As Election Day loomed, “cautiously optimistic” was the mantra chanted by advocates for a transformed Kansas City International Airport. They expected a win, but said it would be close.
In fact, campaign insiders were sitting on evidence that a blowout was brewing. Ten days before voters approved the single-terminal proposal by a stunning 3-to-1 margin, strategists had a new poll in hand showing the airport question ahead 61-29.
“I was shocked,” Mark Nevins, the Philadelphia consultant who led the KCI effort, told The Star Tuesday night after the results were in.
But Nevins also knew that the political landscape was strewn with the wreckage of campaigns that decided prematurely they had sealed the deal with voters. Fearing that complacency would set in, Nevins kept the data closely held and continued to publicly insist that he expected a close race.
“I still thought there was a possibility I was wrong,” he said. “In 2016 I was pretty sure Hillary Clinton was going to be elected president.”
It turns out Nevins was wrong again. Just not in the way he expected.
Political professionals, business leaders and community activists will likely be discussing the KCI election for years to come. For some the remarkable spike in support — polling last year had only 38 percent of voters in favor — transcends the question of yeah or nay on a new passenger terminal.
“This was a statement election,” said former City Councilman John Sharp. “To get this kind of margin shows that people feel good about the direction of the city.”
Interviews with players at all levels of the campaign cite multiple factors that contributed to the single-terminal victory:
Read my lips: No taxes
Mayor Sly James and other campaign surrogates flogged the message relentlessly: Money for the $1 billion project would come from private sources. Taxpayers would be held harmless no matter what happened to the airport. Only revenue from the airlines, passengers and other users would be used to pay off the debt.
The absence of a proposed tax hike or other public funding deprived opponents of perhaps their most potent argument. Unable to rally around the tax issue, Citizens for Responsible Government never achieved any real traction.
Exit interviews with voters Tuesday suggested that taxes weighed heavily in their decision-making.
“It was a big factor,” said M.J. Stockton, 78, a retired professor of education at William Jewell College, who voted Tuesday morning in the Northland. “If someone else is paying for it, then why not?”
The Burns & McDonnell effect
Ironically, the company’s ill-fated effort to win the KCI job heightened awareness of the airport issue, both among the public and the city’s corporate leadership.
After an abortive attempt this spring by James and the firm to secure a no-bid contract sparked a political scuffle at City Hall, the company launched a remarkable media campaign to win the project over three competitors. It spent tens of thousands of dollars on polished television ads touting “the Hometown Team,” some featuring Royals great George Brett.
While Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate emerged as the city’s eventual selection, KCI supporters credit Burns & McDonnell with helping shift the nature of the civic discussion from whether to build a new terminal to how.
“When the whole Burns & McDonnell plan became public, and it was a messy process, admittedly, that catalyzed an effort to move forward and get this done,” said Tim Cowden, executive director of the Kansas City Area Development Council. “That was a catalyst.”
The issue remains a sensitive one for James, who still seems to smart from the charges of backroom dealing and insiderism triggered by his covert alliance with the company.
“I don’t care what people say,” he said at a Wednesday press conference. “They’re the ones that (first) brought us a solution. That’s why we’re here today.”
Money and message
After a sluggish start, the KCI campaign raised $1.7 million from the local business and labor community. That’s nearly twice the amount raised by Progress KC for April’s successful general obligation bond initiative. Strategists used the funds for multiple waves of direct mail, door-to-door canvassing and an aggressive $700,000 television presence over the final two weeks of the campaign.
Nevins said the campaign tailored its message to different parts of the city. In the Northland’s councilmanic districts 1 and 2, where voters were thought to be traditionally leery of government spending initiatives, canvassers distributed literature emphasizing how a new terminal would be more fiscally responsible and efficient than pouring an estimated $500 million into repairing the existing KCI.
Voters in Districts 4 and 6, the progressive “corridor” than includes Midtown and communities such as Brookside and Waldo, literature tilted more toward a new terminal as a way of sustaining civic momentum. In financially challenged portions of Districts 3 and 5, it was KCI as a potentially transformative source of jobs and opportunity.
Other single terminal advocates said victory was the product of patient grassroots contact, neighborhood group-by-neighborhood-group, business-by-business.
“I think when you give people the facts, and you tell them the truth, they respond,” said Councilman Dan Fowler. “And when you give them lies and misrepresentations, they don’t.”
Business stepped up
The day before the vote, Cerner president Zane Burke wrote an unusual email to his employees.
“I cannot remember a time in my 21 years where Cerner has rallied behind a civic cause the way we have in support of the new airport,” he wrote. “It’s new territory for Cerner, and although we always encourage our associates to vote, this is the first time we’ve encouraged our associates to vote a certain way.”
Burke said a new terminal was critical for the company’s continued growth.
“We need your help to make this happen,” his email read.
While James, faced with unfavorable polling on the issue, publicly gave up on continued KCI discussions in May 2016, business groups started meeting in earnest to figure out a strategy to reverse the public’s attitude.
“We needed the public to understand why it needed to happen,” said Alicia Stephens, executive director of the Platte County Economic Development Corporation, which partnered with the Northland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas City Area Development Council to develop a message to overcome public doubts about KCI.
Stephens, along with KCADC chief executive Cowden and Chamber chief executive Joe Reardon embarked earlier this year on what would total more than 200 presentations with various groups. The audiences ranged from 500 down to a half-dozen in venues as far flung as Leavenworth and St. Joseph.
“It’s about being inclusive, this is one region and everyone in the region has a vested interest in KCI,” Cowden said. “We took any invitation from the region.”
Cowden said crowds at early presentations seemed split roughly in half on KCI. In the days leading up to the election, it skewed in the favor of a single terminal, Cowden said.
“It continued to build in the summer time,” Reardon said. “As we got closer to the election day, I had a sense that momentum was definitely moving in the direction of a new single terminal. I don’t think anybody could have predicted 75 percent yes, as we saw yesterday.”
A changing Northland
Conventional wisdom headed into Election Day held that Clay and Platte counties would be the most challenging part of the electoral map. It was assumed to be ground zero for conservative-leaning voters reluctant to tamper with an airport regarded as unusually convenient.
Tuesday turned the conventional wisdom on its head. Clay County favored a single terminal by a 70-30 margin; Platte by almost 75-25. Exit interviews suggested that voter sentiments were more nuanced than political professionals and journalists assumed. They did indeed like the current KCI, but also acknowledged the necessity for change.
“I’m thinking about the future,” said Bob Hiatt, 66, a retired school administrator as he left the Kansas City North Community Center polling station on election morning. “I tell tell people, do they live in the same house they lived in in 1972? And even then don’t you wish you’d changed it and had some things better?”
“I don’t see anything wrong with the old one,” said Virgil Adams, 90, a retired consulting engineer for Black and Veatch. “I just think it the city would benefit from a new one.”
Elected officials said changing conditions in the area, with young families moving in, also fueled the big pro-airport vote.
“There’s less legacy,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Wagner. “You have less about what has historically gone on and more about ‘Hey I’m in Kansas City now and what does this mean to me?’”