There have been lots of times that Kansas City has been dubbed "Little Chicago" because of the way this city usually works. Politics in this city can be mean, rough, and downright dirty. I have been aware of several mayors during my lifetime here in Kansas City. Charles Wheeler, Richard Berkley, Emmanuel Cleaver, Kay Barnes were all great mayors as far as I am concerned. They worked hard to improve the city and each of them left their own mark upon the city.
But getting to be mayor of Kansas City was not an easy thing for any of them. The campaigns here in Kansas City are notorious for mudslinging and innuendos that put a cloud over a candidates humanity. When they ran for for re-election it was even worse because their opponents had a record to point to of what these mayors had achieved and how they had achieved it over the previous four years.
The modern era of political corruption in Kansas City dates back to the late twenties when the Pendergast machine virtually ran the city. The machine picked out who would hold a variety of offices in and around Kansas City. Not only did they run the city but they had a heavy hand in Jackson County politics as well and had substantial influence in the State of Missouri politics. It was the Pendergast machine that first gave Jackson County a little known politician by the name of Harry Truman. It was the machine that gave Harry Truman to the state as a US Senator from where he would become Vice-President and eventually President of the United States.
The machine was finally shut down in the fifties with Boss Tom going to prison for tax evasion. That is the same thing they got Al Capone on. It seems like whenever the feds can't pin what they want to pin on you, they end up with tax evasion.
Once the machine was dismembered the city went to a City Manager model of government. The City Manager was hired by the city to help the mayor and city council run the city. It is up to the city manager to keep an eye on costs and to basically be sure there aren't any back room deals going on. I am not so sure it actually works that way. When city managers haven't allowed the mayor and council to do what they wanted in the past, he was usually fired and the city went back to running the way it wanted to.
The campaign for Mayor and council in the past have been filled with allegations of a sort that would make Boss Tom proud if he were alive today. There are some big civic organizations that now run the city in a manner of speaking depending on if their Candidate wins. There is the Citizens Council, Freedom Incorporated, The Kansas City Star, The Call Newspaper and a few others that aren't quite as large. It is the Candidates job to get endorsed by as many of these organizations as possible. That is where the dirt starts to fly. These men and women aren't campaigning to the voters of the city for these positions, they campaign to the organizations for endorsements.
Once endorsed by one of the major organizations they have a powerful source to gather information on their opponents during the campaign. This brings the run for mayor and council into a mud pile that we haven't seen since day two of Woodstock. It gets nasty. It gets dirty. It gets downright mean. People reputations are put on the line as they try to serve the city. Some men have been destroyed and humiliated by running in a city election. That is the chance you take when taking on Kansas City politics.
Things changed this year however. I am not sure anyone knows why things changed but it was a dramatic change. My theory is that the incumbent mayor was so unpopular after his first term that there was no need to throw mud at him. I don't think the candidates quite knew how to run in an election without a viable target for them.
The current Mayor lost in the primary leaving two men that both seemed to be sincere and trustworthy. They split the endorsements of the organizations but even when the organizations endorsement came down, they seemed to always have something nice to say about the man who didn't get the endorsement.
This carried on into the general election. Each man running for mayor left open the idea that he wouldn't mind his opponent being a part of the government under his term as mayor. This was unheard of. You are suppose to be slamming that opponent, dragging him down to hell and yourself along with him. There were supposed to be shouting matches and releasing of personal finances and bits and pieces of a candidates personal life. A good hooker story was always fair game in the past it seemed.
This year wasn't like that. This campaign was so quiet and polite outsiders would not have known a major election was taking place. The debates were polite and the two men actually answered the questions posed to them instead of dodging a question to impune the other man's character. It was like a breath of fresh air in a city where politics rule everything.
Who were these two men you ask? Mike Burke and Sly James. The pre election polls showed them running at 50-50. People I talked to would decide to be for one or the other but in reality, it wouldn't bother them a lot if their candidate lost the election. There was that much trust in each of the men. The majority of the city just wanted the current administration gone and they ended up with two very decent men running for what history has shown to be one of the most political positions in the midwest, Mayor of Kansas City.
Sly James ended up wining the election. It wasn't a landslide but he won by a fair margin. Burke's concession speech was polite and gracious as were his supporters who listened to him. James' victory speech had much the same tone as Burkes concession speech. And the biggest miracle of all? A campaign suggestion was kept. Not a promise, but a suggestion and Sly James said he had a couple of positions in mind for Mike Burke in his administration.
For the people of Kansas City, let's hope this is a new era of politics that we are entering into. Hopefully we can set an example for other large cities across the country as to how to run a clean and gracious campaign. Let Kansas City become a model for the future.
I do love this city and today I am so very proud to be a citizen of it.