Kansas City Mayor Sly James kicked off a year-long victory lap Tuesday.
“We must remain focused on our shared goals and not get bogged down in politics or petty nonsense,” the mayor said in his seventh and presumably penultimate state of the city speech.
He promised a Mayor’s Initiative on Race and Inclusion, which will examine approaches to ending prejudice and unfairness.
The speech was a hit. His initiatives might succeed.
By any measure, James’ achievements have been exceptional, his service a time of major accomplishment without major scandal.
But James is responsible for more than just brick-and-mortar progress. He helped the city navigate the Great Recession without a major disruption in services. Kansas City has dodged the racial unrest that has plagued other communities, such as Ferguson, Mo.
James remains hugely popular with the public. His compelling personal story, detailed in The Star recently, bolsters that popularity.
Voters happily approved new infrastructure spending last year and will likely renew an improvement sales tax next week.
Violent crime remains far too high, of course. But Kansas City’s bizarre, bifurcated supervision of its police department has helped James duck serious criticism for the city’s murder rate.
The city’s East Side is showing signs of rebirth after decades of neglect. James will get some credit for that, too, if it can be sustained.
For all of these achievements, however, there will be an edge to the mayor’s goodbye, and his final-year agenda may wobble.
City councilwoman Alissia Canady called the payout negligent. Her statement prompted a lengthy response from James.
“I always act in the best interest of this city, and I’ve been acting in the best interest of this city before you got your law license,” he thundered, looking at Canady.
“And I certainly was acting in the best interest of this city before you joined this council.”
The bitter exchange probably caught casual observers by surprise. Insiders have seen it before — in private meetings, news conferences, social gatherings.
All politicians have thin skins. Mayors Emanuel Cleaver and Kay Barnes grew frustrated at times. Mayor Mark Funkhouser battled with colleagues and opponents for four long years.
But Sly James is in a class by himself. His skin is usually torn at the slightest provocation.
It mystifies most Kansas City insiders, even those who support the mayor. James knew, or should have known, that he had the votes to prevail on the Three Light subsidies. What is the point of picking a loud personal fight with a colleague on the council?
Seven years in, James still acts as if he has something to prove, or that everyone is somehow against him. He’s wrong on both counts.
It’s possible he’ll realize this in his final year. It’s possible he’ll understand something that may have eluded him: He won.
If so, his goals for the final year are within reach. If not, he’ll leave office as a political success, with much still left undone.