should have been a great victory for James may have sown some of the seeds of discontent with the incoming council. Before they were even sworn in, some felt double-crossed.
“For the last council to commit us to something we didn’t know anything about at the very last council meeting was tough,” said Loar, a Northland councilwoman who served under former mayors Barnes and Emanuel Cleaver. Loar has frequently butted heads with James.
The hotel deal now looks dicey, with council members discussing what would happen if the development agreement expires Dec. 20.
James lost another debate earlier this year when the council passed generous wage increases for the firefighters union. James warned that the wage package was risky financially.
The vote in favor of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 42, an influential presence at City Hall, had already coalesced among the council without much of James’ input. He acknowledged as much after the vote, saying the council worked it out “in their own little group.”
James finally voted in favor of the agreement, despite his protestations.
“I want to pick my battles a little bit with this council,” he said. “To be honest, this was going to pass.”
Others say James might accomplish more with the new council and the civic community if he spent more time listening and compromising.
“This current council, you have highly skilled, seasoned politicians,” said Gwen Grant, Urban League president.
Grant said James had a habit of chastising council colleagues, “which is not as effective as building a collaborative process to get the votes you want.”
Still, haggling over votes just isn’t the way this council works, said Hall, who has opposed the mayor on issues like the airport and convention hotel.
“He’s never asked me to come over to his side,” said Hall, who insists she has a good relationship with James. “We both just state our case, and we’re respectful with each other with the decision we make.”
Clinton Adams, an Urban Summit activist, said James’ trial-lawyer approach doesn’t translate with elected leaders.
“Leading a community where it wants to go is easy,” Adams said. “Leading a community where it needs to go requires bold, engaging and collaborative leadership.”
Adams’ comments reflect a deeper tension between James and some on the East Side. James isn’t unique for fielding criticism as a mayor about not paying enough attention to the East Side. James counters that he has done more for the East Side than any of his predecessors, citing more than $2 billion worth of public and private investment on his watch.
But other areas have seen more since 2011, such as the Northland with more than $7 billion and Jackson County west of Troost with $6.5 billion.
Overall, many on the new council say, the accomplishments of James’ first term allow for a slower pace now.
“I think the first James term was leaps and bounds out of the recession and out of Funkhouser,” Fowler said. “Things have not been as quick in this term. You also have to consider that we don’t have as far to go. ... We have a little more time to consider and contemplate what the next moves are.”
An airport in turbulence
One of James’ successes has been raising Kansas City’s profile nationally. He said that other cities have reached out to his administration to gain insight on how Kansas City worked through perplexing issues.
Had Clinton won, James may have been able to continue the city’s close connections with the federal government. Few clues exist about how Kansas City will fare under Donald Trump’s administration.
“I look at this as a rather rapid and precipitous change of circumstances,” James said. “In the Marine Corps ... when conditions change, you improvise, adapt and overcome. And that’s the same philosophy I’ll apply here.”
During a debate, Trump compared U.S. airports to those in “a third world country.” That prompted thinking that Trump might support more resources to modernize airports.
That could help James out of his biggest miscalculation. After three years of lobbying the public on the upside of a new KCI and one week after Southwest Airlines endorsed the idea, in May James suddenly short-circuited a movement toward a single-terminal airport.
James saw polling that indicated less than 40 percent of Kansas City residents were keen on the idea. In short, he failed to read the public’s affinity to the small, aging and yet convenient airport that civic and business elites would rather replace.
“I’m not clairvoyant, I can’t anticipate things,” James said.
“I think not only him, but a lot of people misread that,” Loar said. “The advantage that I had and that new council members had was we were out there campaigning for almost a year and we were getting pummeled with, “Don’t touch our airport.’ ”
But James, true to his style, won’t give up on something he wants, even though in this case he’s asking for more effort on the issue from business leaders.
“The airport situation is going to be resolved in some way, shape or form — we’re not stopping,” James said.
Meanwhile, when asked about the accomplishment closest to his heart, James points to his Turn the Page program, which puts him in local schools to extoll the virtues of reading and improving third-grade reading proficiency.
Some say that’s an odd boast: Elementary education isn’t a primary function of municipal government.
In defense, James suggests no bold line exists between a city and its schools.
“There’s nothing that a city does that’s not affected by the quality of education of our citizens,” he said. “And if that’s the case, the city has some obligation to have a positive impact on it.”
Don’t expect any discussion on the airport until after April. City leaders for the time being seem keen on the $800 million infrastructure bond.
For residents who complain that City Hall pays too little attention to basic needs like streets and sidewalks, April’s election is a chance at fixing that. Of course, it will come with a cost — specifically, a property tax increase.
For James, it’s an opportunity to burnish his legacy.
But the matter isn’t yet on the ballot, and the mayor has failed so far to forge a council consensus on it.
The city has described the infrastructure deal as one aimed at broad categories: streets, sidewalks, bridges, flood control, parks and public buildings.
Beyond an animal shelter, there are few specifics. That worries some.
“I don’t know why we can’t spell out with greater specificity what the needs are,” said Lucas. “At the very least, we can spell out how much goes out to each broad category, rather than say we need $800 million and we’ll address some issues.”
James warns against writing too much of the bond package into stone.
“I think it’s very dangerous to try to do specific dollar amounts for specific things,” he said. “How would we know what those specific dollar amounts are? And if the specific dollar amounts change on a project, have we broken a promise to somebody?”
James needs allies beyond the City Council, and so far major civic groups are sitting on the sidelines, uncertain about their support.
There’s not much time to figure it out. The council has until Jan. 19 to approve language for the April ballot.
“I think this bond issue will be a good test for the mayor and the council for pushing aside parochial concerns for something city wide,” said McManus, a former Missouri House Democrat now in his first term on the council.
The bond package, along with streetcar expansion, the convention hotel and the outcome of KCI, are things James wants to wrap up before his term ends.
“We have grown to actually start to believe in ourselves,” James said. “I don’t want to see that change.”
Nearly six years into office, James won’t talk about his frustrations or disappointments and said he chooses to focus on the positive.
“I can be upset if I want to be upset,” he said. “I can be happy if I want to be happy.”