Kansas City Mayor Sly James may seem to have a cakewalk of a re-election campaign, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of political minefields awaiting him in a second term.
What to do about the airport and Kemper Arena? Can the public get behind streetcar expansion? How can the city bolster struggling neighborhoods?
James himself acknowledges a second term could be more challenging than his first.
“There are weighty issues we raised during the first term that are going to need some form of resolution,” he agreed.
James also knows other issues and distractions could have a big impact on the next four years. And, ironically, there may be more of them simply because of this year’s lackluster mayoral race.
It works this way:
Since the April 7 primary, in which James garnered 82 percent of the vote to challenger Vincent Lee’s 11 percent, there has been virtually no mayor’s contest — no debates, no forums or dual appearances as the June 23 general election approaches.
With James’ election seemingly a foregone conclusion, voter turnout could be abysmally low; the primary had fewer than 33,000 votes citywide. If that doesn’t improve, the next term could be buffeted by constant grass-roots petition initiatives because those who gather signatures need just 5 percent of the mayoral voter turnout.
“One of (James’) biggest challenges is the unspoken,” political observer Steve Glorioso said. “Because of the expected very low turnout, his second term could be bedeviled by how easy it will be to do initiatives and referendums.”
James too is worried about frivolous, expensive or divisive ballot initiatives.
“Petition initiatives are a government tool,” he said. “They should not be a ubiquitous government tool like they have in California, where everything is patchwork.”
In his first term, when petitioners needed nearly 3,600 signatures, the council has dealt with time-consuming measures from transit activist Clay Chastain and others on the minimum wage, the city’s new weapons plant and an ambulance billing plan.
But if the turnout this month is no larger than the primary, the required number of signatures would drop to 1,650.
James is trying to drive turnout so initiative petitions won’t be ridiculously easy, using his campaign funds for billboards, cable TV ads and mailers to frequent voters.
Another potential second-term test will be to duplicate the same type of reliably supportive, cohesive council majority that James enjoyed in his first term. Seven of the 12 council members leave office Aug. 1, so the new group could have a very different dynamic.
With that in mind, James is throwing his support behind several incumbents who he believes will support his agenda.
“I’m pushing for returners,” James said, lamenting the departure of second-termers with lots of experience and institutional knowledge.
“The people I’m supporting are the people who want to continue the roll we’re on,” James said. “I’m looking for team players.”
Still, some incumbents are in tight races, and if their opponents are elected, the mayor might find it harder to forge consensus on projects such as a big Kansas City International Airport modernization, streetcar expansion past downtown and Kemper Arena.
Those were issues that encountered major public pushback and where James could remain vulnerable in the second term.
▪ KCI: He says he has heard the public loud and clear on the need to preserve the airport’s convenience, and he will await the airlines’ recommendation for the best, most cost-effective upgrade.
▪ Streetcar: James’ unsuccessful campaign for a streetcar route east of Troost Avenue in August marked his most significant defeat by voters and one that will require a rethinking of possible streetcar extensions next term.
“Was it a miscalculation by him? In hindsight, yes,” said Glorioso, although he noted that proposing streetcar expansion only west of Troost would have sparked an outcry about the east side being left out. “He had to try.”
James now says he believes the streetcar will expand at some point, but south on Main Street rather than to the east side. He foresees a MAX rapid bus system on Prospect Avenue.
▪ Kemper Arena: The mayor concedes he has no idea what will happen or whether good options will emerge after the American Royal and another potential developer clashed with differing ideas last year. He says without a viable private developer, the arena may have to be demolished.
The mayor also has faced some recent complaints over his convention hotel proposal and his handling of a higher minimum wage initiative, which are likely to continue to be thorny issues into the next term.
James has one key benefit going for him. The blunt and bow-tied mayor remains popular throughout the city; a recent campaign poll of likely voters gave him an 81 percent job approval rating, with 68 percent saying the city is going in the right direction. He garners praise for being an energetic cheerleader for Kansas City and for pushing to improve education and reduce the homicide rate.
“The thing I really respect about the mayor is he took on big issues,” Councilman Ed Ford said. “Whether people like the way it was done or not, we’re going to have a streetcar.”
On the other hand, James is most frequently criticized for not doing enough for the predominantly African-American east side.
“He’s been noticeably absent there,” said the Rev. Sam Mann, a longtime preacher and civil rights crusader. “There is a big communication gap between him and the east side and the black community.”
Gayle Holliday, a spokeswoman for the African-American political club Freedom Inc., agrees the mayor has had a tense relationship with the organization, particularly following Freedom’s campaign against the streetcar project, which the mayor thought mischaracterized him and the project.
“I think Freedom and the mayor have gone their own ways and continue to function within their own sphere,” Holliday said. “I would like to get those spheres closer together.”
James bristles at criticism he feels is unjustified, and he insists he’s working as hard to improve east side conditions as in the rest of the city. And while he may ruffle some feathers with his blunt manner, he doesn’t intend to change his style in the second term.
“You run into people who it doesn’t matter what the hell you do, they’re going to be against it,” James said.
But he remains resolute.
“I put my heart and soul into” the job, he said. “I think I do my homework. I get people around me who know what they’re talking about. And we push it.”
To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
City Council races to watch:
▪ The 1st District, encompassing most of Clay County, has been one of the most competitive since the four-way April primary, which challenger Heather Hall won with 31 percent of the vote to incumbent Dick Davis’ 29 percent.
Davis, who has Mayor Sly James’ support, touts his decades of involvement in Northland politics and long years as manager of the city’s bus system. Hall’s husband is a Kansas City police officer, and she has strong support from many police officers. She also has some ties to the tea party in Clay County and worked briefly for Todd Akin when he challenged Claire McCaskill for the U.S. Senate seat.
▪ The 5th District, encompassing part of east Kansas City, features a fiercely competitive race between former City Councilman Ken Bacchus and Assistant Jackson County Prosecutor Alissia Canady to fill the seat formerly held by Michael Brooks.
Bacchus touts his council experience and urban planning background, while Canady, who has James’ backing, emphasizes her crime-fighting background and her commitment to neighborhoods.
▪ The 2nd District at-large pits former City Councilwoman Teresa Loar, who came in first in the two-way primary, against Jay Hodges, who worked for more than three years as a member of Mayor Sly James’ staff. They are seeking to replace Ed Ford, who is term-limited out.
▪ The 4th District at-large features two very experienced Kansas City politicians: incumbent Jim Glover, who has served numerous terms on the City Council, and Katheryn Shields, a former city councilwoman who also served as Jackson County executive. Glover came in first in the four-way primary but was followed very closely by Shields.