Quinton Lucas takes office as Kansas City mayor on August 1. No matter how politically skilled and well prepared Lucas is, he's likely to discover that the job is harder than he thought.
Before the election, KCUR asked former mayors Charles Wheeler, Emanuel Cleaver, Kay Barnes, Mark Funkhouser and Sly James for their insights and lessons learned. They said their advice would apply no matter who won. (Richard Berkley did not respond to interview requests).
These former mayors sometimes had notably different perspectives, especially about the hot-button issue of tax incentives. But all said being mayor was one of the best jobs they ever had, despite the hard work and slings and arrows from the public.
Here’s some key advice these former mayors have for New Mayor.
Current occupation: At age 93, Wheeler said he’s still running for office, although he wouldn’t say which one. If elected, he said he’ll serve just one term.
Greeting to the new mayor: “Well, I say good luck, because politics is mainly a matter of luck. It’s a very hard job. Anybody who dabbles in politics walks away most of the time because it’s such hard work. I personally thrive on that and I loved it.”
Key piece of advice: “The new mayor should take a page out of my book and go wherever there’s a problem.” When he was mayor, Wheeler wanted a new city manager to replace John Taylor. He met resistance for two years from some council colleagues but eventually got approval to hire Bob Kipp. That made all the difference, Wheeler said. “The last six years of my office holding in the city were very pleasant.” Wheeler said he likes longstanding city manager Troy Schulte “a great deal” but it will be up to the new mayor and council to decide whether they can work well with Schulte or need a change.
Words of caution: Wheeler, whose tenure saw the opening of Kansas City International Airport and construction of Kemper Arena and Bartle Hall, said the new mayor should realize that big projects take a long time in Kansas City because the public often resists change. “We’re not the most vigorous of cities in the United States. We’ve got a lot of deep South attributes you know as far as energy is concerned. And we can’t mosey along if we’re going to compete with cities like Indianapolis.” But Wheeler said it’s still important to make bold moves to keep Kansas City in the forefront of cities. “We’re recognized as a booming city,” he said. “Now that’s what we’ve got to continue.”
Current occupation: Seven-term Congressman for Missouri’s 5th District.
Greeting to the new mayor: “Being mayor places one on center stage of the American political drama. There’s no other position quite like it and they’ll remember that the rest of their lives.”
Key piece of advice: Cleaver said Kansas City mayors rise or fall based on their ability to work with the city council, so those relationships are crucial. He said he worked hard to promote the causes of his colleagues, such as Jim Glover with the Midtown Costco and Home Depot project, and their success helped him succeed.
Words of caution: Cleaver said the public can be highly critical but mayors can’t let that stop them. He said he faced fierce opposition to improvements along Brush Creek and to the new public art on top of Bartle Hall. “I made a decision with what’s called Sky Stations on Bartle Hall and the public went absolutely just bonkers,” he said. But now, he said, both the Sky Stations and Brush Creek are iconic attractions in Kansas City’s landscape.
Top priorities for the new mayor: Cleaver said the new mayor should tackle the thorny problem of affordable housing but will need the federal government’s help. Another key issue, he said, is tax incentives. Cleaver recognized that the public’s attitude has changed since he gave generous tax breaks to lure Harley Davidson to Kansas City (the plant near Kansas City International Airport closed on May 24). He said the new mayor will have to decide how to allocate tax incentives without “draining the municipal treasury in favor of billionaire developers.”
Current occupation: Park University professor and director of university engagement.
Greeting for the new mayor: “Being mayor is the best job I’ve ever had. I say, it will be a great ride.”
Words of caution: Barnes said she was sometimes stung by public opposition or attacks. But she learned that if she would just listen to the grievances, she could turn a negative into a positive. “When I first came into office, I was taken aback by the number of leaders in the African American community who did not trust me. I was puzzled by that,” she said. But after meeting with those groups over a period of months, she was able to convert some critics into her best allies. “I think it’s important when you are the mayor to never burn a bridge with other people, and boy is that tough to do.”
Top priorities for the new mayor: Barnes cited ongoing challenges such as poverty, race relations, inadequate housing in some neighborhoods, and vast infrastructure needs given Kansas City’s huge geographic size. Barnes used generous tax incentives to revitalize Kansas City’s downtown, and she said the public needs to realize the benefits from those types of deals.
“I think there’s a misconception among some in our community that economic development is only about money going to developers,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. So there’s a huge educational process that needs to continue to occur. Tax incentives are a critical part of our having a healthy community.”
Current occupation: Publisher of Governing Magazine in Washington, D.C.
Greeting for the new mayor: “You’ve just landed the best job in politics which is also the most difficult job in politics. It’s the best because it’s close to the people and you get to do stuff that really, really matters…. It’s really hard because there are so many things that are in the road.... There are people who make a lot of money whose job it is to stop you.”
Words of caution: Funkhouser, who had spent years as city auditor before he became mayor, said the political job was a lot tougher than he anticipated. “My first lesson is to not try to do anything big right off the bat,” he said, urging the new mayor to get comfortable with the new council and the machinery of leading city government. Funkhouser said he won election with a “ragtag” group of volunteers, but he also strongly advised hiring some political professionals for the mayor’s staff. “I needed to have tapped a couple of really experienced pros. We couldn’t all be amateurs and we were.”
Top priorities for the new mayor: Funkhouser said too many politicians concentrate on a BS — “build something” — strategy, but he said the new mayor should focus on addressing Kansas City’s serious violent crime problem. “All the fancy buildings that the BS Party does don’t matter as long as people are killing each other and as long as people are terrified of crime.”
Funkhouser’s second warning is that a recession is coming and will hit the next mayor, as the Great Recession struck while he was mayor. “Whatever you care about, you want to help the people, the vulnerable, the poor, is going to be put in jeopardy, serious jeopardy if you don’t start from day one getting the city ready to deal with a recession. Batten down the hatches. Don’t make some large commitment forever because the storm is coming.”
Serving: 2011 to July 31, 2019
Future plans: Writing, mediating and consulting on issues he cares about.
Greeting for the new mayor: “You can’t be fake in this job for long. They will find you and they will let you down and they will destroy you. You have to learn who you are and you have to be comfortable with that.”
Words of caution: James said it’s essential to maintain an even keel, and not get too high or too low in the job, despite the inevitable complaints or fawning praise that may be showered on the mayor. “If you’re not a person of your word,” he said, “you’re going to get hurt because you talk to a lot of people and they’re always wanting something from you. So don’t promise what you can’t deliver and deliver that you promise.”
Top priorities: James said the city must continue to promote economic development. He warned that capping incentives “will stop business in the city and it will take us decades to rebuild it.” He also said the next mayor must continue to push hard for great educational opportunities for the city’s children and must work to rein in Kansas City’s ballooning pension obligations.
And James said planning for a looming recession is crucial. “When that economic downturn comes, we need to have people in place who have been there, done that, know what to do.”
Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.