Kansas City’s mayoral candidates went eastward Saturday, and not all received a warm reception.
In fact, two of the candidates, Mayor Mark Funkhouser and Councilwoman Deb Hermann, got a downright chilly response. The forum drew a crowd of about 100 people at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center on Blue Parkway.
The candidates on hand, besides Funkhouser and Hermann, were Mike Burke, Jim Rowland, Sly James and Charles B. Wheeler. Henry Klein was absent.
Under the rules of the forum, sponsored by The Call newspaper, people in the audience had a chance to question the candidates directly. When that part of the program arrived, about 10 people quickly lined up behind the microphone.
One questioner put this question to Funkhouser:
“Why is it we should give you a second term?”
Funkhouser said he had initiated several programs in the 3rd and 5th council districts, including his Schools First program, which aims to improve curbs and sidewalks around public schools. In addition, he said, “I’ve been in the community over and over.”
His explanation drew no applause or expressions of approval from the audience.
Another person told Hermann he had never seen her in the inner city. “I’m sorry if that’s your perception,” she said. “But that’s not the case.”
Like Funkhouser, Hermann got very little, if any, positive response from the audience throughout the event.
Another candidate who got roughed up a bit was Rowland, who has secured the endorsement of Freedom Inc., the city’s major black political organization.
After Rowland bragged that $180 million of the $700 million Sports Complex improvement project had gone to women- and minority-owned businesses, Eric Wesson, an event moderator who is news editor of The Call, challenged him, saying he didn’t think the minority role was as significant as Rowland depicted it.
The audience’s lack of embrace for Funkhouser, Burke, Rowland and Hermann could indicate that each will have a problem getting a significant number of votes from black residents. Funkhouser has never been popular with black voters; Burke and Hermann hail from the Northland; and Rowland lives in the 4th District, in western Kansas City.
Burke got a spot of good news earlier in the day, however, when six black ministers, including Wallace S. Hartsfield and Wallace S. Hartsfield II, endorsed him. A Burke for Mayor press release quoted Hartsfield II as saying: “Mike Burke is the only mayoral candidate that backs up his words of inclusiveness with real actions. We feel that he is truly committed to working with our communities, fighting to have our voices heard and represented in city government.”
The only candidate who received anything close to a warm reception at the forum was Sly James, who is the only black mayoral candidate. He drew applause a few times, including once when he countered a moderator’s assertion that the City Council had no direct role in the quality of education in the Kansas City School District.
“The district is not under the direct jurisdiction of the city,” James said, “but we certainly have a moral obligation and citizen obligation to address education.”
Nevertheless, James, a lawyer, has his work cut out for him on the East Side, partly because he doesn’t live there and partly because he didn’t get Freedom’s endorsement. Also, this is his first run for public office, while all of the other candidates have run for or held public office before.
It appears at this point that the vote in the black wards could be very dispersed in the Feb. 22 primary. That would hurt Rowland and help Hermann, whose popularity in the Northland might give her the single largest voting block.
Burke expects to do well in all parts of the city, but he has no single area that he can count on for great numbers of votes.
And, so, with three weeks remaining in the campaign, here’s how it is shaping up:
Klein and Wheeler are out of it. No chance. Funkhouser is fading fast, as the other candidates have started to use him for the punching bag that he is. James sounds good but has no record to back up his words. Rowland comes off as knowledgeable but antiseptic, seldom connecting with his audience.
That leaves the two Northlanders — Hermann and Burke — as the favorites, at least in my book. Hermann comes across as genuine, unpretentious and level-headed. Burke, although hardly charismatic, is as solid as a rock and has built up a trove of goodwill citywide, partly through his service on just about every economic-development agency that operates in the city.
They are the best candidates, and, for the future of Kansas City, let’s hope they are the top two finishers on Feb. 22.