With less than a month before Kansas City’s April 7 mayoral primary, there’s almost no mayor’s campaign to speak of.
The incumbent, Sly James, is concentrating on work at City Hall. One challenger, light rail crusader Clay Chastain, readily admits that he lives in Virginia and says he will only come to town about two weeks before the election. The other challenger, Vincent Lee, refused interview requests.
“I guess it’s strange,” James said in an interview. “But it’s kind of good for me because I get to do my job and don’t have to show up for every Tom, Dick and Harry debate.”
One League of Women Voters mayoral debate is scheduled March 24, and all three candidates have said they will attend. But unlike with the city council races, where numerous candidates have appeared at a variety of forums, this mayor’s contest is almost invisible.
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It’s a lopsided slate. The incumbent mayor remains popular and has more than $415,000 cash on hand to spend. The other two candidates have neither raised nor spent any money, according to campaign disclosures.
Local political observers say this mayor’s race is highly unusual in that incumbents over the past four decades — Charles Wheeler, Richard Berkley, Emanuel Cleaver, Kay Barnes and Mark Funkhouser — encountered at least one serious challenger who either had money or a built-in political constituency.
You have to go back to 1967, when Ilus Davis was running for re-election, to find an incumbent mayor who faced opposition with such little financial or political backing.
“This would easily be the weakest group of challengers to an incumbent mayor in our lifetime,” said veteran political consultant Steve Glorioso, who is not involved in this year’s mayoral campaign.
There is a real consequence to such a low-key race, Glorioso points out, in that it likely equals a poor voter turnout, both in the April 7 primary and the June 23 general election.
Mayoral elections in 2007 and 2011 drew more than 70,000 voters. But Glorioso predicted voter turnout could be even lower than the 52,506 votes cast when Kay Barnes defeated comedy club entrepreneur Stanford Glazer in 2003.
“Turnout goes up when people are unhappy,” Glorioso said. “People are not unhappy with City Hall in general.”
But that’s not stopping inveterate light rail activist Chastain from challenging James, even as he concedes he’s running his campaign from Bedford, Va., where he has a landscaping business and has custody of his 9-year-old daughter, Claire.
“I obviously have an odd situation,” Chastain said. He said his daughter is in school in Bedford and he needs to be with her and where his business is. But if elected, he pledges to move back to Kansas City, which he has always considered his home.
“I’ve been active in Kansas City politics for 23 consecutive years,” said Chastain, who calculates that he has spearheaded 10 ballot initiatives since 1993, including seven that the City Council agreed to put to voters. Only one of those passed, and the council eventually repealed it because it took money pledged to the bus system and allocated it to Chastain’s plan.
“I have an intimate connection with the city,” Chastain said.
The city charter requires a mayoral candidate to have been a city resident for five years, and two years immediately prior to the election. Chastain, who moved away from Kansas City more than 10 years ago, says he’s established his Kansas City residency by being a registered voter here; election records show he re-registered with the Kansas City election board in 2011. Last year he paid two years of back-owed earnings taxes, which apply to city residents.
James said he’s not going to waste time challenging Chastain’s claim to be a resident or trying to get him kicked off the ballot.
“I think that what Clay Chastain would like most is for somebody to make his residency an issue and give him an opportunity for a soapbox,” James said, adding that he thinks people know that Chastain spends most of his time elsewhere.
Chastain said he’s running against James for several reasons: The mayor and council refused to put his 2011 light rail ballot initiative to voters as he had written it, which he believes was an act of bad faith against the public interest. He doesn’t think the mayor has achieved enough in public safety, prosperity or moving the city forward. And he thinks the streetcar plan that the mayor has backed is flawed.
“That vision for trolleys puttering around the city in traffic with overhead wires is a travesty,” he said.
Vincent Lee, who likes to be called “The General,” has tried to run for mayor several times as a write-in candidate but received only a handful of votes.
He initially said he would provide biographical information and sit for an interview, but then declined, through a campaign associate, to provide any information. He doesn’t appear to have a campaign website and his deputy treasurer said he didn’t intend to start raising money seriously until after the primary.
Lee, who is in the real estate business, is perhaps best known for having bid on a former federal government building at 911 Walnut St. in the 1990s. He wanted to turn the office tower into a juvenile detention center. The federal government instead awarded the bid to 911 Walnut Inc. Lee sued the General Services Administration but the lawsuit was dismissed.
For all intents and purposes, James is laying the groundwork for a second term.
He said he will continue with his 4 E priorities — Employment, Enforcement, Education and Efficiency — but kick them up a notch: “The 4 E’s, 2.0.”
He points to Kansas City’s growing entrepreneurial base, a reduced homicide rate, a major push to improve student literacy, and improving citizen satisfaction scores as signs that the city is on a roll.
“The one thing is we have momentum at this point,” James said.
He is not promising anything like “no new taxes.” In fact, he said he will likely push for a major general obligation bond issue in a second term. That could involve seeking voter approval for a property tax increase for infrastructure improvements, although the plan is in its infancy and he said it’s too soon to provide details.
The mayor is not without his critics, especially some in the African American community who say he has not done enough to help the East Side. At a recent budget hearing, Rachel Riley, a candidate for the 3rd District Council seat, said that he didn’t come to the urban core enough.
“You do not respect the people,” she said. “You are a dictator.”
But James points to major city investments like the East Patrol crime lab and police station, under construction at 27th and Prospect, that he said should spark further housing and retail in the Prospect Corridor.
On the issues, there’s no shortage of contrasts between James and Chastain.
Chastain is still pushing for a bold, citywide light rail plan, although he said he’s realized that it can’t involve a tax increase. He still hopes to re-purpose one of the bus sales taxes for light rail, although that was an element of the 2006 plan that the council rejected.
James said Chastain’s schemes have never been realistic, and the downtown streetcar is how Kansas City finally got going on rail transit.
Regarding plans for Kansas City International Airport, James predicts a clear plan will emerge next year, but said the airlines will be in the driver’s seat.
Chastain said he favors a new airport terminal, but built closer to downtown Kansas City.
“A new airport integrated into a new light rail train system would be the major catalyst the city needs to bring it roaring back,” Chastain said.
Several years ago, the Aviation Department advocated building a new airport terminal four miles closer to downtown, but then concluded the new road costs would be astronomical.
On the question of a new downtown convention hotel, Chastain said absolutely not.
“That will be money wasted and not in the interest of the ordinary everyday citizen,” he said.
James said Kansas City is losing out on numerous conventions and needs a new convention hotel. He points out that Austin has built two major hotels in the past few years while Kansas City has dithered.
“We don’t have a four-star hotel in this city,” he told The Star’s Editorial Board. “That’s crazy.”
On the other hand, he said any deal can’t add to the city’s debt.
“The hotel will happen when we get the right deal and I’m speaking financially,” he said.
To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to email@example.com.
A mayoral forum will be offered by the League of Women Voters at 7 p.m. March 24 at All Souls Church, 4501 Walnut St.