Want to get Kansas City Mayor Sly James riled up? Check into why he didn’t even try to get endorsed for re-election by the black political group Freedom Inc.
It’s part of a lingering dispute from 2014 that still roils city politics in 2015.
Sure, the city’s second black mayor doesn’t need Freedom’s help politically. James is running against two weak opponents, with an easy final victory looming on June 23.
But he’ll do it without being promoted on Freedom’s ballot. Why?
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“I’m just tired of racial politics,” James said in an interview Tuesday.
A few moments later, the mayor said he had decided he was “not going to put up with this racial bullshit” with people trying to bully him on racial issues.
Which brings us back to Freedom Inc. and a story that, while months old, affects how James works with and is perceived in parts of the black community.
Freedom put itself in James’ doghouse last summer when it opposed streetcar expansion from downtown. The project would have included a line along Independence Avenue, an extension south on Main Street and a line along Linwood Boulevard through a majority black community.
James and other supporters said the Linwood line would help spur economic development in needy neighborhoods; Freedom opposed the taxes that would be levied for the expansion and questioned the redevelopment claims.
However Freedom then doubled down — and this really got James’ gall at the time and continues to anger him to this day. It mailed out a flier to voters that linked support for the streetcar to an especially ugly chapter in U.S. history. The ad included a photo of a black youth with these words: “Jim Crow must go!” and “Vote against discrimination.”
The Jim Crow era featured the segregation of and discrimination against black people after the Civil War and far too long into the 20th century.
Basically, Freedom was accusing James of being a Jim Crow supporter — even as he championed a project that would have brought an infusion of public funds and private reinvestment into the urban core.
On Tuesday, James curtly said the ad represented a “total abuse” of history.
East Side voters overwhelmingly voted against streetcar expansion, leading to its regrettable defeat.
James said he has since met with members of the Freedom leadership team, such as Gayle Holliday and Kiki Curls, and added, “We’re friends.”
Holliday this week fortunately did not defend the ad, put together by a political consultant. Freedom’s leaders saw it, she said, and asked that the Jim Crow reference be removed. But it had already been printed, she said, and was mailed out.
That was a big mistake, with lasting consequences.
“We will have to take responsibility for a bad move,” Holliday said. She added, “We’ve apologized profusely” to James.
Looking ahead, Holliday said Freedom will try to work with James as well as other groups on positive projects in the 3rd, 5th and 6th City Council districts, home to most of the city’s black residents.
She said the organization is “very, very focused” on bolstering the Prospect Avenue corridor, from near downtown out to 75th Street. That will include efforts to bring in new housing, businesses and better transit.
James earlier this month said he had a long list of projects to work on in the East Side. “It’s a heavy lift,” he said, which includes trying to convince businesses to invest there, including in the 18th and Vine area.
James is right to be livid about Freedom’s anti-streetcar tactics. The group has to re-earn his trust.
But to create a better future for Kansas City, their dispute must not derail efforts to work together on positive projects.