‘Funk-istis’ by no means
That distant noise you may hear when you go downtown, the one that sounds like someone kicking over aluminum trashcans in a narrow alley…it’s similar to the reaction Kansas City’s political establishment is having in dealing with Mark Funkhouser’s win over Alvin Brooks for mayor.
Though polling had Funkhouser with a narrow lead weeks going into the March 27 vote, many thought that Brooks — under the guidance of campaign guru Pat Gray and his NorthStar staff — would pull in a victory with a strong turnout from African American voters. But considering the overall turnout — less than 30 percent of registered voters — the appeal of this mayoral race, regardless of race or ethnicity, mirrors the ongoing decline of political participation by the public.
As much as Funkhouser’s supporters want to believe “Funk-istis” spread across the city, the fact remains that Funkhouser got more of his supporters to the polls than Brooks. That in itself is a little strange considering the Funkhouser campaign didn’t mount a get-out-the-vote effort on election day under the opinion that “people are bothered enough” anyway. Couple that with Funkhouser’s lack of central direction in reaching out for support, the use of a loud orange for a campaign color and the overall loosey-goosey approach in promoting his candidacy; it’s no wonder Gray declared after Brooks’ defeat that he’s had enough of running political campaigns.
Despite what Star columnist Steve Kraske says about Gray running a “milquetoast campaign,” if Gray had captured another 1,200 votes, Brooks would be mayor-elect. But comparing the two campaigns reveals a little more as to why Funkhouser won.
Gray did what he usually does: line up his candidate’s support early on, bank the money to run the campaign, research the opponent to plot a strategy, do polling, pace the release of information or attacks at certain campaign junctures, create top-notch TV ads and mailers, and work the streets. As for grassroots, Gray had the perfect candidate in the energetic Brooks.
On flip side, however, Brooks’ nature is not attack-dog like. He’s a nice guy, cares about people and having him in front of an aggressive campaign doesn’t fit his persona. Plus, Brooks had little to hang his hat on in his two terms as councilman other than he supported what Mayor Barnes had done. And, there’s the matter if Brooks had street cred, especially in the 3rd District, beyond consoling crime victims. Living in and representing the 6th District didn’t help project credibility to some folks living around 39th and Benton Boulevard.
Gray is a political pro and Funkhouser isn’t (but he’s getting there). But Funkhouser had some things going Brooks’ campaign didn’t. Funkhouser’s theme — “A City That Works” — came early on and gives every resident who drives KC streets a vision to go from. Brooks’ “leadership and vision” message — however true and positive it was — is an old-school generic idea meant not to inflame, but at this cynical stage of America’s political life, it did little to inspire either.
Funkhouser was able to attract young supporters also. His honesty, directness and concise intelligence gave people confidence. Wife Gloria added some spice and fun to the equation. Funkhouser’s campaign, unlike Gray’s for Brooks, used the Internet and his web site extensively. If you wanted to know what Funkhouser thought that day, go to his blog, want to know his friends, visit his MySpace page, watch a video of his dog, people talking about him, Mayor Barnes praising him — go to his web site. Funkhouser used his web site to communicate and extend his candidacy, and it cost a lot less money than Gray spent planting Brooks’ signs around the metro.
If Gray is losing sleep wondering where he could have gotten those 1,200 votes, it might have been hiring someone to juice up Brooks’ online presence.
The Kansas City Star helped Funkhouser, also. The newspaper’s endorsement, and repeat editorials on Funkhouser, negated any questions as to whether Funkhouser was politically mature enough to be mayor. And, most importantly, the Star’s blessing set the tone of coverage by other media.
Kansas City is basically a one-media-outlet town. The Star has its fingers across other media outlets. There’s cross-pollination of Star personnel at KCUR, KCPT and the Channel 41. The other television news coverage follows the Star’s lead in political coverage, mainly because the newspaper does its best to stroke political reporters at the local TV stations with references in news stories and on the paper’s Buzz Blog.
The Star holds the carrot before the horse on which other media ride. With the exception of The Pitch, The Sun in Johnson County, KKFI, this web site and a couple of other locally maintained web sites, most of the news you get — from wherever — had a Star filter attached to it first.
As Funkhouser takes office, it’s going to be interesting to see how the newspaper treats the new mayor once he wades into the problems facing this city. Already the paper has hinted that any need to grant TIF and other tax incentives to the Wizards in order to build a soccer stadium on the Bannister Mall site would be a “test” of his convictions in using incentives.
During an earlier interview with Funkhouser, I asked about giving out “generous tax benefits” to rebuild the Bannister Mall site and what he “would be looking at in a proposal” for a soccer stadium there. Funkhouser said:
“I want to know what the impact is on the overall bottom line on the city. I want to know how this fits with what residents out there want. I want to know what the plans are for the future for maintaining. What’s the lease going to look like, the arrangement. I want to know a lot of the details of the plan, a lot of transparency, probably more than the folks in charge want to have.”
Then Funkhouser closed by saying, “Bottom line…would I rather have an abandon mall or a state-of-the-art soccer stadium? Well, yeah!”
How Funkhouser establishes his loose-limbed campaign staff and their outlook into the mayor’s office may determine how effective he is in following through on his agenda. He has already hinted that he seeks a visible and fairly quick approach to tackling basic services — things citizens can see are improving. This shows his political growth and beginning adherence to what got him elected.
Following through on his education summit idea could bring him some trust in the African American community, or it could be a political landmine. Measuring educational success is not as precise as doing an audit on tax increment financing. Schools are an emotional issue, particularly in the Kansas City School District.
Progressives are going to expect him to begin coming up with answers about financing light rail. But there’s a fair amount of speculation that Funkhouser is respected across the state line, perhaps making a regional answer to the question more feasible.
On all these issues and more, The Kansas City Star will weigh in, and the rest of the media will follow. Yet KC-style politics isn’t in remission, so things could get testy before Funkhouser really makes his mark.
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.
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