Which side of Sly James will Kansas City remember: the Bow Tie or the Bully?
Kansas City Mayor Sly James uses a phone app to track his time left in office. He can’t check it often enough.
“Ninety-one days, twelve hours, 34 minutes,” he boisterously told an out-of-town developer at a ceremony marking construction progress on the new downtown convention hotel.
“Seventy-seven days, 14 hours, 12 minutes,” he announced to a class of middle-school students at a charter school.
The clock will hit zero on July 31, when either Jolie Justus or Quinton Lucas is sworn in as the new mayor. That leaves a narrowing window in which to contemplate two versions of James’ legacy: the Bow Tie, and the Bully.
The Bow Tie (James nearly always wears one) cracks jokes, high fives kids and poses for “selfies with Sly.” He speaks his mind, and people love him for it. He is rightly credited with helping to restore Kansas City’s confidence after the Great Recession and the dour single term of Mayor Mark Funkhouser.
“He restored a sense of fun and swagger,” says Phil Glynn, a businessman who jumped into this spring’s crowded primary for mayor. “He made people feel good about Kansas City.”
The Bully, less well known to the public, berates people for asking questions, brooks no disagreement, and has little patience for niceties like consensus.
“I’ve never worked with anyone like Sly, and I hope I never have to again,” says Councilwoman Teresa Loar.
On a drizzly morning in early May, attending a “topping ceremony” at the 800-room Loews hotel at 17th and Baltimore streets, James is in full Bow Tie mode. He’s proud of bringing a major convention hotel to downtown without placing the city on the hook for bond payments. (He doesn’t mention the hefty tax breaks granted to developers.) As a crane lifts a beam to the newly finished rooftop, James jokes about sending some people up with it, presumably to disappear into the fog.
Now, in his office on the 29th floor of City Hall, the mayor is diving into a concoction he assembled a few minutes before at the salad bar of the downtown Cosentino’s supermarket. He lifts the lid of a take-out container to reveal layers of pepperoni, banana peppers, and other toppings resting on lettuce and drenched with ranch. I see tomatoes and maybe some cucumbers. But calling this dish a salad, as the mayor does, is to malign salads.
I have seen the Bow Tie and feel it is my job to catch a glimpse of the Bully. So I start by raising a sore subject — Kansas City voters’ overwhelming rejection, in April, of James’ idea to raise the sales tax so that all 4-year-old children in Kansas City could have access to high-quality preschool. James put the issue on the ballot over the objections of leaders of all of the city’s school districts.
What went wrong, I ask.
There is silence. James works on a few mouthfuls of his appalling lunch. He chuckles. More silence.
“Couple of things,” he finally says. “I think there were some tax issues. I get that. But at the end of the day, when the school districts didn’t get behind it, that hurt.”
Now he starts working up some steam. “I will say this, I kept hearing [about the school districts], ‘They’ve got a plan, they’ve got a plan, they’ve got a plan.’ I never heard the plan. I still haven’t heard the plan.”
Clearly, James is furious at school superintendents, who claimed the mayor rolled out his plan without consulting them.
“That’s bull,” he says, adding that school leaders have been involved in meetings about pre-K for years. “For them to say they had no idea, that’s just total BS.”
People who know James say he operates on a three-step formula: Here’s the problem, here’s the solution, let’s go.
“It’s just not in his nature to sit in his office knowing a problem exists and not fix it,” says Joni Wickham, the mayor’s chief of staff.
The hurry-up approach partly explains how James has managed to accomplish as much as he has in eight years as mayor. But it leaves little room for consensus or warm feelings.
“Collaboration isn’t his thing,” says Councilwoman Katheryn Shields. “He basically comes up with an idea, puts it in front of a small group of people, and says, ‘We’re moving forward.’”
People who get in James’ way are most likely to see the Bully in action. No one knows that better than Loar, who was elected to the City Council four years ago as a vocal skeptic of a new, single terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
While waiting to be sworn in, Loar attended a reception for newly elected city officials at a Kansas City T-Bones baseball game. There, James confronted Loar.
“He was in my face and pointing his finger at me,” she says. “He said he didn’t want to hear that I was spreading rumors around the city about not getting a new airport because, by god, that’s what we were going to do.”
James phoned Loar the next morning to apologize. But their relationship only got worse as time went on.
“Even though we tried on numerous occasions to kind of right the wrong, we never really did,” Loar says. “I think he saw me as a threat to his agenda.”
The 2015 election, which James won easily, brought a new class of council members more likely to ask questions and divert from the mayor’s priorities. While the Bow Tie continued to charm Kansas Citians and others, the Bully emerged more often in City Hall.
“Lord knows, the back and forth we’ve had during the airport saga has been the stuff of legend,” says Lucas, whose relationship with James has soured during his four years on the council.
Ah yes, the airport saga.
If there was a moment when the Bow Tie began to unravel, it was when word leaked in the spring of 2017 that James was talking with Kansas City engineering firm Burns & McDonnell about a no-bid contract to design a new terminal at KCI.
Most council members were stunned. The Kansas City Star’s editorial board went ballistic. The council hired its own legal counsel to figure out what to do. James was forced to back down and put the contract out for bid, kicking off a mess of a process that blundered on for months.
I figure a mention of The Star’s editorial board might be a good way to awaken the Bully. So I ask James about the newspaper’s frequent assertion that he is an arrogant and secretive operator.
“I don’t give a damn what the Star writes,” he says. “I don’t get happy when they praise me, and I don’t get mad when they criticize me.”
But when I press him about the secrecy rap, he seems mad enough.
“What really pisses me off is I worked a long time to make sure I have a clean name,” he says. “I don’t ask people to like me. I don’t ask people to care about me. But at the end of the day, if somebody comes around and tries to act like I’m doing something underhanded, then we’ve got a serious problem.”
James’ version of the early Burns & McDonnell negotiations goes like this: Polling showed low public support for a new terminal at KCI. He told the city’s business community to step up with a plan. Burns & McDonnell stepped up.
“They called us and they said, ‘We want to meet and tell you what we came up with.’ And we went and met,” James says. “Duh. Should we put out a press release? Should we call the council and say we’re gonna have a meeting?
His office was getting ready to brief council members when word leaked, James says. “The next thing you know, they go running to the newspaper and say there was some kind of a deal. There was no deal.”
Councilman Scott Wagner, who has served as mayor pro tem during James’ second term, says the Burns & McDonnell fiasco reflects the mayor’s impatience to get things done.
“I think he thought, ‘I finally have a pathway. Let’s go forward,’” Wagner says. “If there was a mistake, it was thinking this was the only option, that this would be the only group interested.”
Not surprisingly, other groups were interested. Edgemoor, an out-of-town firm, ended up receiving the contract and recently broke ground on the $1.5 billion project.
When he first ran for office, in 2011, James touted his successes as a trial lawyer and mediator; it was his way of making the case that he could get things done. That now strikes some people as funny. “I’ve never seen the mediator,” Loar says.
“Mediation always starts with one very basic premise: You have to have two people who want to get to a deal,” James says, still munching on his lunch, which is now down mostly to lettuce and ranch dressing.
When things don’t get done in the political arena, or in courthouse negotiations, it’s usually because someone doesn’t want to deal, the mayor says. “It’s all about winning or somebody has horribly misevaluated the reality of the situation,” James says. But he seems oblivious to the idea that, at least some of the time, that somebody might be him.
James points out that many of his negotiations have ended successfully. The list includes the downtown streetcar, voter approval of $800 million in bonds for infrastructure projects, redevelopment of a shopping center at Linwood Boulevard and Prospect Avenue, construction of an Aldi’s supermarket in an East Side food desert, restoration of the Beacon Hill neighborhood, construction of the East Patrol police station and crime lab, and dedicated funding for city parks and recreation.
“We’ve had a hell of a lot more successes than we’ve had losses, and those things have been a result of mediations, negotiations, and getting people to get on the same plane and fly off together,” James says.
Of course, some passengers are happier than others.
No mayor in recent memory has drawn millennials into his or her orbit like James has. Younger people appreciate the mayor’s charisma, accessibility, and social media savvy, says Jared Campbell, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association.
“Millenials want to be engaged, and he gave them a vehicle to do that,” Campbell says. “He was willing to listen and talk and engage with anyone.”
James also gets props for being an education mayor. He’s visited most schools in city limits and founded Turn the Page KC, which now operates as a nonprofit focused on helping students reach proficiency in reading by the end of third grade. For all of the criticism of his preschool proposal, it was in keeping with the mayor’s sincere desire to put Kansas City children on a better path through education.
Oddly, given James’ barrier-breaking achievements as a black lawyer in Kansas City and his status as the city’s second African-American mayor, the mayor has been on the outs with leaders of Kansas City’s black political organizations from the beginning.
Friction with groups like Freedom Inc., the black political club, was inevitable. James did not come from their fold and isn’t beholden to their agendas. In 2015, he didn’t bother seeking Freedom’s endorsement in his re-election bid.
But civil rights groups haven’t warmed to James, either. Leaders of the local chapters of the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference declined to comment for this story.
On James’ watch, development on and around Troost Avenue has pushed Kansas City’s historic racial dividing line closer to Prospect Avenue. “That didn’t happen by accident,” he says. But plenty of neighborhoods on the East Side and elsewhere continue to struggle.
“I think he did a lot for the richer neighborhoods. I don’t think that he did a whole lot for us,” says Mary Queen, who lives in the Washington-Wheatley neighborhood and wages a daily struggle against illegal dumping, housing blight, and threat of violent crime.
Wagner, the mayor pro tem, points out that James’ background as a lawyer and negotiator has positioned him for transactional successes, like the airport terminal, the streetcar line, and the convention hotel. Foundational successes, like clearing out blight and making the city safer, are harder and take longer.
“The issue with the East Side is so big and pervasive,” Wagner says. “There’s not one transaction — or two, or three — that will solve that foundational issue.”
Still, Wagner thinks James and the council have created some pillars that could lead to long-lasting change. He mentions youth hiring, data-based decision making, and the use of technology to deliver services more efficiently.
And for all of the friction in his second term, James managed to get most of his priorities through the council, Wagner points out. “Who’s to say whether his directness is better or worse for getting things done?”
James is reaching the end of his lunch, and I give up on seeing the Bully in action, at least on this day. The mayor is chill. He offers to share his potato chips with me.
We talk about his next steps. He’s hoping to get some gigs consulting and speaking on things like education, infrastructure, and local government. He’s got a book that is supposed to come out in July “about life growing up in Kansas City and being mayor.” He’s not contemplating any other political office.
“Mayors do things,” he says. “Other people argue about things.”
James bangs his fork down. “That was yummy,” he says. He rises to greet a camera crew coming in to talk about mental health for veterans.
City Hall may talk about the Bully in the days and months after the clock runs down on James’ time in office. But even council members who clash with him acknowledge that’s probably not the way he’ll be remembered.
“He is the cool guy with the bow tie,” says Shields. “I think he created a great image for Kansas City.”