Archive for the ‘political insiders’ Category

Thoughts from Last Night’s Ethics Forum

Friday, January 29th, 2010

The Committee for County Progress hosted an Ethics Forum last night. Micheal Mahoney served as moderator, with panelists Rep. Paul Levota, Rep. Jason Kander, and David Levinthal, the Communications Director for the Center for Responsive Politics in DC. The panel was great, the discussion was informative, and the crowd was a who’s who of up-and-coming politicos. I don’t have time to do one of my typically verbose descriptions of the event, but here are a few observations:

Paul Levota is funny. At one point, Mahoney was pressing Levota on the unlikelihood that the Missouri Senate will accept contribution limits. Mahoney pointed out that little will be accomplished by sticking to the issue accept to use it as a campaign weapon. “That’s the plan,” Levota deadpanned.

Transparency is crucial. One of the big problems in Missouri is that donors hide behind committees. When checks get funneled from “Missourians for Good Things” to “Missourians for Awesome Things” and then to “Missourians for Nice Things” and then finally to the candidate, it’s awfully hard to track the dollars back to the special interest pulling the strings.

Jason Kander is funny, too.
Commenting on a fellow representative’s $100,000 donor, Kander pointed out that the donor probably gets his calls returned faster than the representative’s children. (Maybe that isn’t funny.)

The Center for Responsive Politics is a tremendous resource. Levinthal was well-informed, completely balanced and thoughtful. The Center is non-partisan, and his straight-arrow style made clear that he is interested in good government, period.

The candidates are out to see and be seen. The crowd was peppered with candidates in up-coming races. I hate to mention names, because I don’t want to neglect anyone, but Crispin Rea was a welcome presence, along with his campaign treasurer Theresa Garza Ruiz. I finally met Jeremy Ploeger for the 51st district, and Geoff Gerling, candidate for the 46th District.

Where were the County Legislators? The only County Legislator in attendance was the always-wonderful Theresa Garza Ruiz. This came as a bit of a shock, given that it was a forum on Ethics sponsored by the Committee for COUNTY Progress. After the legislature’s embarrassing and anti-ethical attempt to avoid ethical home rule, it seems that more of them would have an interest in the topic. Fortunately, Henry Rizzo’s opposing candidate and likely replacement, Crystal Williams, was present.

Speaking of Theresa Garza Ruiz . . . I had a brief opportunity to speak with her about her sudden removal as Chair of the Justice & Law Enforcement committee. Despite her degree and experience in law enforcement, she was unceremoniously dumped from the committee, and the “dumper”, Henry Rizzo, didn’t even talk with her about it first, before awarding the committee Chair to a convicted felon. Theresa didn’t have much to offer by way of explanation of this baffling move, other than to point out that the claim that it’s part of a normal rotation of chairs is demonstrably false.

Micheal Mahoney knows his stuff. Mahoney did a great job of moderating the event, and the high point came when he ran factual rings around a loud audience member who was claiming that money is the be-all and end-all of politics. Mahoney pointed to the Carnahan/Talent race, and when the blustery but ill-informed talker pushed on, he pointed out that the Mayor was also not the leading fundraiser in his election. It was an amusing and deft evisceration of an anti-Funkhouser activist who seemed to be substituting volume for accuracy.

It’s wonderful that so many people care about ethics in Missouri.
On a Thursday evening, a healthy crowd of people came out to a mid-town law office to participate in a high-level forum on the topic of dollars and politics. That’s a pretty impressive level of interest, and the CCP deserves credit for putting on the forum.

Strangers on the Internet – Let’s Be Careful Out There

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

I talked with a few people involved in politics recently, and confirmed what I had personally noticed. There seems to be an uptick in the number of new “acquaintances” on the internet eager to share dirt and rumors, or to seek information or opinions about local figures. I had one stranger recently share some outlandish lies about a few women involved in state and local politics.

We’re a year away from elections, and the lying and elaborate deceptions are already starting up.

Personally, I’m glad to be on the sidelines these days. If you’re in the thick of it, though, please be aware and don’t take candy from strangers. Or give it, either.

Out of the Kitchen

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

It’s been a month now since I’ve done a political post. Friends have wondered what the heck is going on. In a nutshell, the kitchen got hot enough that I couldn’t stand the heat. More importantly, I don’t want to keep adding to the heat.

I’m focusing on things less hateful.

Who Cares About All This – The Big Easy, Funkhouser and Getting Away From it All

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Sorry for the outburst of silence on this blog. First it was illness, then it was a trip to New Orleans for my daughter’s graduation from Tulane. A massive interruption in my ordinary life, with relatively little internet time, cursory attention to national news, and no awareness of local politics whatsoever.

In short, I was kind of like a typical voter for a week and a half.

Except for my botched attempt at factual reporting, I’ve pretty much ignored the Funkhouser Recall attempt, but it seems that the activists there are experiencing a bit of the disconnect I have felt. When wrapped up in local politics, and communicating with a circle of others that care about the same things, it’s easy to think what’s on our own minds is on everyone’s mind. It’s easy to convince yourself that the city wants a recall, but the reality is that the average voter does not care ten percent as much as activists do, one way or the other.

Spend a few hours with a group of political insiders, and you’ll quickly find out what “everyone’s talking about”. The political gossip is intriguing and enveloping. But, when push comes to shove, it’s only a few people talking amongst themselves. “Everyone” is not talking about politics – local, state or national. Instead, they are talking about dinner, sports, family, neighbors, and work.

I received a couple text messages on my phone about political developments last week. I appreciated the kindness of those keeping me informed, but receiving them while disengaged was kind of like receiving cricket scores from Pakistan – it was separate from the world I was inhabiting.

New Orleans feels like a different country, so the disconnect may have been stronger than it would have been otherwise. Also, it was the first time my family had been together since Christmas, so the presence of loved ones may have heightened the distraction. When you can look ahead to fried oyster po’ boys with four people you love, it’s hard to devote mental energy to city council matters, or even the Jackson County Ethics Blackout.

90+ percent of people spend most of their lives in the politics-free world I visited last week. The Recall people have seen that the near-unanimous outrage they expected to tap into was not nearly as deep or as widespread as they anticipated. I won’t argue that the Recall is headed toward failure because of a deep and widespread love of Funkhouser – the only thing truly deep and widespread is apathy.

I’m back in the real world now, and ready to jump back into the world of state, local and national politics. I do care about this stuff, and it really does matter who is our Mayor, whether our County Legislature accepts ethical Home Rule, and who will replace Souter. It just surprised me how easily I shed all those concerns for a week and a half, and how “normal” it felt to be apolitical.

Kraske Whiffs Again – What He Should Be Asking

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Steve Kraske claims the upper right corner of today’s front page of the Star, and manages to look good while whiffing almost entirely. It’s kind of like watching an unschooled rookie with a sweet swing face the famed knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Kraske swings mightily, but can’t quite make his wooden analysis impact the baffling trajectory of local politics.

The headline in the dead tree version of the story is “Has mayor run out of political capital?”, and the lede is an anecdote claiming that Funkhouser failed to gladhand at a democratic fundraiser. In short, Kraske asks the wrong question and answers it with conventional wisdom from the chattering class. That, my friends, is not “analysis” worthy of publication.

First off, the question is not whether Funk has run out of “political capital”. The guy won by fewer than 900 votes and walked into a council chamber poisoned by hardball politicians seeking to become mayor. The guy never really had political capital – he walked in with a target on his back, and nobody on earth was going to trade that target for a 7 member dependable majority. And, to give his critics their due, he certainly has not behaved in a fashion well-designed to accumulate it, either.

The correct question is “Can Funkhouser work with this Council to accomplish good things for our city?”. Because, really, that’s what people wanted when they elected him, and that’s how he will be judged. Maybe a few of the insiders and professional game-players such as Kraske care about style points or how well he shakes hands at a cocktail party, but the rest of us care far more about accomplishments. By focusing on shaking hands and fuzzy concepts of “political capital”, Kraske focuses on the parlor game aspects of city government rather than on the street level effectiveness of city government.

Now, before the anti-Funk brigade reflexively misinterprets what I have written so far, I’m only saying that the question ought to be “Can Funkhouser work with this Council to accomplish good things for our city?” rather than “Has mayor run out of political capital?”. I hope we can all agree that my question is the better question – who cares if he never shakes another hand and the verdict at Kraske’s chattering class cocktail parties unanimously states he has zero “political capital”, if he is able to work with our council to accomplish good things for our city?

Having thus refocused the issue from image to substance, I’ll go ahead and answer my own question.

Yes, Funkhouser can work effectively with this Council to accomplish good things for our city. He can do that by continuing to work creatively and subtly through other council people, the majority of whom will, when push comes to shove, get on board for the right reasons on the big issues for the good of the city. Jan Marcason and Beth Gottstein, for example, are not going to vote for a lousy Cauthen budget no matter what they think of Funkhouser or his wife. Most of the council is composed of grown-ups, and they can separate their disagreements on the anti-volunteer ordinance from good policy in facing the substantive issues they need to address.

All that said (and apparently beyond Kraske’s imagination), Funkhouser has an opportunity right now to jumpstart his working relationship with the City Council and kick off 2009 in the most productive way possible for our city’s future. In one fell swoop, he could eliminate his biggest problem in image and the city’s biggest problem in reality.

In my opinion, Mark should approach those city councilmembers who really do have the good of the city at heart with a proposal to dismiss his Volunteer Ordinance lawsuit in exchange for their support in getting rid of Wayne Cauthen. Most agree that Cauthen is simply the wrong man for the foreseeable future, and I believe they would welcome such an opportunity to get back on track in solving our city’s very real problems.

I feel like I owe some explanation, since I loudly called upon Mark to file his lawsuit, and I continue to think that the anti-Volunteer Ordinance is an unconstitutional bastard born in a backroom from spite and dishonesty. Despite my dislike of the Ordinance, though, that single issue need not continue to distract attention and dominate the public discourse.

Right now, Mark is working just fine with his geographically flexible Mayor’s office, just as most of the councilmembers work effectively while spending little time in the four walls of their offices. While it feels wrong to let such an ugly little ordinance remain on the books, dismissing the suit does not make it constitutional. Someday, in a less critical time when we can afford to focus on “B” level priorities, the ordinance can be challenged in a more favorable environment. In terms of impact on the city, the Volunteer Ordinance is tiny in comparison to the damage wrought by the wrong City Manager.

Dismissal of the suit would also unplug the electricity surrounding rumors of Koster investigations and other nonsense. In short, Funkhouser would be rising above the Council’s petty mistake, diminishing a danger, and accomplishing a larger goal. It would also provide the good Councilmembers with a way to redeem themselves from their current tarnished, bickering image, and make a clean break from the past.

Would Funkhouser ever make such a deal? I have no idea.

But it’s a lot better question than Kraske’s breathless insider chatter about “political capital”.

Can Funkhouser Win Again?

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

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.

NASCAR Fans Watching the Trash Truck

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Steve Kraske on last week published an article showing that he is finally catching on to the open secret of the Funkhouser administration – he doesn’t really care whether the inside crowd likes his leadership style. A quotation from the article confirmed what I wrote about him a month ago (Does Funkhouser Know What He’s Doing) and almost 6 months ago (Subtle Brilliance – Funkhouser’s Triumph of Leadership). Kraske writes, “’To me, I have no desperate need to be seen as leading,’ The Funk told me.”

That’s the sort of thing that makes insiders’ heads explode. He’s refusing to play their game, and they scream about how badly he’s playing their game. I think the best analogy is NASCAR fans watching the trash truck. They can’t understand why any professional driver would drive such an ungainly vehicle and refuse to put fancy decals on it. They can’t understand why the driver would let others ride along and accomplish work along the way. They miss the speed and the noise. They know how things are done, and he’s doing an absolutely terrible job of satisfying their need to watch a race.

And it really frustrates these cognoscenti to see that Kansas City’s homeowners don’t share their disdain for Funkhouser. Oddly, they seem to prefer the modest, hard-working, self-effacing Mayor and his focus on citizen satisfaction. Already, several of the insiders are lining up their pit crews and polishing their race cars to defeat Mark in the next “race”, confident that they can whup the man who fails to put himself in front and make sharp left turns at full speed when they shout.

Civil service isn’t the same as racing, though I’m not sure our current group of insiders will ever catch onto that fact, even when Funkhouser wins the next “race”.