Mayor Sly James of Kansas City made a surprise appearance at the daily White House briefing Thursday.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest, a Kansas City native, took the stage in the briefing room with James and two other mayors who are in town for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The other mayors were Marty Walsh of Boston and Ashley Swearengin of Fresno, Calif.
Earnest joked that he “asked for the three best mayors in America” to join him. Then he introduced James, the mayor of his hometown, to a chorus of groans and laughter.
James kicked off the briefing, taking the groans in stride.
“I guess that has something to do with the fact that we’re the world’s champions,” he joked.
He told reporters he was “here to say, first of all, that Kansas City has done quite well under this administration. We have been very fortunate to be the recipient of a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant that is being put to use in one of the gateway areas of Kansas City. We are involved in ConnectHome and ConnectED.”
The grant will be used to help rejuvenate the area around and near the deteriorating Chouteau Courts public housing complex on Independence Avenue.
The grant, James said, is something Kansas City treasures because it’s a collaborative effort of universities, neighborhoods and housing units that will help change the dynamic in that part of the city.
“We are also very fortunate that we have had great success and backing of support from the Department of Transportation,” he said. “At one point, we had the largest TIGER grant for streetcar of any place in the country.”
James also noted that during his own time in office and during the time President Barack Obama has been in office, Kansas City has added 80,000 jobs.
“I don’t say create jobs because I think as a mayor I don’t create jobs. We simply try to build an environment in which jobs can foster, and we have done that by promoting entrepreneurs and then startups,” he said.
“So this has been an administration that has helped my city tremendously, and for that I’m grateful because at the end of the day, we’re trying to move an agenda along that betters the lives of our citizens and provides them with jobs and services that they need.”
Swearengin joked that it appeared they were “starting with baseball credentials. So, I’ll just say Fresno is not far from San Francisco. And I’ll put the Giants’ championships on the table for all of you all to admire.”
Walsh, the Boston mayor, joined in the friendly sports faceoff, saying he had “no idea why I’m up here because my sports credentials certainly don’t fly with Kansas City, and I know that my little football team’s playing Sunday.
James also boasted about Kansas City’s Startup Village.
“When we were chosen along with Kansas City, Kan., to be the first cities in the country to have Google come in and install Fiber, our phones lit up, our televisions lit up, everything lit up, with people curious about how that could be used in order to promote entrepreneurism and startups, and it’s been very successful,” he said.
“We started a place called Startup Village, which straddles the line between Kansas and Missouri, where people — young people — as a matter of fact, mayor, there were two kids that showed up — three kids that showed up at a reception for Code for America. They came in off the street.”
He said he asked them where they were from, and they said they had just driven in from Boston to go live at Startup Village, where they started their business that deals with software for home 3-D printers.
“They must have left their Red Sox hats in the car,” said Walsh.
“They did, because now they’re all wearing Royals jerseys,” James said. “But we have a tremendously active entrepreneurial population, with a lot of startups. We surprised Techweek. They brought Techweek in on kind of an experimental basis, expecting 1,500 people; 4,000 showed up.”
He said Kansas City is trying to make sure that it’s a city of the future that attracts talent.
“It doesn’t hurt that we have a very reasonable cost of living in Kansas City,” he said. “Anybody who wants to move to Kansas City, we have plenty of houses and you can afford them.”
In response to another reporter’s question, James complained that infrastructure has been neglected in America, “and it needs to change because if it does not change, we’re going to be in serious trouble. At some point, it’s going to become a national security issue, if it’s not already. But infrastructure is huge, not just roads and bridges, but water infrastructure.”
He said Kansas City doesn’t have the infrastructure problems that are going on in Flint, Mich., where the water supply is contaminated with lead.
“That’s also a very serious health problem, and frankly it’s horrible. There should not be people, there should not be children in this country, in this day and age, drinking leaded water, especially with what we know, and certainly not for as long as it’s been going on,” he said.
A reporter asked James how the president had helped Kansas City deal with race relations.
“Well, the best thing that he’s done was he was elected twice,” James said. “That in and of itself says something about race relations, because … before his election, there were people who believed that that was an impossibility. A lot of older African-Americans thought they’d never have an opportunity to see that in their lifetime. … So that gave us hope right off the bat.”
James noted that Obama has visited Kansas City multiple times.
“It’s not just because he likes the barbecue or my bow ties,” he said. “He’s been there because we’re doing things, and when he comes to this city and we’re able to show the people of Kansas City that the president of the United States is in town, we’re able to leverage that in the conversations about race.”
But it’s the policies Obama put in place, including the Choice Neighborhood grant, that really helped Kansas City, James added.
Another grant program, TechHire, “allows us to put people who’ve been out of the workforce for over 18 months back into employment. That’s something that takes place and is very important in the minority community,” he said.
“Those types of things are things that actually have an impact on people’s lives, and those are the types of things that we use in order to leverage good conversations about race and race relations.”