Government & Politics

Mayor Sly James of Kansas City says he will ride out rough patch

One source of political friction for Mayor Sly James: his support of a plan to privatize ambulance billing. On Thursday, the City Council reversed course and repealed the plan. James clashed with Councilman John Sharp (left) on the issue.
One source of political friction for Mayor Sly James: his support of a plan to privatize ambulance billing. On Thursday, the City Council reversed course and repealed the plan. James clashed with Councilman John Sharp (left) on the issue. The Kansas City Star

After coasting through his first few years on cheerleading and good vibes, Mayor Sly James of Kansas City is hitting speed bumps and community pushback.

The streetcar expansion that he championed got torpedoed by voters this month. His task force’s support for airport improvements continues to face public turbulence. A move to outsource a handful of city jobs prompted a union backlash. Even his promise to demolish 1,000 decrepit properties got downsized.

And now, sensing vulnerability, former city councilman Dan Cofran has emerged as a possible challenger in the 2015 mayor’s race.

Still, if the political waters have gotten choppy, you wouldn’t know it from talking to the mayor.

“I am very happy to stand on the record of what we’ve done,” James said while sitting with campaign consultant Larry Jacob at Winstead’s near the Country Club Plaza. “We’ve got people feeling good about where they live.”

And although acknowledging that many Kansas Citians are averse to too much change too fast, James said he doesn’t regret taking on politically risky causes, such as the failed streetcar expansion plan.

“I’d rather try something and fail than do nothing,” James said.

Despite setbacks, the public still generally thinks the mayor is doing a good job, said veteran campaign consultant Steve Glorioso, who served with then-mayor Kay Barnes and recently worked on the pro-streetcar campaign.

“I am aware of polling where his job approval is still around 70 percent,” Glorioso said, adding that James probably has more support than Barnes or Emanuel Cleaver did at this point in their first terms.

More important, Glorioso said, James remains personally popular as he promotes the city everywhere he goes, including trying to attract the Republican National Convention.

“He does things like air guitar, dancing on the tarmac with the RNC person,” Glorioso said. “His gregariousness is kind of infectious, and that’s a big part of being mayor.”

But where Glorioso sees strength, Cofran sees negatives. Cofran was known as a budget watchdog when he served on the City Council from 1987 to 1995, before he ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Cleaver in 1995.

Since he announced his new mayoral aspirations, Cofran said he’s gotten positive feedback.

“It confirms that people are looking for an alternative and that people feel inadequate attention has been paid to basic services as opposed to big ticket, flashy projects,” Cofran said. “The streetcar being the most recent example.”

Cofran said he would concentrate on reducing crime, boosting early childhood education and improving services like street maintenance.

Political insiders say Cofran is smart and knowledgeable, but they think he would face a formidable challenge in unseating a popular mayor. Cofran knows that and says he’ll make a decision within 60 days on whether it’s feasible.

Some people have also floated the name of 6th District At-Large Councilman Scott Taylor as a potential challenger to James, especially because Taylor has $117,000 cash on hand for his re-election campaign.

Taylor, a lawyer who lives in south Kansas City, says he is flattered but isn’t taking the bait.

“I’m focused on running for City Council re-election,” Taylor said, adding that he might be interested in running for mayor if James is re-elected and then term-limited out in 2019.

Basics vs. bling

James scoffs at Cofran’s assertion that he is focused too much on glamour projects at the expense of basic services.

Although street maintenance still gets woeful citizen satisfaction scores, James notes that the city’s image with residents is the highest it’s been since 2005. Scores have improved on snow removal, the 311 Call Center, park maintenance and water customer service.

Most important, James said, homicides so far this year are at their lowest level in decades, possibly due to anti-violence innovations. James has helped create popular summer programs for teens and has put more emphasis on early childhood education than any mayor in recent history.

“We have in this administration had a very direct, focused impact on educational issues, which is something that never happened in City Hall before and certainly not during the time that Dan Cofran was on the council,” James said.

James also has a different perspective on what others see as recent setbacks:

KCI: The mayor’s task force recommended a new airport terminal, but public resistance remains fierce. James insists he is not pushing a new terminal, but he thinks planning is prudent and essential.

“The airport needs to be examined in the context of, is this the best airport for this city and for the next 40 years? If it is, fine,” James said, adding that he trusts the Aviation Department and airlines to recommend the best approach for the future.

Demolitions: The mayor was front and center two years ago in a backhoe knocking down what was supposed to be the first of 1,000 vacant properties in 24 months. Since then, only 500 homes have come down.

James said the city realized some residents didn’t want neighboring homes knocked down. Plus other priorities, such as pension reform that previous administrations had failed to address, sapped much of the money.

Ambulance billing: At the urging of City Manager Troy Schulte, James supported a plan to privatize ambulance billing, as many other cities do to save money and be more efficient.

“We suck at this,” James said at one public hearing, shocking city employees who thought the mayor was criticizing them. He insists he wasn’t, saying he simply meant the city had no business doing this complicated, specialized function.

In reaction, city union employees rallied to collect 8,000 signatures to overturn the council’s privatization vote. On Thursday, the council, including James, voted to reverse course and repeal the privatization plan.

Streetcars: The mayor pushed hard for streetcar routes east of Troost Avenue, rather than the safer option of just going south on Main Street. When the plan was in trouble on the East Side, the mayor promised additional development help, but some East Side leaders say it was too little, too late. The East Side vote killed the streetcar plan Aug. 5.

The mayor defends his decision.

“I was not going to continue to play into the north/south, West Side gets stuff, the East Side doesn’t get considered,” he said. “They will never be able to say, ‘You didn’t even ask us,’ because we asked, and they said, ‘No.’”

He points out the East Side is getting millions of investment dollars in new grocery stores, housing and a new police station, and he said he will continue to push for more economic development there.

Looking ahead

Dan Coffey is spokesman for a group that has vehemently opposed the city on the airport and streetcars. Coffey said he doesn’t know Cofran, but he and others are looking for an alternative in the next mayor’s race.

“I hear people say they’re very disappointed in the way he’s running City Hall,” Coffey said of James.

Municipal union leaders say the mayor’s standing with the rank and file has suffered through issues like the ambulance billing controversy and the airport.

“Time and resources are being focused on other things than basic essential services, and that’s troubling to us,” said Mike Cambiano, head of the firefighters union.

Still, the mayor has a lot of fans who like his can-do spirit.

Longtime neighborhood advocate Jim Rice said he didn’t vote for James but thinks he’s done an excellent job.

“Some of us are happy to have a mayor willing to take some risks and be pretty bold,” Rice said.

Although he’s a friend of Cofran, Rice believes James has focused dilingently on basic services and would be very tough to beat.

Jacob, James’ political adviser, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the mayor faced five or six opponents in next April’s mayoral primary, but he’s not worried. The campaign has more than $350,000 in the bank, and its polling a few months ago confirmed James’ 70 percent approval rating, Jacobs said.

He tells James that the best re-election strategy is just “do the job.”

James knows he may rub some people the wrong way, but he isn’t changing his style.

“People know where I stand, and I haven’t changed,” he said. “I am dedicated to making this city the best it can be, and I think the people who actually pay attention to what’s going on, they’ll be fine with that.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to