During KC's crises, James follows big footsteps
The Kansas City Star
The Sly James admiration society is out in full force, praising Kansas City’s mayor for his leadership after a deadly natural gas explosion and two snowstorms-of-the-century.
“Just want to give you kudos on your work…,” one person wrote on James’ active Twitter account. To which the mayor deftly replied, “Team effort.”
Then there was this message to James: “Best mayor ever.”
Well, let’s not go that far, especially just two years into James’ first term at City Hall.
James deserves much credit for helping to oversee emergency responses to the incredible storms as well as his excellent communication with Kansas Citians.
But James went overboard in initially defending the Kansas City Fire Department’s handling of the gas leak that apparently led to the explosion and fire at JJ’s. Ongoing investigations will provide a clearer picture of what happened that night and what mistakes were made.
In the bigger picture, as James would be the first to acknowledge, he is hardly the first mayor to handle devastating accidents and horrible weather in the city.
Over the last 30-plus years, here are three other mayors who capably dealt with arguably worse situations. None was a perfect mayor, or even the “best mayor ever.” But all provided crucial leadership for this city’s residents.
- Richard Berkley’s finest moments came in response to the Hyatt Regency disaster, in which skywalks fell inside the hotel’s atrium and killed 114 people in July of 1981.
Berkley got national attention for weeping publicly as he discussed the incident. But he also got angry. He wanted answers to how this kind of tragedy could occur, even though a subsidiary of the city’s No. 1 corporate citizen — Hallmark Cards — owned the Hyatt at the time.
Berkley had to help a grieving city and community through a very rough few months. This was just two years into his three terms and 12 years as mayor, and he used the time to cement his reputation as a nice-guy leader — though not a take-charge one — at City Hall.
- In May of 1992 Emanuel Cleaver was barely one year into his initial term as the city’s first black mayor when four white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.
Two days later, a predominately black and youthful crowd gathered at an East Side Kansas City park, part of national protests over the King incident. At least one person at the park said it was time to march to wreak some havoc on the Country Club Plaza, seen as the enclave of privileged white society.
Cleaver stood up before the crowd — even though one of his bodyguards later told me he had advised against that — and said that was not going to happen. Cleaver’s actions helped prevent a riot that day.
Cleaver also took other actions in following days to prevent racial strife. He also called for funding a series of events designed to give youth something to do in the summer, a problem this city still wrestles with.
- Kay Barnes was in her third year as mayor on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the days after that horrific attack, keep in mind that no one knew what might happen next — in Washington, D.C., or other American cities.
Elected officials across the nation were on high alert. Barnes told me at the time she wasn’t taking anything for granted. Kansas City could be a target of international terrorists, she said, just as Oklahoma City had been the target of a domestic terrorist bombing in 1995 which killed 168 people
Barnes was a resolute and high-profile person in charge, telling Kansas Citians that public safety forces were prepared to defend them. That never became necessary, but the chill in the air at the time was palpable.
Who knows what Kansas Citians would have said about Berkley, Cleaver and Barnes if the immediacy of commenting on social media had been available at the time?
More than likely, all would have received strong kudos of their own for their actions in 1981, 1992 and 2001 — just like James is getting in 2013.
To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at voices.kansascity.com. Twitter: @YaelTAbouhalkah.