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As His Tenure Comes To An End, Kansas City Mayor Sly James Says Goodbye

Chris Haxel
KCUR 89.3
Outgoing Kansas City Mayor Sly James spent much of his farewell cookout greeing a long line of well-wishers.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James doesn’t officially hand over the keys to his office until the end of July, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying a victory lap of sorts Sunday afternoon.

Speaking at an event dubbed “Sly’s Farewell Cookout,” the outgoing mayor told supporters that Kansas City “used to be the city that always wanted to be like Denver or St. Louis, or someplace else.” 

“Those cities now want to be like us,” James said. “Take it to the bank.”

James, who will leave office when mayor-elect Quinton Lucas is sworn in July 31, spent most of the afternoon shaking hands, posing for pictures and sharing a laugh with some of the friends and supporters he’s collected during his eight years in office.

When he took to the stage inside the Urban Youth Academy, a new baseball complex in the 18th and Vine district that he counts among his successes, James said serving as mayor has been "the honor of my professional life."

“I ain't telling you that everything we did was perfect,” James said. “I'm not telling you that the way that we did everything was perfect. I will tell you this: Everything that we did and everything that we tried to do, we did because we love this city and we thought it was in the best interest of this city.”

James, who eschewed his trademark bowtie for more casual attire, also lauded the work of his staff, and thanked city workers for their public service.

“I've dealt with a lot of city governments around the country and I'll tell you… I'll stack up our city workers against any of the city workers in this country and I think pretty much we will win hands down.”

Credit Chris Haxel / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Balloon animals, music, and free food and drink were among the offerings at a farewell cookout held Sunday for outgoing Kansas City Mayor Sly James.

With incoming mayor Lucas and several other current or former city council members in the audience, James alluded to his failed attempt to install a new sales tax to support universal pre-kindergarten in the city.

“We must take care of our children,” James said. “They're going to need skills that we don't have right now. This is going to become an increasingly technological, complicated world and we're going to have to work on it.”

James then pointed to Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell, who opposed the pre-K plan that voters rejected in April.

“I know where Mark’s heart is” on the issue, James said, before adding that Bedell “doesn't have all the tools that he needs to get the job done.”

“It's gonna be up to us to try to help get it done,” James continued. “He is serving some of the kids who need the most resources targeted their way, and we're going to have to find a way to help them.”

Scott Wagner, the mayor pro tem and 1st district councilman who, like James, could not run for reelection due to term limits, gave the outgoing mayor an “A” for his work during the past eight years.

“It can't be understated, the effect that Sly James has had in this city,” Wagner said. “I think his last comment today though, I think, is still very true, when he talks about our youth and our kids. A mayor can't have the type of impact that I'm sure this mayor would have liked to have had on our youth. But I think his message is very poignant and very true. And it's not just up to a mayor, it's not just up to a city council, but it's up to all of us to make sure that there's a future in this city for our young people.”

Among the young people at Sunday’s event were Veronica Johnson’s three children: Michael, Teresa and Vontae, aged 18, 13 and 10, respectively. The family has attended the city’s “Rock the Block” party since its inception, Johnson said, and she makes sure she and her children get a picture with the mayor at every opportunity.

“This one is from five years ago,” she said, pausing briefly as she scrolled through pictures on her phone. “Look how big the kids are now.”

“We came to say goodbye to our old-time mayor,” Johnson said. “He’s done all he can. He’s done what he can for Kansas City.”

Chris Haxel is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email him at chaxel@kcur.org, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisHaxel.

As a reporter covering military and veterans’ affairs, I tell the stories of current and former service members and their families. I hold the government, elected officials and others responsible when they break their promises. And I explore how Americans can best uphold our commitments to those who serve.
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