Government & Politics

As big issues loom, the Kansas City Council faces a major turnover

What to do about Kemper Arena will be among the issues facing the new Kansas City Council.
What to do about Kemper Arena will be among the issues facing the new Kansas City Council. The Kansas City Star

As Kansas City faces big decisions on the airport, streetcar expansion, Kemper Arena, taxes and other challenges, it will have a very different City Council leading the charge.

That became especially clear Tuesday, the deadline for candidates to file for this year’s mayor and council elections.

While it’s looking as if Kansas City Mayor Sly James will not face heavy opposition, there will be big turnover in the other 12 council seats. At least seven of those 12 incumbents are out, either because of term limits or resignation, and a few more have serious challengers.

That means James would have a very different council if he is re-elected to a second term, and some wonder if it will be a more independent, contentious council than he enjoyed in his first term.

“There will be people who are looking for candidates who are independent thinkers as opposed to always going along with what the 29th floor (mayor’s office) says,” said Dan Cofran, who chairs the Citizens Association, a political club that soon will screen and endorse City Council candidates.

Over the past four years, James has enjoyed near-unanimous support from the council. But in the coming years, Cofran and other political observers said, there are issues percolating that may make it more difficult to forge a consensus on the council or with the public.

The future of Kansas City International Airport is one looming issue for voters, Cofran noted.

While the current mayor and council have favored exploring a new terminal, many in the public don’t support that direction.

Other thorny topics upon which no clear community consensus has emerged include streetcar expansion, a possible convention hotel and what to do about Kemper Arena. Crime, police-community relations, urban core redevelopment and earnings tax renewal in 2016 are other issues that may dominate discussion.

Cofran, a former City Council member, briefly considered running against James but said he realized it would be an extremely difficult task to unseat an incumbent, well-funded mayor. James’ most recent campaign report shows he has $386,000 cash on hand.

As of Tuesday’s filing deadline, that left only two potential challengers — Vincent C. Lee and Clay Chastain — and neither is considered a formidable opponent. Lee has run before as a write-in candidate but only garnered a handful of votes, and Chastain lives most of the time in Virginia. Chastain also turned in his nominating signatures late Tuesday, so they still must be verified.

Lee, who says he is known as “General Lee,” is perhaps best known locally for having tried unsuccessfully to buy the former federal government building at 911 Walnut St. in the 1990s to turn it into a juvenile detention center. He sued federal officials over their decision to sell the building to a management company, but his lawsuit was dismissed.

Lee said Monday he will mount a serious campaign for mayor, although he is still setting up his campaign committee.

Chastain, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1995 and 1999, said he is very serious about running again and considers himself a resident of Kansas City, although he now owns a business and lives most of the time in Virginia. He said he will campaign vigorously both in town and long-distance and if elected will move back.

Chastain is best-known for focusing on a comprehensive light-rail plan for the city.

Jim Bergfalk, a public affairs consultant and longtime observer of Kansas City politics, said this mayor’s race is unusual in that most recent incumbents, including 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 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, said Dale Neuman, political science professor emeritus and director of the Harry S. Truman Center for Governmental Affairs at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Neuman noted that Kansas City’s mayor and council races are nonpartisan, so the Republican and Democratic parties don’t automatically mobilize to provide challengers to a popular incumbent mayor.

There’s a sense that things are going well for the city, so there’s little incentive to challenge this mayor, said Gayle Holliday, a co-chair and media spokeswoman for the African-American political club Freedom Inc.

“I always think competition is good, but apparently people feel the mayor has done a credible job,” she said. “At least they’re not terribly unhappy with him. Or they would’ve come up with more candidates.”

Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said the mayor has generally done a good job and she knows of no one trying to run a slate of City Council candidates who would actively challenge James’ agenda. But she said she will be looking to support strong, independent voices on the council.

“I don’t want a council that’s just a rubber stamp for the mayor,” she said.

James declined Tuesday to comment about his opponents but issued a brief statement with his strategy for seeking re-election.

“I’ve always believed that the best way to keep your job is to do your job,” he said.

As for dealing with a new City Council, James said in his statement, “The only thing that can take away our progress is stagnation and inaction.”

He did not say if he will devote his campaign resources to trying to elect a supportive slate of council candidates.

The primary will be held April 7 and the general election on June 23, with the new council taking office Aug. 1.

So the big question will be what kind of council the new mayor will have to work with.

Incumbents Ed Ford, Russ Johnson, Melba Curls, Jan Marcason, Cindy Circo and John Sharp are all term-limited out, and Michael Brooks resigned before his first term ended. So that leaves at least seven new council members in districts throughout the city.

In addition, incumbents Dick Davis, Jermaine Reed and Jim Glover face serious challengers in their pursuit of a second term. Only council member Scott Taylor is running unopposed.

It could mean a more inexperienced council, with few second-term members. But many of the challengers have considerable political experience, in prior elective office or as union leaders or well-known community leaders.

While Cofran predicted the mayor may have to contend with more independent voices, others said they still think James will find a strong base of support.

“I don’t know that anybody is running against Sly or his agenda,” Bergfalk said. “He has that capacity to reach out to new council members and to establish a relationship from the beginning.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

Who’s running

Here’s who has filed to run for Kansas City Council. Those who filed some or all signatures on Tuesday (indicated by *) must still have signatures verified:

Mayor: Incumbent Sly James, Vincent Lee, Clay Chastain*

1st District: Incumbent Dick Davis, Jane Rinehart, Heather Hall, Louie Wright

1st District at-large: Incumbent Scott Wagner, Jeffrey Roberts

2nd District: Dan Fowler, Bill Super

2nd District at-large: Teresa Loar, Jay Hodges*

3rd District: Incumbent Jermaine Reed, Jamekia Kendrix, Shaheer Akhtab, Bryan Dial, Rachel Riley

3rd District at-large: Quintin Lucas, Dee Evans, Karmello Coleman, Forestine Beasley, Carol Gatlin, Stephan Gordon*

4th District: Jolie Justus, John Fierro

4th District at-large: Incumbent Jim Glover, Jared Campbell, Bryan Stalder, Katheryn Shields*

5th District: Alissia Canady, Lance Conley, Ken Bacchus, Bilal Muhammad, Edward Bell

5th District at-large: Theresa Garza Ruiz, Dennis Anthony, Lee Barnes Jr.

6th District: Terrence Nash, Henry Klein, Kevin McManus

6th District at-large: Scott Taylor

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