Kansas City's Cleaver Is Innovator
City's first black mayor, racial pacifier, works for Clinton campaign
KANSAS CITY, MO. — STANDING by his office window on the 29th floor of city hall, Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver points to a construction site across town. "Sometimes in a city like this," he says, "some of your greatest accomplishments are the things that don't happen."
By "city like this," Mr. Cleaver means an uneasy biracial community in which blacks make up one-third of the 435,000 residents, but four-fifths of the public school enrollment.
The city's first African-American mayor needs plenty of political sensitivity to cope with the city's racially-tinged problems. Since the city manager is the chief administrator, Cleaver says "the mayor must rule by force of personality."
By his own account and that of others, Cleaver has been up to the task.
The Texas-born Methodist minister is a powerful speaker who says such things as: "Many minority voters see themselves as politically homeless." Impressed by Cleaver at a recent rally, the Clinton campaign recruited him to give speeches for the Democratic candidate. Racial conciliator
In his 18 months as mayor, Cleaver has established himself as a pro-business, pro-police conciliator and builder of interracial bridges.
Robert Kipp, Kansas City Chamber of Commerce chairman and former city manager, says Cleaver has won the respect of the business community and has brought the city distinction.
When he took office, Cleaver says, a $125 million expansion of the Bartle Hall convention center was "in complete disarray." A majority of the city's contractors rejected the city's demand for 16 percent minority participation. Since white contractors had the law on their side, Cleaver worked behind the scenes to get contractors to create a "Fairness in Construction Board," representing all races. Now, Cleaver says, the expansion should be ready by November 1994, as planned.
"A race war" is what Cleaver says he avoided. But he retracts the phrase, one reminiscent of his civil rights activism a decade earlier. He substitutes "major controversy" for "a race war." Some issues troublesome
But some issues leave the mayor with nowhere to go. Rejecting hatred as the motivation behind a spree of incidents last summer in which blacks robbed whites, Cleaver ends up blaming the victims. Knowing that whites have been conditioned from childhood to fear blacks, he reasons, blacks expect less resistance from whites than from other blacks, and so target whites.
Although barely blighted by Rust Belt standards, Kansas City compares unfavorably to other communities in its Connecticut-sized metropolitan area that stretches across 10 counties in Missouri and Kansas. "Our tax dollars are blowing out into the suburbs," Cleaver frets.
To retain upwardly mobile whites, Cleaver is developing "Back to the Future," a program that offers tax breaks to first-time home buyers.
He also formed the Metropolitan Mayors Council to work with suburban officials on common issues. One likely result is a tax that would cross county and state lines to support Kansas City's cultural amenities, since suburban dwellers also benefit from the zoo, art museum, and professional sports arenas. City needs relief
Meanwhile, the city has cut 6 percent from every department to meet its $574 million budget. (State law forbids borrowing.) "We absolutely find ourselves in need of relief from the federal government. That's why, when people ask me about [why he agreed to campaign for] Bill Clinton, what choice do I have? I've been mayor during Bush's term and I've not gotten any help."
Cleaver's "Odyssey 2000" program, unveiled last week, aims to gain support for civil works and employment projects through hearings and public participation on task forces. The mayor hopes to defuse the suspicion of favoritism that has caused embarrassing voter rejection of his proposed projects.
One of the most difficult challenges is complying with a federal school-desegregation order. Spending $600 million in court-ordered tax levies on improvements will make the schools some of the nation's best, Cleaver says.
But the city can't force suburbs to supply white students. He says he wishes the court would be satisfied with the improved facilities and drop the requirement for more white enrollment.