I turned 65 on Friday, and we broke out the hats and hooters at our house last night, celebrating well into the night — past 11 o’clock.
The only thing that blemished the party — for me and a few of the guests, anyway — was news that The Star had endorsed Sly James for mayor. (The endorsement editorial that appeared in today’s paper went up online last night.)
I said in a Feb. 26 post that, partly because I had contributed heavily to Mike Burke, I would not attempt to “cover” the race in the traditional journalistic sense, but that I would write about mainstream press coverage of the race.
The Star’s endorsement of James is about as mainstream as it gets. So, what’s up with this endorsement?
First, it obviously hurts Burke and boosts James. The editorial, probably written by Yael Abouhalkah, who has written about City Hall for more than 20 years, casts James as the candidate of “fresh ideas” and Burke as the candidate more familiar with “City Hall’s inner workings.”
OK, there in a nutshell, is the justification. But what’s going on behind the scenes with the seven-member editorial board, which made the decision? Besides Abouhalkah, the board includes publisher Mark Zieman, editorial page editor Miriam Pepper, Matthew Schofield, and columnists E. Thomas McClanahan, Barbara Shelly and Lewis Diuguid.
While I certainly believe the editorial board members worked hard at their decision and tried to come to it based on the pluses and minuses of the two candidates, other factors had to be in play. (I worked at The Star for 36 years and know something about how editorial decisions are made.)
Specifically, I think two factors tilted the board toward James: political correctness and the desire to pick a winner.
Four years ago, the editorial board chose Mark Funkhouser in what turned out to be one of the most ignominious endorsements in Star history. Funkhouser has been a disaster, and Yael and the board were so embarrassed that, a year or so ago, they rescinded the endorsement, and Yael later personally apologized for his ill-fated selection.
Back in ’07, however, The Star didn’t just select Funkhouser. It also passed over a relatively strong black candidate, City Councilman and community icon Alvin Brooks. It was a close race, but Funkhouser won, and he won for one reason: The Kansas City Star.
Once again, this year, The Star was faced with a difficult choice between a black man and a white man. I’ve got to think that The Star — a bastion of liberal thinking (which suits me just fine, by the way) — couldn’t bring itself to oppose another good, black candidate for the second consecutive four-year cycle.
Picking a winner
James started running more than two years ago and spent hundreds of hours developing connections and wooing support from people in various fields of interest. In addition, he proved to be an articulate, engaging candidate. In the primary, he cast himself as an eye- and ear-pleasing anti-Funk — a refreshing contrast to the glowering, sloop-shouldered mayor.
Burke has portrayed himself, justifiably, as the straight-and-steady candidate, the one with the most city-related experience and better prepared to start turning the city around the day he takes office. He says, convincingly, that his learning curve would be much less sharp than James’.
As is often the case, though, charisma is hard to beat. As I have sought out people’s opinions on the contest, a majority of the people I have talked to (those who have an opinion, anyway) say they favor James. Take a look at the yard signs, too, which is usually a good barometer. Again, James has the edge.
James’ populist appeal has not escaped Yael and his fellow board members. They sense that James is the candidate who is playing best on the streets.
Shamed by its selection of Funkhouser, The Star badly needs a winner to get back on track. Collectively, the editorial board members have their finger in the air, and they feel a breeze, propelled by a rush of east-side votes.
Does this mean Burke can’t win? Absolutely not. The race probably will be decided in the Ward Parkway Corridor, which has the highest proportion of registered and frequent voters.
In the corridor, never underestimate a Rockhurst High grad.