Kansas City Mayor Sly James is interested in a sales tax increase for early childhood education. He's talked about schools for most of his time in office, and his enthusiasm for the idea appears real.
At the same time, James is probably thinking about his legacy, too. With about a year to go before leaving office, the mayor likely wants to polish his resume before his time is up.
Mayoral legacies are funny things. Kansas City's mayor is less powerful than those in other cities; he or she must lead through example and persuasion, not raw politics. That makes progress slow. That's why the legacy of a Kansas City mayor may not be immediately visible.
But not invisible. As James moves closer to the exit, I decided to rank Kansas City's mayors from the past five decades, based on leadership, accomplishments, political skill and other factors.
Yes, it's subjective.
1. Kay Barnes (1999-2007): Barnes was not widely admired during her time in office. Today, though, it's clear her focus on downtown cleared the way for what we now see all around us: apartments, shops, businesses, entertainment — all packed into the heart of the city.
Did it cost taxpayers too much? Yes. Were impoverished areas of the community left behind? Yes, although that isn't unique to Barnes. But anyone who walked downtown 20 years ago would be stunned by the improvements there now.
2. Ilus Davis (1963-1971): Davis invented modern-day Kansas City government. The earnings tax was first approved on his watch. It's hard to imagine Kansas City without it.
Davis led the effort for ordinances prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and housing. Both were courageous and important moves.
The 1968 riots are a blemish on Davis' record, but they weren't entirely his fault. The longer view? Davis helped guide Kansas City through the restless 1960s, setting the stage for growth in the 1970s and beyond.
3. Sly James (2011-present): James has overseen the rebirth of downtown, has brokered a new convention hotel and will get credit for a better airport. His popularity has renewed confidence in City Hall.
He slips to third only because of his oversensitivity to criticism and his enthusiasm for secrecy.
4. Emanuel Cleaver (1991-1999): Kansas City's first African-American mayor defined the modern concept of the job: a professional staff, high visibility and a clear agenda. He was also a moral leader. His speech at a local rally after the Rodney King verdict averted a riot and was his finest moment.
Yet Cleaver's actual record as mayor is spotty. Tax and spending initiatives floundered at the polls, and City Hall scandal was common. The crime rate was far too high.
5. Richard Berkley (1979-1991): Berkley's three terms as mayor defined the 1980s in Kansas City. His work after the collapse of the Hyatt skywalks was exemplary.
He was a Republican in a Democratic city, which sometimes hindered progress. He was arguably the last of the businessman-as-mayor class in Kansas City.
6. Charles Wheeler (1971-1979): Wheeler was mayor during a nasty firefighter strike in 1975, a labor dispute that echoes to this day.
On the plus side, Republicans held their presidential nomination convention here in 1976. On the minus side, a disastrous mob war over control of the River Quay took place during Wheeler's term.
Like Berkley, Wheeler was the public face of the city, not an agenda-setter.
7. Mark Funkhouser (2007-2011): Interesting ideas rendered moot by bad political instincts, stubbornness, misjudgment and a collapsing economy derailed Funkhouser. He's important today as a model for what mayors should not do.
In a few months, the race to become the next name on this list will begin in earnest. Kansas Citians will make their decision, and the effort to create a new legacy will begin.