February 25, 2011



The establishment got what they wanted
by Bruce Rodgers

The Kansas City primary on Feb. 22 was no milestone in the city’s political evolution. Sure, the advancement of Mike Burke and Sly James denied Mayor Mark Funkhouser a shot at a second term but other than that, it set the stage for the return of the Kay Barnes’ style of governance. The one where economic development, with taxpayer support, is the be-all, end-all mark of a city’s greatness.

The campaigning style of Burke and James says as much. Both men are persistently upbeat (another Barnes’ trait) and neither has lined out specific approaches in tackling the city’s serious problems. (Barnes wasn’t big on details, either.) Both men smile through comments about Kansas City having a “weak mayor” form of government and deliver doses of happy talk about getting along with city council members. It’s sort of Reaganesque with a kind of “shining city on the hill” talk. Yet, clearly, the message is to dial down citizen expectations in the broad sense while conveying calm to the civic establishment upset with Funkhouser’s agent of change mandate.

Visit each candidate’s website and a reader gets heavy doses of aggrandizement. James has a “proven record of success,” is “an effective coalition builder,” “a fierce advocate,” and “a small business owner” — if one considers having a law firm specializing in personal injury lawsuits a small business. Burke is “an experienced leader,” “an extraordinary civic contributor,” “an active participant,” and a “proven community leader.” What solutions to what problems these men came up with to garner such lavish praise isn’t on their websites.

With both men, the list of civic boards and committees served on is long, and absent of any indication or group representing thinking outside the norm, particularly in solving entrenched problems dealing with education, housing, homelessness, infrastructure repair, public transportation or finding new streams of city revenue. The words “working men and women” don’t appear on either website, and neither man reveals any information concerning their financial worth.

James, however, does list some approaches to issues of education, efficiency in city services, crime prevention and jobs. On the surface, it shows some sensitivity to what ordinary citizens face while not stepping too far out in getting into specifics about funding and making institutional change. For Burke, he relies on that “vision” thing with a short list of making a “City of Opportunities.”

Where Funkhouser was an outsider seeking to make change, James and Burke are insiders ready to spout about the limitations of government yet willing to scatter innocuous homilies about the city as feel-good answers to real problems.

These two men are so similar that early comments about the mayoral campaign being dull and a snooze-fest are more a sure bet than prophetic. While James has been able to attract endorsements from some more liberal local leaders and may distinguish himself apart from Burke in that sense, there’s every indication that having either Burke or James elected mayor makes no real difference to the business and civic establishment.

Whatever populist feel Funkhouser brought to city hall with his tenure will dissipate quickly with the election of either Burke or James. That’s not saying Burke and James are not honorable men, just part of Kansas City’s entrenched establishment.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.