Making history

McClinton shares background

Published Thursday, January 01, 2004

Anthony S. Bush/The Capital-Journal
Topeka Mayor-elect James McClinton, center, shakes hands with Karol Sutherland at a downtown New Year's Eve party. City Councilman John Nave is at right.

By Alicia Henrikson
The Capital-Journal

Mayor-elect James McClinton wasn't feeling so great Wednesday.

He was ecstatic that the Topeka City Council had elected him mayor on Tuesday night, but a viral infection sent him to the doctor the next morning.

"I get this infection once a year," he said. "God has a way of doing things. Perhaps this is his way of keeping my feet on the ground and not letting this go to my head."

But other than feeling under the weather, McClinton said he didn't feel any different Wednesday than Tuesday.

Being mayor hasn't sunk in yet, he said.

"It just seems like a challenging job," McClinton said.

McClinton's selection as mayor is a bit of history in the making.

He likely is the only person to have been appointed mayor by the Topeka City Council, said local historian Douglass Wallace. And, he said, McClinton is the city's first black mayor.

"He's more than just a footnote in the history pages," Wallace said Wednesday.


Ever since he was a child, McClinton knew he wanted to help people.

Born in Milwaukee, he was moved to Arkansas as a baby to live with his grandmother.

When he was 6, his grandmother asked his 18-year-old sister Bobbie Jean O'Neal, who lived in Topeka, if she would raise McClinton.
"I was blessed," he said. "My sister had just graduated from Topeka High School and she agreed to take care of me."

McClinton said his grandmother must have known she didn't have much time left. She died a month after he moved to Topeka.

He said O'Neal made him spend a lot of time at church as he grew up in Topeka. She generally made him do welcomings at the beginning of the service.

"I think that's where I developed my speaking skills," he said. "But she raised me right and made sure I went to the best schools."

He remembers he and his sister moving back to Arkansas for about a year, but they later returned to Topeka.

McClinton attended Boswell Junior High School and then went to Topeka High School for about nine weeks before his sister decided to move and he had to transfer to Washburn Rural High School. He didn't like the change or leaving his friends, he said, but it probably was the best move.

Teachers at the high school took McClinton under their wing. They must have seen something, he said.

"They wanted to prepare me for college," he said. "No one in my family had gone and I hadn't thought about it."

But McClinton was able to secure some scholarships and attended Washburn University. After being involved in city politics as a member of the Topeka City Council, McClinton earned a master's degree in public administration from The University of Kansas.

Community thoughts

Since 1987, McClinton has attended Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, where he serves as a trustee.

"We're quite excited about his new position and we're quite proud," said church clerk Elizabeth Ross.

She describes McClinton as a friendly, intelligent and thoughtful person, and said she was sure church members put McClinton in their prayers.

"And I'm sure the prayers will continue for him to make sure he makes wise decisions and is a good mayor," Ross said. "We expect that from him and we will be praying for him."

He is the first black mayor in Topeka, she said, and that reflects well on him.

Local civil rights activist Sonny Scroggins agreed, calling the council's decision "spectacular."

"I'm bubbling with joy," he said. "It's a major accomplishment for Topeka to elect a black mayor. It's a good, positive thing, and it will have a lasting impact."

Working together

McClinton knows what it is to be a council member. He has twice served as one and thinks he and the council will be able to work together to accomplish their goals.

He considers himself a moderate in comparison to the mayors he has worked with. He said Mayor Butch Felker, who resigned this fall amid an ouster action, was "pretty calm and low key," while Mayor Joan Wagnon was "pretty forceful" and "knew where she wanted to be."

"I see myself in the middle of them," McClinton said. "I'm a moderate. I think the staff is comfortable with me. I think people know that."

Acting Mayor and Councilman Duane Pomeroy said he also thinks the city hall staff "feels comfortable" with McClinton.

"The mood around city hall is really upbeat," Pomeroy said. "I think they're really excited. I think the mood I'm sensing from the council is we're going to have a whole new dynamic and move away from being polarized and move back into an era of looking at items based on merit, not personalities."

Former Councilwoman Betty Dunn said Wednesday she was "too disappointed" in the council's decision to "rationally talk about it."

Former Councilman Jim Gardner said he would be interested in seeing how McClinton relates to the council "given his aggressiveness and quick temper."

Gardner and McClinton had some verbal confrontations while serving on the council together.

"We did have incidents in the past where his temper and mine may have escalated," Gardner said. "But there were other times when we were able to work together. I wish him the best of luck."

McClinton said there were times when he felt Gardner was physically threatening.

"I'm not quick to anger," he said. "I'm pretty mild-mannered."

He talks about how he was labeled as an aggressive person by radio talk shows.

"I wouldn't know how to fight my way out of a bag," he said.

Community leaders

Richard Forester, director of the Topeka Convention and Visitors Bureau, memorized McClinton's home telephone number Wednesday morning.

He was calling to congratulate him, but the line was always busy.

Forester eventually completed the call. He said he is looking forward to working with McClinton, whom he considers a supporter of tourism. That is important with all of the new attractions opening this year -- including the Great Overland Station and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.

"This is going to be a very important year for Topeka when it comes to the tourism industry," Forester said. "I think we have a mayor who wants to be involved and visible."

Doug Kinsinger, president and executive officer of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, said McClinton has been active with Go Topeka, an economic development arm in the county, for several years.

He understands economic development and that is appealing, Kinsinger said.

"I think he is an individual who will represent the community well and I think we will work well with him," Kinsinger said.

Some members of the community, however, were concerned with McClinton. The YWCA opposed his selection before the council voted.

The YWCA closed at noon Wednesday, and no staff members could be reached for comment.

Party lines

Councilman Jeff Preisner said he slept better Tuesday night than he had in weeks.

Preisner said he had two people in mind when it came time to vote for the new mayor -- John Arnold and McClinton.

After speaking with McClinton three times, Preisner said he was convinced that he was the correct choice.

"He was the one I wanted to represent the city," Preisner said.

Although city elections are non-partisan, Preisner, who is a Republican, crossed party lines by supporting McClinton, who is a Democrat.

McClinton received votes from Preisner and Democratic Councilmen John Alcala, John Nave and Duane Pomeroy in the first round of balloting. Councilman Councilman Clark Duffy, a registered Independent, provided McClinton with a fifth vote and the mayor's job in the second round of balloting.

Duffy's first-round vote went to L.J. Polly, who is a registered Independent.

Councilmen Harold Lane and Bill Haynes stuck to party lines with their votes for Democrat Jack Alexander and Republican Bill Bunten, respectively.

Arnold, registered as an Independent, received votes from two Republicans -- Councilman Gary Price and Councilwoman Lisa Stubbs.