Dave Helling

Avoiding the first-term blues: The problem Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas should tackle first

There’s no single way to understand Jolie Justus’ landslide loss last Tuesday. When a candidate falls short by 17 points, lots of factors are at work.

Mayoral fatigue is clearly one of them. Rightly or wrongly, voters saw Justus as a third term for Mayor Sly James, and they weren’t interested in that.

James will consider that an insult. It is not. Voters always tire of incumbents after eight years in office. Emanuel Cleaver and Kay Barnes backed successor candidates who lost, too. After eight years, Kansas City voters usually want something new.

Which is interesting and strange, since recent history suggests mayors actually get more done in their second terms than in their first.

Barnes’ first term was a government-by-committee mess; downtown was a second-term deal. Cleaver’s big first-term idea, a catch-all tax and spending plan called Odyssey 2000, collapsed under its own bulbous weight.

James will be remembered for the new airport terminal, the bond package for infrastructure repairs, the convention hotel. All were largely second-term victories. Mark Funkhouser? His first term was so bad, he didn’t get a second term.

What should Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas and his team make of this record? Should they postpone big ideas until a second term?

They’ve got a built-in excuse. They will face several knottier-than-normal problems out of the gate, problems that could make it easy to postpone an ambitious first-term agenda.

City Manager Troy Schulte could leave. Costly pension reform is on the must-do list. Lucas will need to coax Jackson County into a municipal jail deal.

Managing the airport project is essential. A recession is possible. A few weeks after taking the oath, Lucas will have to navigate the divisive battle over renaming Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Yikes.

During the campaign, Lucas repeatedly said the city could walk and chew gum at the same time. He said nothing about walking, chewing gum, putting on a hat and blowing a trombone while riding one of those weird downtown scooters, all at once.

Does that mean Lucas should give up any grand first-term goals? No. It means he’ll be better served by focusing relentlessly on one achievable big idea, instead of a do-everything-now approach.

There are several options to consider. The murder rate is a calamity, but making significant progress will take time. Comprehensive incentive reform is complicated and better addressed on a case-by-case basis. Bike lanes and streetcars are less urgent.

Housing and neighborhoods are another matter. The just-passed housing plan provides a template for a first-term focus: Find $75 million for a housing trust fund. Use it for low-cost credits, grants and property tax caps for rehabbed homes.

Limit developer incentives to quality housing projects outside of downtown. Regulate housing speculators. Legal aid for displaced tenants is a good idea — ask Jolie Justus to help.

Easy? Of course not. But a comprehensive, visible housing initiative should be achievable in Lucas’ first term. If successful, it would set the stage for other ambitious reforms after 2023.

Quinton Lucas enters office with enormous goodwill, as well as some excitement. He’s only 34 years old. First-term success is possible, recent history notwithstanding.

Quality housing and better neighborhoods are the best way to get there.

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