Choosing a mayor —
After the mayoral primary in late February, conventional wisdom had it that Kansas City, MO had two very good candidates going into the general election. The cliché’ about voting “for the lesser of two evils” evaporated and accolades descended upon Alvin Brooks and Mark Funkhouser.
At one of the earliest mayoral forums at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Midtown, the moderator seemed almost giddy at the choice of picking between “the best of the best” come March 27. Funkhouser and Brooks took it in with smiles, interacting with one another in a relaxing display of easygoing competitiveness.
When asked about running a clean campaign, Brooks said that he had instructed his staff not to “bring me dirt” and that “anyone who says a bad thing about Mark” would be fired.
Funkhouser said the campaign was about ideas and that if he said anything bad about “Alvin — my wife would slap me.”
As far as it’s known, Funkhouser’s wife has not slapped him and no one on Brooks’ campaign has been fired. Though relations between the two have cooled on the campaign trail as the public vote looms on Tuesday, both men have avoided direct attacks on one another. But the level of intensity has risen, evident in comments by Mayor Kay Barnes in recent days concerning a TIF (tax increment financing) draft audit and Brooks’ corresponding remarks on the KCUR’s Up To Date radio show. There, Brooks said Funkhouser’s decision to run for mayor occurred while he was city auditor thus giving him a “platform” to run on and that it “taints” the results of the newly released draft TIF audit.
Funkhouser responded by saying, “The audits are done by an institution not by me.”
Barnes attacked the draft TIF audit, released by the current city auditor, which pointed to a $233 million shortfall between revenues that were projected to come from TIF projects compared to actual revenues brought to the city. She disputed the numbers and alleged that Funkhouser had somehow orchestrated the audit’s release to help his campaign.
Yet the sharpness of Barnes’ response seemed more than just defending her mayoral judgment and helping Brooks’ campaign. More than anything it highlighted an understated element of the Brooks/Funkhouser contest: This race is referendum on Barnes’ leadership.
Brooks is considered one who will continue the Barnes’ approach to economic development — extensive use of tax incentives — and Funkhouser will closely scrutinize their use, likely slowing their deployment.
Also, if Funkhouser became mayor and he revealed poorly structured deals — he continues to criticized the AEG management agreement for Sprint Arena — the city made to revitalize downtown that could undercut the city’s financial stability, how would that affect Barnes’ congressional ambitions? One could picture Barnes being labeled as reckless when it comes to taxpayer money if she enters the race in the 6th District against Sam Graves.
No doubt, Barnes is worried about her legacy and sincerely believes she has taken the city in the right direction. Many agree with her, including Brooks. But it remains to be seen come election night if Barnes’ passionate interjection into the Brooks campaign in defending her TIF embrace helps or hurts him. Still, in the minds of many voters, this election is about Barnes, too.
However, detach Barnes from the race, move TIF to being an attention-getter only political junkies follow closely, and what are the differences between Alvin Brooks and Mark Funkhouser?
Little separates the two when they outline what the city’s challenges are: improving city services, combating crime, jump-starting light rail and working to improve the quality of education from the KCMO School District. What is different is how each man would approach the job of being mayor of Kansas City.
Brooks repeatedly says he wants to be the “People’s Mayor.” Such an approach is just a continuation of what Brooks has been most of his life. He wants — and likes — being out in the neighborhood; he considers it his responsibility to help those people who have suffered in some way, he wants to console crime victims and cajole those who may seek to turn their lives around. In short, Brooks accepts people as they are.
“I think some things just don’t happen; I think things happen for a reason,” Brooks said in an interview with this journalist. “And I think some things are very much directed by God.
“I think God gives each of us an opportunity to find our niche in life. Some people live and die and never find it, others find it in all the wrong places. And I think at an early age I found it and it stuck with me until today. And I feel blessed and most thankful.”
Brooks lasted ten years as a police officer. That fact is probably a testament to his ability to get along with people and his likeability. Brooks doesn’t project the dour matter-of-factness of a cop and said he didn’t particularly like carrying a gun. But he likes telling cop stories. One story was when he happened along a robbery while on an errand for his wife while off duty.
“I lived at 2632 Park, that’s four blocks the other side of the old Municipal Stadium, and went down to pick up something for my wife at 18th and Brooklyn. There was a four-way stop sign at 19th and I just stopped. A lady come up to me on the right side and said, ‘Aren’t you Officer Brooks?’
“I said, ‘Yes, maam.’ And she said, ‘Those fellows over there are robbing those folks.’
“These three fellows had about a dozen people lined up against the wall,” remembers Brooks. “One had a gun and the rest are going through their pockets robbin’ them.”
There was no such thing as 911 then and Brooks wasn’t in a patrol car.
“So I just drove this old Buick, my dad’s car, right up there, hit those seal beam lights and lit up the whole building and I said, ‘Police officer, drop the gun! You’re under arrest!’
“So this fellow who had the gun dropped the gun. I made all of them go down on their knees. I eased up and got the gun, and I had a gun.”
Later, Brooks says, a fellow officer filed a complaint against him for not having his police-issued weapon with him and for not giving the officer help in making an arrest.
“Well, hell, I already made the arrest,” says Brooks. “They were there on their knees waiting for him (the police officer) with their hands over their heads. What more do you want? They didn’t know I didn’t have a gun.”
Brooks calls his time on the Kansas City Police Department “social work.” And for him, being mayor is an extension of helping people. Brooks says downtown is undergoing a renaissance and he wants to extend that renaissance to people, both in how they behave with others and in doing the things they do for themselves. If ever there would be a mayor who believed in people’s potential, it would be Brooks.
That’s not to say Funkhouser doesn’t believe in people. He just tempers the belief against his 18-year experience as city auditor. What he dealt with at times as a city employee, he calls “a culture of inside dealing,” and it had a lot to do with his decision to run for mayor.
“It was driving me nuts to see how badly we were misusing the people’s trust, and their dollars and doing things that were just…”
And then I asked Funkhouser if the word “corrupt” was one he could use to complete the sentence?
“I think I would use the word ‘corrupt,’” says Funkhouser, “because the audit would go over things like legal fees (or) fees for legal services in component units and what we said was, ‘There’s no bid, there’s a lawyer who gets legal services (work) without content.’ When we interviewed, we ask, ‘What’s up with this?’ And they would say, ‘It’s just a political plum.’”
Funkhouser’s indignation comes through when talking of such things. One could expect him, if he becomes mayor, to be a hands-on type of administrator, closely watching the details of city business. Not so, he says.
“I don’t want to be city manager,” Funkhouser says. “I want to be mayor; I want to be a political leader. I want to know what’s going on; I want to scrutinize what’s going on and want to direct policy and direction that I and other council members and citizens want it to be, and I want to do the accountability to assure it goes that way. But the mayor’s job, as I can see, would not leave time for hands-on.”
He says this even though he doesn’t like the word “politician,” preferring the term “elected official.” It may be more than just a way of distancing himself from opponents of his campaign. Maybe Funkhouser likes the elected official term better because it adapts more to his personality while seeking to be mayor.
“I’m gunna do what I’ve always done,” he says. “I mean for 30 years now I’ve been working directly for elected officials.
“The (city) council is like the first twelve people you meet at Wal-Mart. You don’t’ get to choose. You get what you get, and that’s how I feel. I’m going to get what I get and I’m going to work with them. As my friend Avert (Asjes III, campaign treasurer) would say, ‘You’ve got to find the better angels in every person and find a way to work with them.’
“They have been elected,” Funkhouser continues, “because they have been through a process where citizens have determined they have enough knowledge about the city and about the human beings here — they’re not electing accountants and engineers, they’re electing people — who understand the values, theoretically, of the people voting for them.”
The values of Brooks and Funkhouser coincide — civic duty and personal commitment. Sure, maybe one is more a romantic and one more a pragmatist. Maybe one sees the glass half-empty, the other half-full.
But it’s democracy time in Kansas City. No one said it was easy to choose but at least it wasn’t too messy.
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.
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