WATCH: Driving with Mayor Sly James

Posted at 9:19 AM, Mar 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-03 13:30:28-05

Christa Dubill spent an hour driving around Kansas City with Mayor Sly James.

They talked about everything from violence to education, from Eastside "disinvestment" to the Royals. And they even talked about embarrassing peonies.

Watch the video above to hear their conversation. 


Christa: How involved are you in education?

James: As involved as I can be when we have absolutely no official involvement with education. But education is absolutely key. You know, we have a lot to talk about. What's going on on the Eastside and things that are or are not happening. But the fact of the matter is, if we really want to stabilize the Eastside or any neighborhood, drop a quality school here. People will flock to where there are quality schools. And if you look at a lot of the neighborhoods that are suffering from disinvestment, the schools are either closed or about to be closed or not functioning.

Christa: Do you get frustrated you aren't and can't be more involved in education?

James: Absolutely and I think most mayors do because at the end of the day one of the things we recognize about schools and school districts is who actually is accountable? You know? We have school board and nobody's running. There were four open seats where nobody's running...or three open seats; I'm not sure. If we can't get people to run for the board, who is accountable for the end product? The superintendent?

There's an inconsistency of approach that I think anybody who's run any organization will tell you if you want to see a strong organization you will see consistent long term leadership, not choppy leadership. And despite the best efforts of good people to come in and try to run the district as superintendent, when you're building on something that you did not establish and then somebody else comes in and builds on something that they didn't establish, you're always playing catch-up rather than having a foundation laid and building on that same foundation consistently for a period of time. Too much change. And that is always harmful to any institution. Hopefully our new superintendent when he comes in will be here for 10 or 15 years.  And I think if we can get something like that we have a chance of succeeding.

When it comes to education, if there were no rules, or hierarchy, or who was in charge.. what would you, Mr. Mayor, do?

I would look at a model along the lines of what Menino did in Boston. But the problem with that is that there are term limits for mayors. Mayoral control systems seem to work. DC has turned around its education system. Boston has changed it around. I would probably streamline the process a little bit and have three people. I'd have a CEO - chief education officer, a CFO - chief financial officer and a COO - chief operating officer. They would run the district. They would be responsible for it. They would report to the mayor and then there would be a clear line of accountability for all issues related to schools and it would be consistent over a period of time. Right now, there is nobody that you can point to and say this is their responsibility. It's their fault.


Christa: Any predictions for the season?

James: I think the Royals are going to probably squeak out the American League Central. I think they'll win it. They'll be back in the playoffs. And then I think after that it's going to be a matter of who's healthy. How their arms are feeling. And who else is in the playoffs with them. But I think they'll get back to the playoffs and they'll be serious contenders to go back to the series.

Christa: Do you have favorite player?

James: Oh gosh. I love Lorenzo Cain. I like Salvador Perez. I think Alcides Escobar is a magician at shortstop. Mike Moustakas is just a nice, down-home kind a guy. Hosmer is just...kind of cool in his own way. You know what I mean? I like everybody. You gotta like people like Gordon for his consistent, hard-work. You gotta like Dyson speed. ...

I really like Dayton Moore. I think Dayton Moore is a fantastic GM. He's got a great staff that works with him and he's been consistent. With his consistent leadership, look at what happens when you have somebody who comes in, and takes over something that struggling, has a plan, sticks with it, and builds on that plan. Look where you wind up! You end up succeeding.

Christa: If you had to make a list of your top concerns for Kansas City what's on the list? What are you most concerned about and what are you most excited about?

James: I think I'm probably most concerned about the level of violence and homicides. That's always concerning and frankly it's one of those things that's concerning primarily because there's a sense of helplessness that comes with trying to combat it. KC NoVA is doing a great job with regards to group violence. But there's a sense that we are losing control on things like domestic violence, child abuse. And guns are awash in the city, just like in St. Louis. Those are the things that I am most concerned about because their deadly - literally deadly. And I want to be able .. I'd like to think that there's something I can do to stop it but there really isn't much other than what we're doing with Nova. There are some things I think should be done that we're not getting done. Gun dockets in court so that one or two courts and judges deal with all the gun crimes so there is consistency and speed in terms of resolution.

Christa: There's that word again. Consistency.

James: Consistency and speed in those, because look at what happens. You go to one of 18, 19 different courts and you're going to get one of 18, 19 resolutions with different parameters. Speed is important for witnesses. If I'm a witness to a gun crime and I'm willing to testify, why do I want to see the guy that's out there who I think committed the crime out running around the next year and a half with his friends trying to intimidate me. Show up in a grocery store when I'm shopping just looking at me - sending me a silent message that I need to keep my mouth shut.

We need to do that and recognize that witnesses are afraid to come forward sometimes and by having a more streamlined approach, we would be able to get better results.

We have police, we have the prosecutors, we have the educational institutes, UMKC, probation and parole, we have federal US attorney, and ATF and FBI, we've got political and my office and the one party that's not at the table is the courts and the criminal justice system . Having the courts there is absolutely crucial and the good news is, St. Louis seems to be moving in that direction - although they were dead set against it two years ago - and we're still stuck. We need to get moving on that.


Christa: Do you think sometimes you have to do what you know is best even though you know there is a group - no matter how small or how big - that you know is against a change or how it came about?

James: People often don't like the way things are, but they absolutely hate change. I mean they just hate it!

My job as the mayor of the city is to promote this city, and to do those things that make it a city - not just for today but for the next 40 to 50 years. To lay that foundation. Just like mayors before me have tried to do. And I made a decision a long time ago if I thought being loved by everybody was important, I really thought that maybe I should've opened a pet store and been seen in the window holding a bunch of Little furry puppies. And everybody comes up and they just love it - oh that's so sweet. But that's not what this is. I am well beyond the point of getting too wrapped up in whether everybody agrees with me.

Also recognize one thing - very simply - that often the negative voices are the loudest voices and if you get fooled into thinking that just because a handful of people are always negative that they represent the majority. Then you start making mistakes. We work on facts and data. When we know that the facts and data lead us to a logical conclusion, that's where we move. And until someone can come back with different facts and data to change that then there's no reason to. And a lot of people just don't like seeing anything done, or they want to control it without being in office without going to the steps to get into office. So I don't worry a whole lot about criticism when I worry about is making sure that the decisions that we make are based on things that are supported with facts and data.


Christa: Do you ever just swing through a drive-through and get a snack and a drink?

James: Usually if I'm going to McDonald's, I'm desperately hungry and it's a quarter pounder with cheese, fries and either coffee or a Coke depending on what time of day it is. I love breakfast sandwiches. I love Burger King croissan'wich - double sausage egg and cheese croissan'wich, that's my favorite thing. And I know that I can only eat those about once every six weeks or I start to look like a double-sausage, egg and cheese croissan'wich.


Christa: Do you get enough support for this? From the community, do you think?

James: The problem isn't really the support of the community. The problem is that the community doesn't have enough to support. You go to the Negro Leagues (museum). You go to the Jazz Museum. You walk out and you look around and it's, 'OK, what do we do now?' You can't buy a stick of gum. You can't get an aspirin. Or a Band-Aid. There's no retail. There needs to be more retail and in order to have more retail we need to have more rooftops. So we're working on more housing in the area; that's going to take a while. One of the neat things I think will help speed that process along is the Urban Youth Baseball Academy that we're going to and parade park here because that's going to bring thousands of people into this neighborhood every weekend and a lot of times during the week

Christa: The Negro Leagues Museum and the baseball academy... Do you build a community around a youth sport and is baseball the youth sports for Kansas City?

James: It's not trying to build it around the youth sports. We're trying to build youth around the sport. We're trying to use this as a way to get kids engaged in something that is going to give them a different outlet than to just be hanging on the streets. Get them involved in something that they can do year round with adults who actually care about them. It's not just going to be about playing baseball it's going to be about building character, building leadership. It's going to be about kids getting academic support when they need it. It's going to be about having a place to go. It's going to be about finding kids who have talent as either a ballplayer... Maybe there's a kid who wants to learn how to be a ground crew chief, a manager... or a kid who wants to be a sports journalist, they can go up there and announce the games.


Christa: Something came up a couple of weeks ago, and I remember being fascinated. The group was saying too much is being given for incentives to the Crossroads and not enough to the Eastside. It just caught my attention in a way it was a little more than other stores maybe do.

James: Caught my attention too! Because a lot of times these statements that are made are not grounded in fact. There is no denying that the east side of the city has seen. Disinvestment over the last 50 years. No denying that! And it is stark! And it is real! But what is not being said is that there's currently more investment on the east side of the city then there's been in decades. And we produce the maps with the projects - three maps with the projects - that showed where everything that's been happening is happening and $2.4 billion has been invested on the east side since 2011. Those are facts. We can't argue that. So we don't hear that coming from people saying that nothing's happening.

The second thing is that people think that you can just say 'we are not going to develop here, we're going to develop over there'. It doesn't work like that. For one, banks and financial institutions do not lend on the east side like they do in other places. So there's a Delta that's created. A developer that wants to develop a housing project or infield housing on the east side is going to meet many more financial challenges than a developer on the west side where those challenges are lessened by the more abundant and easily acquired financial capital. So what we've done is created - or we are creating - a shared success fund that will help defray some of those additional costs and help cure that delta between what's being lent and what's needed. But we talk to developers all the time. We have a number of them who are interested and actively working towards doing things on the east side. But has to be something that's catylitic. Has to be something that creates more by simply being there because we can't move house by house, we have to move in clusters. We have to do things that somebody says 'if we do this, then other good things will happen'. So we're doing that through this shared success fund.


James: First of all, Troy Schulte deserves a ton of credit here. Troy is always trying to find a way to get something done and that's why I like working with him because we're of the same mind. Got a problem? What do we do to fix it. So the one-dollar-for-a-house project is very interesting. I think we probably had about 1500 calls by now. Last I heard there were about 200 applications and basically what we're seeing is just really amazing. When we announced that we were going to spend $10 million to bring down all the dangerous buildings, there was a whole lot of hugh and crye. Again, people that don't pay attention to fact.

(Driving by 39th and 71 Highway)

By the way look at that. There's housing going up right now. That's the Ivanhoe neighborhood. Great things in Ivanhoe. Look at that. Great things going on. That was the old burned-out school that you could see from the highway. And we're about to approach, on Prospect, Aldis. Wow, there wasn't an Aldi there before. That kind of came up, too.

Christa: I'm sensing some saltiness in your comments right now.

James: You know, we take a lot of heat from people and I'm not above being a little...snarky back.

(back to dollar homes)

James: There's a lot tied to it. There's ownership tied to it. There's a sense of community tied to it. There's stability that's tied. There's a tax base that's tied to it. There's the ability to get people in homes that can ordinarily not be in the home. If they decide to take this home and remodel it, the city's going to rebate back to them $8500 of what it would've taken to demolish a home.


Christa: We are on your old stomping ground. Did you ride your bike on the street?

James: I rode my bike on the street and I used to deliver 'The Call' newspaper in this neighborhood. When I lived down there, my brothers and I had paper routes and we delivered the newspaper the houses.

(cresting top of huge hill at 43rd and Montgall)

James: I will tell you that we are now about to enter something that scared the hell out of me because we would come up to the top of this hill and ride sleds down it when it was snow - or these goofy carts that we made out of wood and lawnmower wheels - and ride down this hill all the way down. And my father used to say, 'you are going to kill yourself'. And we would still do it.

Christa: Which one's your house?

James: Right there. 4425 Montgall.

The thing I remember about that house is that we had a huge backyard. My mother used to grow peonies. Big ol' flowers. Bees always around them. And every time there was an occasion where you were supposed to wear a flower to church, or like Easter or something, we would have these big huge peonies sticking out of our suit lapels and it was the most embarrassing thing in the world.

My parents won't know this but we used to hate what they made us wear, so we would hide clothes down here on the corner. And when we'd get down to the corner we'd change clothes, and the lady across the street would yell 'I'm going to tell your mother! I'm going to tell your mother what you're doing!'

Christa: Everybody had that neighbor who looked out after you because your parents needed to know right?

James: One of the things that I think made our neighborhood tight, and makes neighborhoods tight, is that most of the kids went to the same school... When I was growing up, everybody went to the same school so everybody was hearing from the same teachers, talking about the same issues, and hanging out together. We all knew each other, too. Kids around the streets, the parents are on the porch talking, walking across the street. You don't see that anymore and I think the destruction of neighborhoods is simply because of schools, and the way that we patterned schools had a huge impact on that.


Christa: What do you do if you have an hour and have nothing on the schedule what do you do?

James: Am I at home?

Christa: It's your hour.


James: If I have an hour with nothing to do and I'm at home, it's in the evening... I would pour a scotch, get a cigar. I'm going to get my portable speaker, my phone... and I'm going to go sit on my porch, plug in some music, and have a cigar and drink some scotch, and read a book.


Christa Dubill can be reached at

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