Steve Kraske | Tuesday is a big test for James

Steve Kraske
Steve Kraske

Sly James wants it all.

A downtown convention hotel. “Absolutely a priority,” Kansas City’s mayor told me. “It needs to get done.”

A sterling new streetcar system. “This is something that Kansas City absolutely needs. You can’t go to another city that has retail of any sort and not understand the impact that it’s had on that city.”

Major infrastructure repairs. “I’m willing to take it on,” he said. “I’m willing to go over and say to people, ‘We need to do this.’”

Big, meaty, costly projects, to be sure. And there’s another one that James wants even more — better schools. Good schools that leave no child behind in the heart of his Kansas City.

“Everything is tied to that,” he said. “Everything.”

Fifteen months into his term, James has proved to be every bit the happy warrior. Energetic. Enthusiastic. A back-slapping, how-ya-doin’ presence that makes people smile and practically dares folks not to like him.

He has galvanized the City Council, jump-started development and injected new life into what had been a moribund City Hall during the Funkhouser years.

But in his own frenetic way, he’s also been all over the place when it comes to exactly where he’s headed.

There was all that early talk about taking over Kansas City Public Schools — an issue that was barely touched on during his campaign and one he wisely jettisoned when it failed to gain steam.

Then there was all that big, big talk about a $1 billion infrastructure bonding program to repair streets and sidewalks. But that idea walked in the door and then seemed to fly out the window with startling speed, although James insists it’s still on the agenda.

Then came streetcars. A push to land a $25 million federal grant to jump-start the $100 million project went kerplunk when Kansas City failed to land the grant. Of course, things are looking a little better in the wake of this week’s vote, encouraging James not to give up.

“I’m not deterred,” he said. “I’m not quitting.”

On Tuesday, fairly or not, a pair of ballot issues will be seen as an early test of public confidence in his administration. He’s pushing for a sales tax bump for parks and streets. James has been out front for the proposal, but not aggressively so.

If he loses Tuesday, something Kay Barnes did only once in 10 tries on revenue measures during her eight years in office, that will undermine momentum James desperately needs for all his plans. But it’s almost as if the tax push got lost in the big-idea shuffle.

Yes, mayors can push multiple ideas at once. Barnes talked about that relentlessly. But James is pushing for high-dollar projects in an era when the federal government is checking out of the subsidy game.

Things have gotten tougher. And James knows it.

In the end, it’s a matter of priorities. Ultimately, the mayor who wants it all may have to settle for just one thing.