publisher's note
March 3, 2007



A chance at a different kind of mayor’s race
by Bruce Rodgers

The Alvin Brooks/Mark Funkhouser contest for mayor of Kansas City, MO may prove to be one of the more intriguing campaigns the city has seen in a while. It also may be a milestone of sorts. The significance lies in that both of these men — whichever one is elected — may actually attempt to tackle some of this city’s problems, ones that go beyond image-building.

In the last 50 years, Kansas City has seen mayors who have engaged themselves with the whole community and those whose circle of influence was weighted toward the moneyed class.

H. Roe Bartle, a large man in pounds (over 300) and ego, came from the Chicago school of mayors. He made the powerful pay attention to what he had to say yet never ignored the little guy. Doing favorites was his way of governance. After him came Ilus W. Davis. The avenue of doing favors — the patronage system — was kicked out of city hall and professional management gained a foothold. With Charles B. Wheeler, personality masked any shortcomings this mayor had or that of the city. Richard L. Berkley contained all the excitement of the empty park named after him in his role as a caretaker of the status quo. Emanuel Cleaver found the balance between pleasing the business community while making sure some of that business went into communities ignored by previous mayors. Kay Barnes took the business acumen of Cleaver a step up and focused on downtown, which is about the only focus this mayor has.

Brooks and Funkhouser are insiders. They know city hall and they know what doesn’t work. For Brooks, it’s all about tapping into the potential of people. He talks about tackling crime and the lackluster educational system; issues previous mayors either ignored or shoveled onto some other government entity. Funkhouser wants to give taxpayers a fair shake and their money’s worth from their city government. He also embraces a sort of “small is beautiful” philosophy both in neighborhoods and street-level commerce.

When it comes problems, real or on the horizon, Brooks wants us to recognize ”the road of human possibilities,” while Funkhouser sees the beginning solution as one of putting the city on “a path of fiscal responsibility.” (My quote marks)

Both men pledge to run positive campaigns. It’s a pledge that should be accepted without cynicism. But the question remains whether both men can control their campaigns in order to keep the pledge. This is a political campaign foremost, and the differences in these men in how they would govern as mayor is wide. Those who do business with city hall realize they have a stake in the outcome.

There’s no doubt the business community is nervous about Funkhouser. Since Berkley, developers and their lawyers have had the front door at city hall held open for them. Their allies dominate the city development boards that have the power to spend taxpayer money. Citizens that come before these boards many times feel belittled and snickered at in their belief in democracy. Though organized labor may be uncomfortable with such business-related dominance, they have been complicit in defining this city solely by its commercial veneer.

Some of those same business types also may think that Funkhouser’s support comes by playing to a small segment of the citizenry. It’s a mistake to think that. There’s a wide river of discontent in Kansas City about how the city is run. And there is anger that city hall, and especially Mayor Barnes, treat the general populace as grumbling rubes not willing to accept the trickle-down theory of jobs and big city pride attached to every construction crane breaking the downtown horizon.

Kansas City residents are sick of the condescension. From potholes, to snow removal, to education to questions about what pro team is going to help pay for the Sprint Center and what’s going to happen to Kemper Arena and to when are we going to get light rail. People are concerned; they love this town and they want a mayor who speaks to them about those concerns.

Brooks and Funkhouser do that. They appear to share the view the people have been ignored in this city for a long time. This is why the race is interesting. But that opinion can change.

How much of the desire to win will kill the “people-matter” feeling shared by Brooks and Funkhouser? Will the winning success become all about consultants and money? Will surrogates draw out the negatives of the opposing candidate? Will the race become one of platitudes and generalizations?

Or will Kansas City see a mayor’s race of intelligence and, yes, compassion? Will the people get honesty? Will they get answers to their questions?

Brooks and Funkhouser appear to have a sense of enlightenment about them. It’s an attachment that doesn’t chase away the wants of ordinary people. They’re different, yes. That is why this mayor’s race could be different. Here’s hoping.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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