Even before the first question, Sly James scored the first basket..
He stepped out from the podium (that’s called breaking the 4th wall in theatre) and extended his hand to mayoral rival Mike Burke. It was the difference between an alpha male and a behind-the-scenes guy best at setting up the volleyball for someone else to spike.
Score: James 1, Burke 0, Game on.
In opening statements, James asked an intriguing open-ended, rhetorical question. How would you describe a bumper sticker for KCMO without mentioning BBQ, jazz or fountains? Burke came off as nervous, with a statement that was neither visual nor memorable. He looked like a slightly-flabby Mike Huckabee, his voice is clenched and too high.
The moderator, investigative reporter Stacey Cameron from KCTV5 played a bit of dirty pool by altering the question that was supposed to be identical for both candidates. And he asked some really loaded questions that no self-respecting lawyer, James or Burke, would answer. Like, will you raise property taxes or sales taxes to pay for new sewers? Burke dodged to the left, suggesting a federal infrastructure tax. James dodged to the right, proposing a STATEwide infrastructure tax.
Call that round even.
Next, Cameron asked will you take the mayoral pension. James drew the first laugh of the night: “I would like to be elected first!” Humor is always disarming. Score a 2nd point for James.
Star reporter Steve Kraske asked what was the biggest difference between the two. Once again, James went visual: “Obviously, I look more like Denzel Washington,” he quipped.
Thus addressing the elephant in the room — that he is black- in a fun over-the-top manner.
Burke reminded the audience that an Agent of Change requires experience. But even when he was right, Burke was no James Bond. He’s just not very convincing or compelling.
Point 3 to Sly James.
Ed Reyes from Dos Mundos asked about utilizing the Latino population. And Burke responded as if he was debating KC Mayor Mark Funkhouser:
“It will not be an afterthought in a Burke administration,” he said.
Talking about yourself in the 3rd person is so Charlie Sheen. James vaulted pictorially into the present, “We’ve already done this, when we assembled our TEAM.”
Again, point: James.
James’ one gaffe – and it was a big one – came when he responded to the question by Eric Wesson from The Call, about the $900 lunch by the police. James was flippant: “Who in this room hasn’t exceeded an expense account one time?”
Oh. My. God. I heard the room gasp.
Burke won that round by naming four or five specifics: “I’ll get tough with the Police Board. We will select the next Chief of Police. We can save $2 million on healthcare. And consolidate expenses for IT and HR.”
Most debates go downhill but this one really heated up.
Regarding the downtown hotel, Moderator Cameron asked in a snotty tone if KC should negotiate in public, on the public access TV station. James hit a homerun answering candidly: “No! We should not. Transparency is good, but negotiating on TV is bad. Look at Court TV.”
The moderator tucked his tail back into his trousers, while James pressed on, with more sound bites and great quotes: “Indianapolis has all our conventions. They took them! You can’t be half in and half out.”
Burke tried valiantly to assert leadership, “I’ve talked to developers. We are bleeding conventions. I served for 5 years on the Convention and Visitors Bureau. But no, I would not guarantee the bonds. I like the Cincinnati model–they only helped buy the land.”
So even tho Burke had more facts, James had the charisma.
The last question was the hate Kansas one: about losing AMC Theatres to Kansas. The border war, 400 jobs, $47 million. Moderator Cameron again tried to box in the candidates, asking, “Will your first visit be to Jeff City???”
James countered like a leader with: “No, that might be my 2nd or 3rd visit. First I’ll go to St. Louis, then Springfield. We will work together when we go to Jeff City. And we won’t just send some letters at the last minute. The city can’t compete by itself with the entire state of Kansas.”
Burke tried once again, with the lame platitude, “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. And I’ve actually BEEN to Jeff City many times. Don’t let Kansas pick us apart.”
But when Burke tries so hard, and even when he’s right, it just comes off as weakness and whining.
Clearly, despite the $900 luncheon gaffe, Sly James is a natural leader; he won the March 8 debate.
And I predict he will win March 22.
Tracy Thomas – who lives and works in the great state of Kansas – writes commentary and satire for KCConfidential. Reach her at email@example.com. She also choked out a $100 donation to fellow Centurion Burke in the primary