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Wichita Mayor Reflects On Challenging First Year In Office

whipple_office_2020.jpg
Nadya Faulx
/
KMUW
Mayor Brandon Whipple takes notes in his office as he listens to a call. Whipple is nearing the end of his first year as Wichita's mayor.

When Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple was sworn into office on Jan. 13, 2020, he thought the recently announced layoffs at Spirit AeroSystems would be his biggest challenge.

"And then, you know," he said, "the pandemic hit."

Whipple recently spoke with KMUW's Nadya Faulx about his challenging first year in office and what he's looking forward to in 2021.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nadya Faulx: So, to kind of look back, your first year in office, we had layoffs at Spirit, that's kind of what kicked things off. The pandemic hit, and then this summer Wichita had protests against police violence. So, it –

Mayor Whipple: It’s been a year. It’s been a year.

Yeah, to say. So, of all those things, what would you consider as the most challenging?

Really the most challenging is probably to synthesize the different issues that we have been going through as a community, to build upon each one, right? To make sure that if we are going to have a crisis to find a silver lining in it, and to figure out ... what can we do to ensure that that adaptation leads to purposeful change?

So I came into this office thinking that my biggest problem was going to be the layoffs over with Spirit (AeroSystems) because of the Max being grounded. ... And then, you know, the pandemic hit. And that was interesting because there's no blueprint for that. And, as you mentioned, some of the social unrest.

So, really, during the campaign ... we had a saying, where it was just, “Win the day.” … So that saying led into this year, which was, you know, we might have a crisis, but one day at a time. How do we utilize today to purposefully walk towards the goal?

Do you feel like that mantra has served you well this year, just taking it one day at a time?

We had to build on that, of course … During this year we had to attack multiple different targets. Like, we have to address our COVID situation. So public health, we have to also ensure that our small businesses and even large businesses can make it through the results of public health orders to keep people healthy; they also might have a negative effect in some of our businesses. And then we have to protect employees, right, and not just the employer.

So we also have to come around and make sure that we have the resources, the programs in place, for those who are out of work or have less work now. So all of this was multiple targets that we had attack with policy, but also a collaboration with community leaders. And ... our idea was just face these issues head on and attack all of them. Don’t, I guess, let up, and that's what we've done.

And still having to do, certainly.

I mean, that's the thing, like, we're not done yet. That’s OK because we're making progress. This year, as far as the progress we have made, has actually been very productive. You know, when you look at, and I call it the scoreboard, right? ... What can we say we've done?

And we've put more resources into and really leaned on staff and challenged them, into, for example, homelessness, than any time in Wichita's history. Being able to utilize one-time funds from the CARES Act to not just help us during this current pandemic, but to purchase assets that will help us after the pandemic… so that, you know, we're not just buying hotel rooms for homeless folks who to be, you know, away from others, quarantined, during this time, but we bought a hotel to convert it into a long-term housing in the future.

... And that is, you know, like I said, finding that silver lining where we have this money to solve this problem. What can we do to not just solve it now, but make sure that it builds on top of some of the infrastructure we have already.

It sounds like you're satisfied with what city's accomplished, but how do you rate the city's pandemic response so far, and looking back, knowing what we know now, is there anything that you would have done different or wish you had had the information to make a different decision?

So, I’m really not good on ratings … But, you know, as far as looking back, yeah, it's interesting. I remember when COVID hit and when I was talking on the phone with the staff over at ... the governor's office, and ... this is the very beginning of the year. The modeling showed if we did nothing, we would lose hundreds of lives right off the bat that summer.

And I remember talking to someone else who was in politics and he said something about, you know, "I'd hate to do all this stuff and then find out nothing happens and we did it for nothing." … I remember telling my wife, "You know, this might be it for us politically, and just wanted you to know I'm OK with that. And I hope you're OK." ... I said that 'cause if we do this right, everyone is going to say we overreacted. And they're going to point to ... the harm that you caused by having these precautions in place. And I'm OK with that if the exchange is that we saved lives.

But then again, it's this up and down. So thinking back, you know, could we have done it differently? I don't know because I never anticipated that there'd be pushback against medical doctors, right? Like, I never anticipated the partisan viewpoint that coronavirus inflicted in some people, right? Like, the same people that you would take a loved one to, to save their life if they were going through a crisis, turned also into the same people that those folks might actually not trust when it came to this virus.

I think looking back, I'm not sure if there's more we could have done, but I'm not happy with the results because ... It was that like, how am I, how are we not getting this message out? Like, how are we not doing better when it comes to letting folks know that we want people to stay alive during this?

But like you said, it became a very partisan issue, very divisive. And you received threats against you and your family. The mayor of Dodge City just resigned for similar reasons. She said she was threatened over her support for a mask ordinance.

We've had to leave before. We've had threats, and I would ask my family to go stay with relatives. That's happened to us before. … But, this has been a very interesting case where we also, I mean, I think there was a plot to kidnap and kill me. That was, you know, a few months ago, and that got some national news.

And you kind of think about how it's a reminder of what folks are going through during this crisis …where there was a lot of anxiety, And you have the partisan politics of it. You have a lens that folks, I think, look through during an election and we all do this. So things that normally aren't very partisan kind of seem partisan on an election year.

But the reality is, folks are hurting during this time and I signed up for this, right?... I'm the mayor of Wichita not because it's fun. I'm the mayor of Wichita because I think that I can help get us through some of this, and I will until — I joke about this, but I'm kind of serious — I will until they finally are successful in either voting me out or assassinating me. 

We mentioned at the beginning, the civil unrest this summer that Wichita saw and a lot of cities across the country saw, and you were present at some of these demonstrations, you were involved. So what are some of the tangible things that the city has done in response to those, and to respond to some of the requests and the solutions put forward by some of these activists?

So one of the worst things I think politicians do is they go into a conversation with the answer before they hear about the problem, right? … I'm pretty proud of Wichita and the folks we work with here because we try not to do that when we approach these very difficult discussions about equity in race and equality.

I did show up to these events because, you know, I work for people. I work for everyone here in Wichita, and I wanted to hear what we could be doing more of. And what's interesting is a few things. Some of the stuff that was being requested of us we actually did here in Wichita years ago because we have a very effective and involved activist community.

...We have body cameras on all of our police officers, for example. We have a citizens review board. We have a police chief who gets out there and will be in our community and has a community policing focus. So with that, it was more about how do we build, first of all, or, talk about the progress Wichita has made thanks to the input we get from our community, and then also build on top of it?

So what we did is we didn't take one side or the other, right? We brought all sides to the table and in doing so, we came with up with policy reform, implemented the “Eight Can't Wait” policy with our police chief, with our staff here and with the activist community, which is, you know … these practices have been shown to ensure that situations of brutality are lessened by about 70%.

… This is a start. And my goal is to figure out what what's that next step. 

In the middle of everything else that's been going on, you have had your own civil litigation, kind of personal and professional, with regards to the smear ad in last year's mayoral campaign, the recording that came out confirming that one of your fellow council members was involved. What is it like serving alongside this member, working with this person and having to almost set that aside and focus on city issues?

(Note: James Clendenin has since resigned from the Wichita City Council.)

So the stuff that came out, a lot of that stuff I knew about for a long time during this year before the public did, because it is, you know, it's an ongoing case. I can't let that stuff out. … But it actually, to be honest, it just breaks my heart ... The member you're referring to is my representative on the council. Like, I've known this person for years. We've worked together.

I can't listen to that audio that came out. I try and I can't. ... I worked with these people and to me, it was about solving problems, not about partisanship, and then to like, kind of see the attack that happened on us and then the response to it when they got caught, right? Like, I mean, there's no more smoking gun than like, this is your voice. Like, not only the text messages, not only, you know, the other stuff that came up, this is your voice.

But moving on, my problems, when it comes to folks, I guess, going to lengths they did to try to destroy my family, are not nearly as urgent as people who have loved ones dying to the coronavirus, of people who are suffering because their businesses … aren't getting the customers they normally get. I have to put that aside, and, you know, I try to ... . I let my lawyer work on it. I try not to take comments on it too much, but also, I got elected to clean this place up.

… So I got to keep moving forward with this and also with our ethics reform, which is going to start [in January]. I already have ... been working on that document for all year, but we're going to finally get that going. But the goal is to change a culture, right? ... And we can change that here and that should help restore trust in city government. And then also should set the tone for future elections so that hopefully we can get good people to take time out of their career and represent us at all different levels.

Just briefly looking back at the year, do you have any regrets or wish you had done anything differently?

I mean, I'm going to always be looking back in this year, wondering what more we could have done to save more lives. … I'm always gonna wonder about that. What could we have done more? Like, what could I have done more to try to stop the spread of this or to support our medical folks or, you know, I don't know.

That's why I'm going to be wondering, I guess, moving forward. But you know, again, we're still in it, right? Like, I can't really ponder that right now. We have an opportunity to save more lives as the vaccine rolls out. I have an opportunity as mayor to utilize my platform, to communicate public safety measures so that we can get our economy going again, people back to work, kids back in the classroom.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes for 2021?

I hope 2021 is one of the best years we have. I think we deserve it as Wichita. I've already talked to the manager about like, “Hey, every fun thing we canceled, we're going to have to do this year.”

Wichitans, we are people you don't bet against. Wichitans we are people who get through tough times and come out even better. And I think that our city will do that. I 100% expect it. So, you know, once we get through the spring and vaccinations get out, once, I think, those numbers go down, things are getting back to what we think is normal, I think that we're going to bounce back better than we have before. And I'm here for that, right? Like let's, let's build on top of the good stuff that we have done and, you know, let's make Wichita the greatest place it can be.