In run for mayor, Keith James seeks to bridge economic divide



When a land use or development issue comes before the board, City Commissioner Keith James can be counted on to pose the lawyerly questions, asking city staffers to explain details as if parsing a contract. But overall he remains something of a mystery to the public, a frequent supporter of Mayor Jeri Muoio’s initiatives but one who hasn’t stepped into the spotlight with projects of his own. To be sure, that’s partly because, with West Palm’s strong-mayor form of government and Muoio’s approach to it, commissioners serve as policy makers, not movers and shakers of their own accord.

So with Muoio term-limited out, mayoral candidate James, who has represented the wealthier, western part of the city since 2011 as District 4 commissioner, is stepping forward to let voters citywide know who he is and what he hopes to do for them.

For one, he wants the public to know he wasn’t always a Harvard lawyer. He grew up in a small house in Wichita, Kans., son of a single mother who was 17 when he was born, and of a “bad boy” father who dropped in and out of sight.

Though his mother never completed high school, she knew education would be the key to her son’s progress in life, James said in an interview. So he kept his head in his books.

Still, when a high school counselor pulled James aside and suggested he apply to an Ivy League university, he didn’t know what that was. “I said, ‘Ivy what?’” he recalled. “My life experiences are probably more similar to folks in our least advantaged neighborhoods.”

His policy priorities, if elected, will include public safety, economic development, technology and seeking regional solutions to housing, homelessness and transportation, he said in a recent interview.

He supports buttressing police with crime-fighting technologies such as ShotSpotter, license-plate readers and computer analysis, as well as with continued efforts at community policing. But he says the city also needs to build the economic infrastructure of its poorer neighborhoods. “These kids don’t have jobs,” he said.

And if the city can’t stop crime, it won’t fill its office buildings or attract visitors, he said. “We’re only as strong as our weakest neighborhoods.”

The city needs to diversify its economy, to expand beyond real estate and tourism to hot areas of the future, whether health care or the marine industry or others, he said. It also needs to encourage growth of “the generation of creators that’s coming up,” he said, noting the city hosts more of a tech community than most people realize. Similarly he wants the city to position itself to take advantage of the automated vehicle technology of the future. “Why can’t West Palm Beach be one of those test sites?” he asked.

The city also should partner for regional solutions to major issues, from addressing the shortage of affordable housing, the need for mass transit improvement and to coordinate on addressing homelessness, he said.

With the mayoral election not until March 2019, James was the first to jump into the race. The only other person to file candidacy papers so far is Priscilla Taylor, former county commissioner. City Commissioner Paula Ryan, a developer whose district runs from the wealthy El Cid area to the poorer Northwest, sounds more and more like a candidate lately, as well, while south end businesswoman and former commissioner Shanon Materio also is considering a run. Subculture Coffee co-owner Sean Scott said he, too, may run.

West Palm needs to focus on what it wants to look like, five, 10 years from now, James said. Some people still want it to be the same sleepy town it was 30 years ago, he said. While aware of the problems growth created for Miami-Dade and Broward, he said, “we can’t ignore the forces of change.”


The Palm Beach Post // By: Tony Doris

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