May 21, 2010



Being the outsider is Funkhouser’s reelection strength
by Bruce Rodgers

The count is up to five … five very establishment-type players convinced that they can guarantee that Mark Funkhouser is a one-term mayor of Kansas City, MO. Wouldn’t’ be surprised if a couple more popped up, maybe another woman candidate to pull attention away from Deb Hermann, the only woman in the race and recognizably a strong challenger to Funkhouser.

But however one evaluates the announced challengers, none have an outsider’s label or temperament. What voters have so far is a script from central casting — a woman candidate steeped in the city’s budgetary knowledge, a lawyer with money, an inner-city legislator with big name recognition tied to the less pampered citizenry of this town, a silk-stocking, Plaza denizen from the southwest corridor and a former councilman who embraces development — and the tax subsidies that go with it — with zeal.

And then there’s Funkhouser who ran and won nearly four years ago as an outsider and remains one as mayor. It’s really not a bad position to be in and one that seems to continually fit the mayor’s personality and governing approach.

Whatever Funkhouser’s faults, he has moved on issues no other mayor has taken on. What previous mayor got serious about improving Kansas City schools? Kay Barnes gave it lip service and like mayors before her, passed on the problems by saying City Hall doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Kansas City, MO School District. Funkhouser’s much-maligned Schools First initiative is a giant leap from what other mayors have attempted. And it appears to be a sincere effort on the part of the mayor, one he believes in, not some political ploy to shore up his reelection chances.

Many parents with school-age children are paying attention to the proposal even if the KCMO School District isn’t. More cops on patrol and more money for infrastructure improvements near schools are good ideas. Why school district officials haven’t stepped forward to endorse the plan — or at least seek serious input — is dumbfounding. Maybe the reason is Funkhouser himself, and the fear of other public officials to embrace a mayor that everyone thinks won’t be reelected.

But there seems no such obstacle to official input concerning having taxpayers support another downtown hotel. No problem in finding the necessary economic data to support a $315 million project that will need a big helping of taxpayer money. Yet, somehow the research for how a $100 million bond proposal for Schools First doesn’t seem to be as readily available as building a new hotel. While the positives for a new hotel tumble out of the consultants hired for such research, the benefits of implementing School First relies mainly on the intuition of parents knowing more police and better sidewalks are good for kids, schools and the surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s not a stretch to assume that taxpayers know who benefits from what when it comes to tax subsidies for a hotel or more cops on watch and better sidewalks when it comes to safety for kids walking home from school.

It’s nearly a sure bet the city council will endorse the building of a new hotel. Likewise all of the Funkhouser’s challengers will, to some degree, back a new hotel. The possible exception is Leonard Jonas Hughes. His constituents, and perceived inner city voting bloc, would have to be won over — an effort that distracts from running an election campaign.

What Funkhouser does could depend upon his backers — mainly the Nutter franchise of political underwriting. But Funkhouser could repeat his winning campaign by remaining the outsider, particularly in questioning the building of a taxpayer-supported hotel in comparison to enhancing the safety of school children. Funkhouser moved away from the pack in 2007 by railing against tax increment financing and other taxpayer subsidies.

Of course the big elephant in the room when it comes to putting the city deeper in debt is the earnings tax issue. Politicians shouldn’t assume that voters would continue with a tax that most people at least mildly dislike. Ending the E-tax means the private section would have to pick up the total bill for building any new hotel. 

Isn’t that how the marketplace works, anyway?

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at