Can Funkhouser Win Again?

It’s time to get real honest here, and even risk hurting a few feelings of people I like. But a few things need to get said.

Kansas City political insiders may be the most foolish batch of group-thinkers ever assembled in one town. In their world, Coffman had Kander on the ropes. Harris was the best hope against Koster (I’m not saying I’m immune). Barnes had a real chance in northern Missouri. Really, you need to spend some time at the cocktail parties to understand just how strangely out of touch some of these people are.

Now, they are saying Funkhouser is a one term Mayor. And they are saying it so confidently that it reminds me of how little chance Conventional Wisdom gave him in 2007.

In other words, it makes me suspect the inside crowd is wrong again.

First, let me acknowledge that all is not well in Funkytown. There would be serious problems if the election were to be held in the near future. But not for the reasons that have the chattering class smirking.

Funkhouser’s biggest problem is the Citizen Satisfaction Survey. That is the metric that will make or break his fortune in the 2011, and right now, it is down. This paragraph from the report would be a knife through the heart of a reelection bid if it were happening today:

Kansas Citians’ satisfaction with city services declined this year, as it did in the other metropolitan area communities and large U.S. cities included as our benchmark cities. Compared to other area communities and large U.S. cities, Kansas City’s citizen satisfaction is still at or near the bottom.

If that does not turn around – if that is not simply a case of things getting worse before they get better – I hope and expect that Funkhouser would not even run again. That is the essence of the orange revolution, and if it turns out that Mark can’t get make progress there (even if it isn’t his fault), then the experiment has failed, and we should all try to learn from it.

(As an aside, I must point out that David Martin of the Pitch manages to look at the Survey and miss the point. He points to a decline in satisfaction with elected officials, and claims that they are Funkhouser’s “approval ratings”. It takes the opposite of political insight to reach such a conclusion. In fact, the average voter looks at the mess of City Hall intrigue and says “to Hell with all of them.” At its worst, that statistic is bad news for all the council; at its best, it shapes up nicely for Mark to run once again as an outsider against the whiny council people who are mucking up the works. When the City Council does something stupid like the Anti-Squitiro Ordinance, Mark takes a small hit, but the members of the Council take a big hit. The infighting isn’t hurting Mark as much as it is each and every incumbent. While I don’t approve of the sexist “Mean Girls” label that a commenter here used, I think it reflects a growing perspective among voters.)

Another concern I have for Funkhouser’s prospects is that he really has lost contact with most of the people who worked on his original campaign. I think back to the meetings we had and I cross off most of the brightest and best people I have ever seen working on a campaign. Maybe lunches with Jeff Roe are a substitute for breakfasts with Jeff Simon, but they make me queasy. Maybe a guy who made his money growing plants isn’t as interesting as a crazed conspiracy theorist, but I know which one I respect. Right now, it appears that Funkhouser has decided not to dance with the ones who brung ya, and I don’t like the looks of the crew on his dance card.

My final concern about Funkhouser’s chances for reelection is a little fuzzier, but it’s a spirit thing. The first go-round was open, fun and inclusive. Of course, it was “us versus them”, but the only “them” was the TIF pigs at the trough. Now, “them” seems to be everyone but “us”. “Them” now includes Cindy Circo, who I think is a darned good person. Jan Marcason is definitely “them”, and, even as we disagreed through every step of the Anti-Squitiro Ordinance process, she showed the class and dignity that I think should be a model for all elected officials. I disagree with her, but I admire her – the opposite of an “us versus them” mentality. Sadly, I kind of fear that this post might put me onto the “them” team in their view, or my honest disagreement with the light rail proposal. It feels like a bunker mentality has settled in, and the exit door is getting used a lot more than the entrance. I don’t see orange as the color of the next election – maybe battleship gray.

So, with all that said, how do I think that Funkhouser might be retiring from the Mayor’s office in 2015 instead of 2011?

First off, let’s remember that a lot can change over the next couple years. Most importantly, those citizen satisfaction numbers can change, and, if they go up, that is the most important factor in the election. Because, really, it is about a city that works, and if people think things are on the right path, then Mark will stand to benefit. Already, there is some improvement in some areas – if that improvement spreads, don’t bet against Funkhouser, no matter what your political-know-it-all neighbor says.

Secondly, the only option will be another candidate, and who that candidate is will make a huge difference. Right now, the whispered candidates I’ve heard have huge flaws that make them unattractive representatives of the same era of profligacy we soundly rejected last time around. And, by all accounts, it will be a crowded field, which means Funkhouser will cruise through the primary on name recognition and appreciation for what has gone right. Who will be his opponent, and how bloody will he or she be after the primary?

Finally, don’t forget that Funkhouser is connecting with people every day. He’s holding regular town meetings, and making himself available, unfiltered, to average citizens. He’s showing up on the East Side and the West Side and meeting people other than self-appointed “leaders”, and, by and large, he’s winning a lot of favor. Snobby insiders and the chattering class may find Funk and Squitiro to be coarse and common, but the coarse and common voters are kind of liking what they are seeing.

And that direct connection to actual voters is what infuriates the insiders more than anything. Despite the inability of the political insiders to actually demonstrate any political savvy, they like to think of themselves as arbiters of what must be. They’ve never forgiven Mark for defeating their annointed candidate, and their heads will explode if he does it again.

Which might be reason enough for the rest of us to support him in 2011.

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