Mayor Sly James talks future, reminisces about his past
8:44 PM, Dec 5, 2013
10:27 PM, Dec 5, 2013
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Mayor Sly James didn't always know he wanted to run a city. As a matter of fact, there was a day he might've been content singing in a band the rest of his life, singing songs nobody expected from a young black man in the 60s.
"We did stun some people. We had a white band: hippies and a black guy. They expected James Brown. It didn't work like that," he chuckled as he remembered the days of the band fondly. "We used to sing Dock of the Bay. One of my favorites was Little Wing. Jimmy Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield. A little Temptations every now and then."
We sat casually at the conference table in the middle of his office. The mayor rarely sits at his desk. The 29th-story windows show blue and white skies. There are layers of framed artwork and gifts leaning on every inch of the walls' lower halves including a framed chalk drawing of the mayor with a backdrop of the city, a Nigerian artist's embroidered piece encased in a large rectangular frame and a framed jersey with only enough visible to make out its green, a painting of the plaza and too many certificates to count.
The shelves are as full as the walls with trinkets, memorabilia, gifts and photos – almost all with some significance to Kansas City.
"One of my favorite pieces is probably that picture over there with the president," he turned to point at a framed eight-by-ten photo sitting center stage on the crowded top of a bookshelf. "First Mayor's Conference, June of 2011 right after I was elected."
The picture is a long shot of massive conference table full of metropolitan mayors from across the country. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are clearly visible, sitting on one side in the middle of the table. It's shot from just over Mayor James' shoulder.
"It looks like they're all looking at me," he said.
Despite the appearance, Mayor James admits he did not lead that meeting.
The mayor grew up living in Kansas City's east side. He said he was a bit of a troublemaker in school.
"I had a rep as a prankster. Some people say I have no filter now. They should've seen me when I really had no filter," he said.
By high school, a young Sly James had a little direction. He played football, had his band and already knew he wanted to be a lawyer.
"Basically, when I was growing up, there was a whole lot of controversy about blockbusting and changes in school patterns and segregation and desegregation. Civil rights movement was in full bloom. We lived in and through that. The cultural revolution with hippies was strong, you know," he said without pause.
It was those choices and the controversy accompanying them that led to James' early days of mediating.
He wasn't just the oldest of six kids, he was a young man growing up in a changing world.
"Part of my upbringing was such that it was difficult to be on one side without considering the other side. I went to an all-white high school and lived in an all-black community," he said. "So every day I was in two different worlds. I had to deal with that in such a way I couldn't go to school and be angry I was going to school with white folks. And I didn't come home upset with black folks. It was a matter of an opportunity to bring some of my friends from both to other places. We kind of got along that way. It was kind of a mediating position and it worked for me."
We spent the next few minutes talking about racism and the list of examples the mayor could give of specific experiences he'd endured. His stories are similar to others you've heard, but what might be most interesting is his take on racism now.
"Racism, for the most part, is more subtle now. It's the type of thing that is uncool to be – overtly racist. But it is certainly not uncool to be covertly racist," he said. "It's not going away until people's hearts change. That's what's great about kids. Kids are cool! They get taught nonsense," he said with a smile as he leaned back in the old wooden chair.
The mayor's day starts at 6 a.m. when his alarm clock sounds. He rarely gets up at the first alert but hits snooze three times a morning on average.
It's common to have breakfast meetings at 7:30 a.m.
Each Tuesday, James meets with Chief of Police Daryl Forte. They talk about the city, violence, oversight, problems and ideas.
The mayor agreed to allow 41 Action News to listen in on that conversation. We expected guarded, careful conversation since the meeting would be recorded. But that's not what we got.
(Watch the exclusive video of the conversation at the top of the story.)
James doesn't get a lot of sleep. He averages five hours a night.
When asked about how he balances time with his wife and all his work responsibilities, he simply said "We don't. There is no balance here."
The mayor's wife is busy with her own life. She has no aspirations of being in office, she also has no desires to set up a desk outside the mayor's office.
Licia Clifton-James is currently working on an integrated PhD in Social Studies and Art History. She is busy with her own interests and according to the mayor, doesn't worry when he comes in late or leaves early.
When asked if he allows himself to be proud of what he's accomplished, the mayor leans back in the wooden chair and chuckles.
"I'm humbled and tickled pink to be where I am today. And I'll tell you, it's not a matter of pride," he said as his smile straightened slightly. "It's a blessing. I may have found the perfect job for me. But I try very hard to remember that what you really have to focus on isn't the title. It's the job. The job is public servant. And to be a public servant you have to be willing to serve."
This life works for Mayor Sly James and he's quick to point out, he's just getting started.