Hunter Larkin says he decided to run for the Sedgwick County commission in January, when Commissioner David Dennis voted to appoint the board’s lone Democrat, Lacey Cruse, as vice chair.
Dennis joined one of his Republican colleagues in that vote, but Larkin says the decision was enough to make him question Dennis’ conservative principles.
"I have a hard time believing that David Dennis is true conservative, and that’s what I like to call myself," Larkin said. "I’m running because I think I can actually do a better job and represent my conservative constituents in the 3rd District."
Now, he’s challenging Dennis in the Aug. 4 Republican primary. Whoever wins next week will face Democrat Mike Iuen in the November general election.
At 21 years old, Larkin isn’t a political newcomer – outside of his job in accounting and human resources for an oil pipe company, he’s in his first term on the Goddard City Council and serves as the council president.
"I always thought that a government should be run more like a business in some instances," he said. "I'm pretty happy to say that I maintain the lowest municipal mill levy in Sedgwick County other than Viola. So obviously that concept works. And I plan on doing the same thing for Sedgwick County."
Dennis has represented the 3rd District since 2016, after he defeated incumbent Karl Peterjohn in the Republican primary and independent Marcey Gregory in the general election. Dennis, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, previously served on the Kansas State Board of Education and the Wichita City Council District 5 advisory board.
"All you have to do is go to my website and you'll see the accomplishments that I've had during the previous four years," Dennis said of his first term on the commission. "I intend to continue that level of working for not only my district, but all of Sedgwick County."
The 3rd District is the largest in the county, and one of the most rural – it includes northwest Wichita and extends to Mount Hope, Cheney and Viola.
"My district is a fairly unique in a couple aspects," Dennis said. "The bulk of my citizens are actually inside of the city of Wichita, but the bulk of my land mass is outside.
"So we have a lot of issues in my district that are not common to the other districts because of the amount of agriculture that's going on there."
He says the 3rd District contains half the county’s bridges – about 300 in all — and maintaining those bridges, and the district’s 300 miles of roads, is a priority.
"We’re working diligently on the Northwest Bypass. We're up to now putting a million dollars a year and that's been matched by the state of Kansas to help buy right-of way," Dennis said. "That economic development is just sitting there waiting to go if we can get that Northwest Bypass built, that goes between Maize and Goddard."
For Larkin, the economy will be a focus, particularly rising property taxes.
"We need to make sure that we try to go in there and get the mill levy lowered so that more money is in the people's pockets instead of the government's pockets," he said, "because the more money the government has is it just goes into the black hole, and we'll never see it again."
Dennis says there are some realities that Larkin doesn’t understand about being on the commission.
"We were asked to whether or not we'd waive the late fees on the payment of property tax and we don't have that authority," Dennis said. "We voted to send a letter to the governor asking if we could do that. And we didn't get permission to waive that."
The county is in the process of putting together its "lean" 2021 budget. Dennis says it’s difficult to cut costs without also losing valuable services the county funds, like EMS and Meals on Wheels.
"I don't know what critical service we provide that we could actually just start cutting in order to be able to reduce the property tax," he said.
Larkin says the current pandemic has shown that there’s "fat in places" to trim off."
"Small businesses have to do it. So why can't government have to do it?" he said. "I think that through these times, governments and businesses learn how to be more innovative, and we can adjust to the atmosphere and … I know that we’ll come out better."
Both Larkin and Dennis tout conservative ideals on their campaign websites — low taxes, fiscal responsibility. But Dennis says on Aug. 4, voters will have a "stark" choice to make.
"They’re going to have a choice now," he said, "a fairly stark choice between two very different candidates."
One of the biggest splits is the commission's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The county issued a stay-at-home order in March, a week before Gov. Laura Kelly issued her own statewide shutdown.
Larkin has repeatedly criticized the commission, specifically Dennis, for encroaching on residents’ liberties and harming the economy. Goddard restricted some in-person city services early in the pandemic, but didn’t put in any additional restrictions.
"I think that's a really rocky road that we can head down … when we start determining what's essential and what's not essential," he said.
Larkin says masks should be optional, not mandated.
"[Dennis] is letting Dr. Minns do all of the ordering, with the mask order," Larkin said, refering to county health officer Garold Minns. "I think we need to stand up for our liberties. There’s nothing wrong with wearing a mask, I have no problem with that.
"But when we start dictating people’s lives on what they’re supposed to do and what they’re not supposed to do, that’s when I have a problem with it."
Dennis stresses the importance of maintaining distance, washing hands frequently and wearing masks to protect people around you.
"Unfortunately the mask issue’s become more of a political rather than a moral issue. And we have to change that thought process," he said. "We need to start thinking about our fellow man and women in the community and do what we can do to start turning the direction of this."
Dennis says the commission probably acted too early with its shutdown order, but with the situation changing every day, he says the commission is always having to make adjustments.
"The first three years I was on the commission … and being the board of health, it was always in the back of your mind," he said. "Any decision we made, we always had to remember that we were the (board of health) and does this impact something along that line?
"We never made decisions strictly related to the health department. And now our days are consumed with that issue."
Withe number of active cases rising and the percentage of positive tests now in the double digits, it’s likely next year’s commission will be still be dealing with the pandemic.
Larkin says that’s what makes this year’s election so important.
"When a government, when the Sedgwick County government, has the ability to tell you what businesses are essential, what businesses aren't essential, you gotta wear a mask, you gotta do this," he said, "we've never seen the amount of power in our local elections before, ever before, until now."