Dave Helling

Can KC Mayor Sly James and Gov. Mike Parson bridge Missouri’s urban-rural divide?

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (left) and Kansas City Mayor Sly James
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (left) and Kansas City Mayor Sly James Twitter/@MayorSlyJames

Kansas City Mayor Sly James spent some quality time Tuesday with Gov. Mike Parson in Jefferson City.

The get-together was welcome and long overdue. Former Gov. Eric Greitens’ contempt for the state’s two major urban areas was obvious and unrelenting (although, to be fair, Greitens showed contempt for almost everyone not wearing a uniform).

Parson promises a different approach. “We want to learn about what the issues are, both in St. Louis and Kansas City,” he said before the meeting.

He’ll likely get an earful soon enough.

James likes the program offering state tax credits for low-income housing, for example. He’ll find a friend in the new governor, who generally supports the credits.

Kansas City interests will likely push the state to borrow for a new arts facility at UMKC. Maybe there’s more state money for improvements around the Buck O’Neil bridge — ambitious plans to remake the entire north loop are under discussion.

With some work, Kansas City is much more likely to do well in the state Capitol with Parson in office.

But more money is just one part of a very complicated relationship between Missouri’s two big cities and the rest of the state.

Tension between rural and urban interests is the central political dynamic of our time, not just in Missouri but everywhere else as well. The divide is less about resources than it is about cultural disagreements — disputes that are deep and not easily fixed.

Rural areas tend to be more religious, less formally educated, older, poorer, less diverse. Policy is personal: Families, schools and neighborhoods are a central focus.

Urbanites are more likely to be college graduates, with higher incomes (although with pockets of severe poverty and joblessness.) Cities are growing. So is crime, at least in Missouri.

These very different challenges lead to very different approaches to problem-solving. They also lead to serious distrust between urban and rural lawmakers, who often don’t see the world the same way.

Resentments persist. Rural Missouri is still furious about state spending for school desegregation in Kansas City and St. Louis; urban areas are angry at rural interference in decisions about wages, guns and taxation.

The trend is made worse by social media, inflammatory websites, and by the election of lawmakers at the fringes of the major parties.

So the barrier between city and country is high.

This has real-world implications. Missourians will vote this year on a phased-in increase in the gas tax to pay for road repairs. If a bitter fight erupts over how much money goes to cities and how much goes to rural areas, the odds of passing the measure will drop.

But the split also means annual fights over gun restrictions, abortion, animal rights, higher education and other issues are still likely.

Organized labor restrictions? Anti-discrimination laws? Tax limits? All are best understood as a fight between city slickers and country bumpkins.

James and Parson, and their counterparts, must find a way to overcome that gap. They could argue mutual interests: Rural areas need the cities’ taxes, while cities need farmers to live.

And all Missourians could work harder to tolerate different opinions and ways of life.

Or the squabbling and finger-pointing could continue, while Missouri crumbles, and its residents move somewhere else.

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