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Breathe, People

No one should have expected Funkhouser's first weeks in office to go down easy.


This is for Kansas City's Hispanic community and everyone else who's pissed off that Mayor Mark Funkhouser appointed Minutemen member Frances Semler to the parks board.

I feel your pain.

It's been hard to watch Funkhouser trip all over his gigantic feet in these early days of his administration. After all, I wrote "Funk Star," a gushy column about him last November. "Imagine a City Hall run by the man you trust most," I wrote. Since he took office, he has slopped around in a sticky bog, getting slapped on the hand by ethics experts when he agreed to accept a free hybrid from a Honda dealership and eviscerated by Hispanics and their supporters because of Semler's appointment to the parks board. In my morning paper on the day I'm writing this column, Councilmen Terry Riley and John Sharp are complaining because Funkhouser's wife, Gloria Squitiro, requested mayoral bodyguards for two town-hall meetings in neighborhoods of color but not in the pearly Northland (coincidentally, Semler's home turf).

I didn't go to Funkhouser's town-hall meeting last Thursday at the West Side's Guadalupe Center, but people from the Hispanic community reportedly gave him loud holy hell.

Hispanics and their supporters have every right to be angry about the Semler appointment. The Minutemen say they're not racists — they're just against illegal immigration. But all of their rhetoric about "protecting our culture" is just thinly euphemistic caca. "I think we have a great country, but if we keep heading down this road ... we'll end up looking like something we don't want to look like," Tom Franiak, the Minutemen chapter leader in Springfield, Missouri, told Pitch writer Carolyn Szczepanski ("To the Rescue," November 16, 2006). And we all know what the words "look like" really mean. Here's another choice quote, from one-time Missouri Minutemen leader Randall Cox, also in Szczepanski's story: "If we don't do something now ... we'll look like a Third World country."

The Minutemen are racist. Even if some of the group's individual members claim not to be — or honestly don't really think they are — they are if they're in that group.

So, yes, my Hispanic friends and neighbors, I feel your pain. I know what it feels like to be a minority and have elected officials I trusted slap me in the face: Ask any gay person forced to vote for Democrats because the alternative is so much worse, only to have the pissant Democrats feed you to snarling anti-gay-marriage wolves.

But here's the deal. Demanding that Funkhouser remove Semler from the parks board isn't helping.

Instead, the Hispanic community should thank Funkhouser for appointing her.

The Semler controversy has brought out into the open something we all needed to see: just how mainstream the Minutemen point of view really is. Plenty of people have come out in support of Semler, and that has created an important opportunity for those of us who welcome immigrants and understand that the technicalities of what's "legal" tend to blur a little when you're hungry.

We have work to do, my friends, and banishing Semler back into the darkness of under-the-radar Minutemen gatherings won't accomplish anything.

You want to express your anger about Semler's seat on the parks board? Show up en masse to parks board meetings. Show Frances Semler your children, your contributions to the city. Print up T-shirts, bumper stickers and billboards urging Semler to burn her Minutemen membership card. One possible slogan: "Hey, Frances, whatever happened to 'Love thy neighbor'?"

Hell, declare June 11, the day Funkhouser named her to the parks board, as an annual day to celebrate Latino culture in Kansas City. Call it "Frances Semler Day." Fill the city's parks with your beautiful families and friends, like you filled Ilus W. Davis Park during last April's immigration rallies.

And let Funkhouser get on with city business. We elected him knowing he wasn't a polished politician. We elected him because he's a smart, regular guy who promised to make our city work for regular folks like us. And, unfortunately, regular folks can be racists, too.

Besides, Semler's opponents look sort of silly when they squeal about Semler but fail to give Funkhouser credit for appointing a Hispanic, John Fierro, as president of the board. You think the other board members don't have viewpoints that some folks might find offensive? Talk to Ajamu Webster about his membership in the National Black United Front. (Among other things, it petitions for slavery reparations.) Tyrone Aiken, the executive director of the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, is a gay man who teaches middle-school boys to be dancers. And Aggie Stackhaus? She'll just piss off opponents of loudmouths everywhere.

We all have to live together in this city. The people who live a few doors down from us may have despicable politics, but we all flush down the same crumbling sewers and drive on the same jacked-up streets. Potholes know no ethnicity.

Last week, angry West Siders told Funkhouser that they were having a hard time trusting him anymore. When I interviewed him back in November, Funkhouser talked about trusting government. The basic elements of trust, he said, are "that the government has integrity, generally chooses the right course of action — the morally right course of action — and has competence. And if it chooses the morally right course of action, it will succeed. Second, if it doesn't succeed, it will acknowledge and learn from its mistakes. The third critical component is transparency — citizens will see with their own eyes that we're choosing the right course and succeeding and learning."

Funkhouser has been nothing if not transparent. Do I regret supporting him? Hell, no. He's been in office for all of nine weeks. Besides, did anyone really expect him to be smooth? He'll probably stumble many more times before he masters the art of diplomacy.

Last November, here's what he said he hoped to accomplish as mayor: "Can you really raise citizen-satisfaction scores? Can you really get rid of the damn metal plates? Can you really make Kansas City just as appealing a place to live as Prairie Village? Can the schools be good? Can we have a real bus and a real transit system? Yes. That's not easy. It's hard to do."

Now, parks board members are just trying to do their part.

"Certainly I respect the opinions that have been voiced on both sides," Fierro tells me. But the board is moving forward, he says. "We're responding to the mayor's challenge to improve satisfaction ratings. It's a group effort, with each member of the board, to come up with a realistic plan to improve those ratings."

To save a city, it takes all kinds.

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