Voters in Wichita will decide next week whether to stay the course with the city’s current mayor, or take city hall in a different direction.
Incumbent Mayor Jeff Longwell is seeking re-election against state Rep. Brandon Whipple. Each candidate brings years of political experience to the role — one local, the other at the state level.
While both Longwell and Whipple agree that Wichita is at a pivotal moment, they disagree on how to keep the momentum going. And in an election campaign season that’s been marked by an investigation, allegations of improper behavior against both sides, partisan interference and a defamation lawsuit, actual issues facing Wichita have often taken a backseat in recent months.
Longwell’s re-election bid started uneventfully: He won the August primary with 32 percent of the vote, about 6 percentage points ahead of Whipple, who finished second in the nine-person race.
Then, on Sept. 29, almost two months after the primary, came a Wichita Eagle article alleging Longwell had steered a multi-million dollar contract for the new water treatment plant to his friends on the Wichita Water Partners team – and socialized with members of the team during the bidding process.
Longwell has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and stresses he was not the tie-breaking vote to award the initial contract to the team.
“It was a 5-2 vote to approve the contract for Wichita Water Partners,” he says. “Five people on the council, bright people, independent thinkers, that said this is the right move for Wichita.”
Still, the news has been the target of some of his opponent’s campaign ads, and a misleading mailer paid for by the state Democratic Party. Complaints stemming from the article triggered an investigation by the Sedgwick County District Attorney, who concluded Longwell needed to re-file a substantial interest form.
And, the ordeal prompted a third candidate, Lyndy Wells, to launch a write-in campaign.
But Longwell wants Wichitans to focus on other things this election.
“We have been serving this community in different capacities for nearly 25 years. I have a 25-year track record,” he says. “So people want to make eleventh hour accusations that I'm corrupt? Go look at my 25-year track record.
“I've been a part of this community forever. And it's all political noise when you have opponents talk about corruption and transparency issues. We've had more momentum in the last four years than we've seen in the last 15.”
That momentum, he says, includes a growing police force, the top fire safety rating, more businesses downtown and a renewed Wichita pride that he says wasn’t around when he was first elected four years ago.
“We built a new law enforcement training center. We have a multitude of new buildings along the core. We kept Cargill in Wichita," he says.
"We've seen the river corridor finally take off. Obviously, the Triple-A baseball stadium is gonna be something pretty special. It's hard to point to one accomplishment because there's just so much momentum. But we're really happy with where Wichita is at today.”
Longwell first came into public office as a member of the Maize School Board, where he served for 12 years. He represented west Wichita on the City Council for several years before being elected mayor in 2015.
Back then, he says, the city’s biggest concern was not enough jobs. Now, there are more jobs than people.
“We took a different approach to job growth and economic development,” he says. “And it's been successful.”
That approach has included wooing a variety of businesses outside of aviation and at different points along the wage scale.
“I mean, not everyone is going to be an engineer or a doctor or so we need a wide spectrum of jobs,” he says.
Going forward, Longwell says the top priorities will be infrastructure — including the almost half-billion-dollar water treatment plant — and investing in quality of life amenities like parks, bike paths, the new baseball stadium and a potential new performing arts venue.
He says for too long, Wichita was afraid of making investments.
“We didn't want to, obviously, raise taxes to do it. We seem to just simply fall behind on some critical infrastructure,” he says. “And so we've been doing a pretty good job of catching up over the last several years because we said, we need to invest in our future. And we were able to do it in a way that didn't raise taxes.”
City Council and the office of mayor are non-partisan positions. But Longwell, who has the backing of the Sedgwick County Republican Party, is positioning himself as the “small government” candidate in contrast to Whipple, a Democrat.
“Oh, my lord. So, we are very, very, very different people,” Longwell says. “His voting record, obviously, at the state, is far different from the way that I have structured both philosophical points of view and my voting record here locally.”
The local legislator
Whipple’s seven years in Topeka are either an asset or a target, depending on whom you ask.
The East Coast native moved to Wichita about 16 years ago, initially to pursue a career in social work. After an unsuccessful run for office in 2010, he was elected to the Legislature representing District 96 in 2012.
His opponent points to Whipple’s votes in the Legislature on certain tax bills: Whipple voted in 2017 to override former Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill rolling back his signature tax cuts; and voted this year against a tax cut bill.
But Whipple says he’s the candidate standing between Wichita residents and a tax increase.
"I'm the only candidate who has true budgeting experience,” he says. "I am not sold that we need any type of tax increase with the current budget until I am able to get my eyes on it, pull out my red pen and figure out how can we maintain services while not duplicating efforts.
"I believe that can work within the current constraints of our budget."
Whipple’s decision to run for mayor midway through his fourth term in the Legislature wasn’t necessarily about who’s in office now. He says he began hearing from people — both Democrats and Republicans — disappointed in how city hall was being run.
“We have some momentum going forward. We're doing better than we were a couple of years ago,” he says. “But if you look at it from the bigger perspective, which it should be, we are not in line with our sister cities. … The other thing is, we're losing our young people.
“For us to continue the momentum that has been happening, we need a mayor that understands ... what the potential is for us to grow. And the potential for us to grow isn't looking at what we did a few years ago.”
Whipple says his experience and connections at the state level will translate to the office of mayor. He says if elected, his main focus will be on public safety, but he also wants to keep Wichita “cool” to younger residents.
“We need to be supporting our art scene. We need to be supporting our parks. We need to be working with the county to make sure that ... stuff like our zoo has what it needs,” he says. “We have some really good stuff here in Wichita, and we can build upon that.
“I'll just throw in there as a legislator, this is the first time in years that we actually have a surplus up in the state. Wouldn't it be nice for Wichita if we had someone in the mayor's office who has the experience and the social equity to make calls up to Topeka and ask for the art commission to be reinstated?”
Whipple will have to win over more than his statehouse district, with a population one-eighth the size of Wichita. He’s up against Longwell, who has served in local offices for more than two decades, as well as Wells, who launched his write-in campaign weeks before Election Day.
“Really, the way that we have won in the Legislature is just grassroots politics,” Whipple says. “But I can't knock on every door personally in Wichita. Our goal is to bring that grassroots politics to the citywide election, and that's what makes us different.”
A “messy” campaign
Whipple’s time in the Legislature has also been the subject of a series of anonymous mailers and video ads alleging he used underage interns as designated drivers while in Topeka; it’s a charge he denies. He filed a defamation lawsuit this week against the producers of the video, two of whom are identified only as “John Doe.”
“That mailer had no citation. … the stuff that they cited was stuff that had to do with other legislators, not me," Whipple says. "So, you know, we saw it as just a smear attempt. And the fact that the people who sent it broke the ethics laws by not reporting it ... says a lot about it.
“It was a smear attack. And people saw it as that.”
The ads, along with the controversy surrounding the water treatment plant (and the resulting misleading mailers paid for by the state Democratic Party) have made for an election that Longwell himself calls “messy.”
“In 25 years of campaigning for local offices, it’s never been like that before,” he says.
Each side points to the other as an example of partisan politics creeping into a local, nonpartisan election. Complicating things further is the late appearance of a third candidate, Wells, and the possibility he might split the vote.
Wells, a retired businessman, came in third in the August primary. He re-entered the race as a write-in candidate just as early voting was starting to, as he said, “give the voters an alternative to the two candidates who are on the ballot.”
Wells’ name won’t appear on the ballot alongside Longwell and Whipple. The Sedgwick County Election Office says it’s preparing to have extra staff on hand to review write-in ballots the day after Election Day, Nov. 5.