In the legal world, Sly James was the consummate insider — a former bar president with hefty verdicts and settlements under his belt.
Until last week, it wasn’t clear if that legal experience would translate into political victory.
But at James’ election night watch party at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, the bellowing of a saxophone mingled with hoots and hollers when news spread of opponent Mike Burke’s concession speech. James had been elected mayor of Kansas City, beating Burke, an experienced politician and an attorney in his own right, 54 percent to 46 percent.
“Not bad for an outsider,” James told the crowd.
James and Burke ran a cordial campaign — so cordial, in fact, that at times it was difficult to pinpoint the differences between them. The graciousness didn’t end with the election, with both candidates pledging to work together.
Burke told his disappointed supporters at the Westin Crown Center that the two had met two years ago for lunch and discussed their possible runs for office.
“I said: ‘Sly, you’re a good person. Don’t let any consideration of what I might do or might not do affect your decision on what you want to do,’” Burke said. “And I’m glad I told him that.”
Both candidates are lawyers, but very different kinds. James is the founder of the Sly James Firm, which handles personal injury cases. He’s also a former Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association president. Burke is a real estate lawyer with King Hershey, focusing on the nitty-gritty of transactions and land use. He is also a former city councilman and has worked in a variety of city development positions.
Those backgrounds showed up starkly in their campaign finance reports. In 2010 and 2011, James reported about $340,500 in contributions from lawyers, according to his March 14 campaign filing. That accounts for more than half of his total fundraising.
Burke, in contrast, drew just $56,000 from lawyers during the same period — only 13 percent of his total. Most of his money came from real estate and development businesses in Kansas City.
“We both went back to our bases, and that’s where we got our support,” James said.
Attorneys who supported James say his legal background will make a difference.
“When it comes to risk management issues, he’s going to have a much keener eye than has been there in the past,” said Mark Jess, who has captured several successful verdicts against the city. “It brings charisma and I think it brings keen knowledge about how litigation works and how to best serve the taxpayers of this city.”
Attorney Stephen Bough highlighted James’ background in mediation as a way to solve the city’s problems.
“Having a well-known mediator who’s been called in to deal with heated situations will be the best thing in Kansas City since sliced bread,” Bough said.
Local attorney and state Rep. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, and retired Jackson County Circuit Judge Jon Gray even took the stage Tuesday night to rev up the crowd with a rap tailor-made for the James campaign — “Who you voting for? Sly. Who you voting for? Sly — Sly James.”
In an interview, James said he plans to keep his firm open during his time as mayor, but he will spend the coming weeks transitioning many of his cases to attorney Michael Mohlman, “who’s going to be running the firm for a while.”
In the meantime, Burke can get back to his practice at King Hershey — although both Burke and James hinted that Burke might work with James’ administration.
Burke thanked his law partners for their sacrifice on behalf of his campaign.
“I was out campaigning, and they were running the law practice,” he said.