Kansas City's First Black Mayor Is No Neophyte

THIS one-time western bastion of slavery elected its first black mayor on March 26. The Rev. Emanuel Cleaver has joined the growing number of blacks elected to lead cities where blacks make up less than 50 percent of the population. Of Kansas City's 435,000 population is 30 percent black.

For most observers, the Rev. Mr. Cleaver's victory was no surprise. A 12-year veteran of the City Council, he was the runaway leader in the nine-candidate mayoral primary held in February. The runoff election, against Bob Lewellen, a white City Council member and businessman, was considerably closer. Although a poll published 10 days before the election showed Cleaver favored by 48.3 to 23.82 percent, with 27.9 percent undecided or not responding, he won with 53 percent. Many ``undecided'' respondent s finally sided with Mr. Lewellen.

Most experts agree that the candidate himself, more than his race, was the key to Cleaver's election. He won 90 percent of the vote in the predominantly black wards while drawing white support from all areas of the city.

``He is very articulate and brought to the contest attitudes of the middle class,'' says Dale Neuman, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. ``That made it easier to present his candidacy citywide.''

In his election-night speech, the mayor-elect declared: ``This is not a Cleaver victory. This is a Kansas City victory.''

Still, this is a city in a former slave state where, just a generation ago, schools were entirely segregated and the city chose to close down one of its largest public swimming pools rather than see it integrated.

Kansas City's neighborhoods still are highly segregated, although racial tensions don't seem to be nearly as great here as in other urban areas.

Cleaver was born in Waxahachie, Texas, a small town 20 miles south of Dallas. His family lived in an unpainted wood-plank shanty that had once been a slave cabin. They later moved to Wichita Falls, Texas, a small town near the Oklahoma border where his mother was a leader in the local civil rights movement.

After earning a bachelor's degree in social work from Prairie View A&M College in Texas - which he attended on a football scholarship, Cleaver moved to Kansas City.

He graduated from St. Paul's School of Theology in Kansas City, and in 1973 became an ordained minister and pastor at the St. James-Paseo United Methodist Church.

Under his leadership, his church has grown from 17 members to nearly 1,200. He has continued to serve as a full-time minister while also serving on the City Council.

In 1983, the United Methodist bishop in Missouri ordered him to give up either politics or his pastorship. But Cleaver negotiated a compromise whereby he continues both, while donating 70 percent of his council salary to charity.

In 1972, a young Emanuel Cleaver described himself as ``a militant, a revolutionary, and a radical'' in his fight against racism. But in his 12 years on the City Council he has emerged as a voice of moderation, and he acknowledges that his militancy has modified. He now considers himself a negotiator.

``I learned you can't agitate and legislate at the same time,'' says Cleaver.

The new mayor's power will be limited by the city's council-manager system, in which the City Council sets policy and the city manager oversees the daily operations of government. This system was enacted in the 1930s to curb the power of political bosses.

``Cleaver will have to work hard to be a strong mayor,'' says Dr. Neuman, and will have to rely heavily on his skill as a public speaker to educate the public through the media.

He faces the tough problems that confront most city leaders across the country: crime, economic development, waste management, and - especially - the school system, which is struggling under a court-ordered desegregation plan to bring back some of the white students who have left.

Whatever the problems, Cleaver's election, and the election of a largely new City Council, has energized the local politics.

``Cleaver's election shows the good sense of the voters of Kansas City,'' says Pat Uhlmann, a businessman and long-time political observer. ``We elected a good man. He's coming in with a great reservoir of goodwill.''

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