Kansas City Mayor Sly James stood in front of a room packed with mayors from across Missouri last week and posed a question: Who has actually spoken to the governor?
A few hands went up, but most stayed down.
James has exchanged pleasantries with Gov. Eric Greitens on a few occasions, but the two have yet to actually sit down to discuss policy despite repeated attempts by James’ office to schedule a meeting.
James even wrote the governor a letter earlier this month pleading for a chance to talk to Greitens about the city’s $800 million bond proposal that will be on the April ballot. But the governor, who has crisscrossed the state for training with firefighters and other events highlighted on social media, hasn’t been available to meet with James during his first few weeks in office.
It wasn’t until Thursday, less than an hour after inquiries from The Star, that the governor’s office reached out to James to schedule a meeting for next month, according to emails obtained by the newspaper.
Kansas City, one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds, has long faced an uphill battle in advancing its goals in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. But the city could rely on former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, to veto the bills it most fiercely opposed.
The city’s ability to advance its agenda — which includes preserving the earnings tax and gaining support for funding the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s downtown art campus — could be diminished if James is unable to forge a working relationship with the new Republican governor.
“He (Greitens) was invited to do a number of things I can tell you about, and I’ve never gotten a positive response,” James told the 50 mayors crammed into a conference room at the Capitol Plaza Hotel. “He told us he was interested in crime-fighting. We invited him to a KC NoVA (Kansas City No Violence Alliance) board meeting, and that’s not going to happen. We invited him to an earlier meeting here when he was running. That didn’t happen, either.”
Rep. Randy Dunn, a Kansas City Democrat, said that it’s “definitely a concern that Kansas City does not seem to be a priority for the governor.”
Greitens’ spokesman, Parker Briden, said Kansas City is absolutely a priority for the governor and called his announcement that AutoAlert will move its headquarters from Southern California to Kansas City as “one clear demonstration of the governor’s commitment to the area.”
James organized the informal meeting of mayors Wednesday when local officials assembled in the state’s capital city for a Missouri Municipal League conference. The agenda covered a range of issues, from the state’s ongoing economic border war with Kansas to its difficulty funding transportation projects.
Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin pushed back on the notion that Greitens has been unavailable to local officials. Tergin, who was elected in 2015, said that Greitens gave her a phone call ahead of a January ice storm, and that was the first time she had ever received such a call from a governor.
“I’m impressed that he’s actually being proactive and saying that, yes, the mayors do matter,” Tergin told the room.
James responded that it’s “one thing to say he’s interested in mayors. It’s another thing to show up.”
“Mayors get things done. That’s our job. We need to work with him to get more things done. It’s just that simple,” James said after the meeting. “And so we’re reaching out to him to say, ‘Can you help us? Will you help us? How do we help you?’ ”
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, on the other hand, had a lengthy phone conversation with Greitens this past week, according to Slay’s spokeswoman.
Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, said that Greitens “is discovering like many people who are elected to high office without a lot of political experience that it’s hard to transition from campaigning to governing. And the demands on your time are different.”
One significant difference is that meetings that might not hold a political advantage can sometimes be important for general governance, Squire said.
“The mayor of Kansas City is a significant person in Missouri politics, and there are real interests at stake both for the city and the state,” he said.
Squire said the governor “is probably more comfortable with using social media to communicate, but the sort of hands-on politics is going to have to become a greater part of his governing style.”
James isn’t the only one who has had trouble getting face time with the governor.
Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican, attempted to set up a meeting between the governor and officials from the North Kansas City and Park Hill school districts Tuesday, but those plans fell through.
Corlew chalked the situation up to miscommunication. He said the governor’s office has apologized to the districts and has made a commitment to visit them in the future.
“I think the transition in the governor’s office is probably taking longer than anybody had hoped,” said Corlew, who was also aware of James’ difficulty in scheduling a meeting. “I’m hoping as they get settled, their office gets settled, that we’ll be able to facilitate more meetings and information from the Kansas City area to the governor’s office.”
Briden said the governor was unable to make the meeting with school officials, “but we look forward to meeting with them at some point in the near future.”
Missouri House Minority leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat, said that lawmakers have also run into problems communicating with the governor’s office and faulted an over-reliance on social media as a contributing factor.
“The people want access, and unfortunately because he has followed the path of our president — everything is on Twitter — people feel like they don’t have access. … Our offices are having difficulties getting even staff from the governor’s office to respond to us, so it’s troubling, but it is what it is,” McCann Beatty said.
Briden pushed back on this characterization and touted the governor’s travels around the state as evidence of his accessibility to common people.
“We’re open to everyone,” Briden said. “And I think part of that is having an open door for people who would like to meet. And going out to meet people where they are — especially people who don’t have a lobbyist … all of that is to show this is a governor who is engaging with the people that he serves.”