Society Magazine

On Partisanship and Punishing Politicians

Posted on the 19 November 2020 by Russellarbenfox
On Partisanship and Punishing Politicians

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

It would be wrong to say I know James Clendenin. I've met him a few times at different city events. Once I asked him to come to Friends University (where I work) for a candidate forum, during which he interacted with and answered questions from the students--about parking enforcement, marijuana decriminalization, and more--in a smart and open-minded way, and that impressed me. Another time I had nice things to say about his genuinely admirable--and ultimately successful--work to save the Starlite Drive-In in south Wichita. That's not enough to say I'm friends with the man, but perhaps it gives me a little cover when I say: the fact he still hasn't resigned from the Wichita City Council in shame disappoints me--but perhaps that disappointed is at least as much rooted in the structure of our city council as much as in anything relevant to the character of Clendenin himself.

That I think he needs to resign isn't news; I signed on to an editorial which unambiguously insisted on that point two weeks ago. That there is cause for him to resign also isn't news; his involvement in both the false smear campaign against then mayoral candidate Brandon Whipple in 2019, and the subsequent effort to set up Sedgwick County Republican Party chair Dalton Glasscock when that smear was exposed, is well-documented, with supporting audio recordings, so much so that all sorts of local power players--including the political arm of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Representative Ron Estes--have called for everyone involved to resign.

Of the three men facing those calls--Clendenin, Michael O'Donnell, and Michael Capps--Clendenin has done the most hunkering down. Capps, a state representative, lost his position in a Republican primary in August; while he ought to formally resign his office before it officially ends in January, he is already persona non grata with most of the local Republican establishment (and the state Republican establishment too; during the primary election, even former governor Jeff Colyer took the time to let his low opinion of Capps be known). O'Donnell initially wanted to tough it out, rebuffing his colleagues on the Sedgwick County Commission when they asked for his resignation. But when Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett announced that he would open ouster proceedings against O'Donnell, he quickly quit, even before it was confirmed that he's lost his re-election bid and that Democrat Sarah Lopez would occupy his seat anyway. Through all this though, despite condemnations from his colleagues on the city council and the members of his own District Advisory Board, Clendenin has remained essentially silent (save for one short statement that only told us what we already basically know).

It is notable that for Clendenin these condemnations of his behavior have been restricted to exactly that: condemnations, not calls for his resignation. Which is curious. Outside of the aforementioned ouster proceedings (which, according to state law, can be brought against any holder of "either state, district, county, township or city office" should they "willfully engage in misconduct while in office") being considered by the district attorney, no one is talking about invoking any kind of official power of expulsion here, so the comments of Councilmembers Claycomb and Tuttle regarding how the city council has "no authority to remove Clendenin from office" and that "the voters are the only ones who are able to change" Clendenin's position as the District 3 representative are off-point. The county commission agreed to formally request that O'Donnell resign in the face of his obviously unethical and possibly criminal actions; why wasn't our city council willing to do the same for Clendenin? (It's not like they don't have grounds, after all; the city of Wichita does have a code which requires councilmembers to "set an example of good ethical conduct," and the state of Kansas does have a statute which emphasizes that city councils can oblige their councilmembers to adhere to such codes.)

There are lots of possible reasons, of course. Clendenin's fellow councilmembers and DAB members, unlike me, actually personally know the man, and can bring actual personal knowledge to the problem. Maybe they see him as an unfortunate patsy, a good guy who was drawn into a scam by the more Machiavellian O'Donnell and Capps, and thus deserves less shame than the others. Maybe they see him as a councilmember who, whatever his irresponsible actions, has done his legislative work well, and thus shouldn't be pushed to step down if the voters in his district aren't trying to recall him. Maybe they see him as an essential part of maintaining whatever fraught coalitions or divides currently exist on the city council, as Mayor Whipple attempt to push Wichita into more aggressive action in terms of controlling the pandemic we all face (a dilemma certain to continue given the state mask mandate ordered Wednesday night), and they don't want to take the risk of replacing him. Or maybe they just want to wait until DA Bennett decides whether or not to pursue ouster proceedings against Clendenin--even though the county commission didn't wait in O'Donnell's case, and the county and state Republican parties didn't wait in Capps's.

Which suggests to me one additional possible reason, one that I do know something about. Maybe it's because the Wichita city council, unlike the county commission or the state legislature, is formally a non-partisan body, and that leaves less internally empowered to make demands on a fellow councilmember's behavior.

The council isn't really nonpartisan, of course; everyone knows the party affiliation of every person on the council, and it's not hard to see the basic party-aligned beliefs and associations held by the different councilmembers reflected in more than a few actions which the city council takes (particularly, in reference to the above, past votes which imposed a mask mandate in Wichita and then later allowed it to expire, though to be fair the latest such vote, on Thursday morning, one made in support of the county's presumed commitment to enforce for Governor Kelly's latest mask order, actually included a slight 5-2 break against party lines, though Clendenin wasn't one of the switchers). But since the official rule of municipal elections and service in Wichita's city government is nonpartisanship, the fiction is maintained--I think with often undemocratic results. I'm a broken record on this point--I really do believe that partisanship is a necessary part of the formula for making our city government both more responsive and more accountable. But let me suggest a different side to this old argument of mine: the different ways which the different elected bodies which Clendenin, Capps, and O'Donnell are (or, in that last case, were) part of responded to their involvement in this scandal reveals the way that partisanship imposes discipline

Parties, for all their limitations and problems, are effective institutional tools or organizing the interests of voters around electable candidates. But that statement focuses on the voter side, not the candidate side. On that side of the equation, parties are, or at least can be, an effective way for talented, ambitious people to connect themselves to the shifting preferences of voters...and for other, equally talented and ambitious people, to hold one another in line, thereby helping to impose accountability to those same voters. Sometime this is expressed through various organizational procedures available within the party: the withdrawing of privileges or funding or support, or even outright expulsion. But more often it is expressed through providing the sort of internally generated peer pressure that enables people to do the personally difficult thing of calling out a colleague, and demanding they face the music. It is easy, for me at least, to imagine that in the partisan environments of the state legislature and the county commission, that enabling force was contributing factor, while in our non-partisan (and, not coincidentally, given our council-manager system, structurally weak) city council, it may not have been felt much at all.

I have no evidence that my imagination is correct, of course; this is, again, just a suggestion. But is it really such an implausible one? Look again at the Sedgwick County Commission, and be absolutely clear on the relevant partisan stakes. In 2020, the year when Republicans outperformed the polls all across the country, all across Kansas, and all across Wichita, another Democrat was elected to the county commission, by a grand total of 264 votes out over 32,000 cast in District 2, bringing the Republican majority on the council down to 3-2. Sure, solid Republicans like Pete Meitzner and David Dennis and Jim Howell might not be particularly worried about that shift--but is it really likely that none of them are cognizant of the strong likelihood that if the scandal-plagued O'Donnell had resigned after the story of the false smear had first broke in 2019, or even at any reasonable point in 2020, and almost any other Republican was subsequently appointed in his place, that this November their Republican majority on the commission would still be 4-1? And now that all is said and done, that their recognition of this sad result contributes to their being just be a little tired of the man who tarnished their brand?

Implausible or not, the fact remains that, as of this writing, Mayor Whipple and the rest of the Wichita City Council are going forward conducting business alongside a man who helped raise money for a false smear and then, when that smear was exposed, was fully on board, according to his own recorded words, with framing an innocent person for the deed. Perhaps condemning him for his unrepentant attitude is sufficient, or perhaps waiting to see if the DA will present him with a stark choice is also. But O'Donnell's resignation, and Capp's retreat from the limelight, surely happened at least in part because their colleagues--and in both of their cases, their Republican colleagues--let them know that the party no longer had their back. In an environment where parties are artificially hidden, one of the great benefits of parties--the motivation of members to make costs tangible in the choices made by their fellow elected representatives--is muted. Whether that is actually a part of why O'Donnell and Capps no longer wield any political authority on the part of Wichita voters, but Clendenin still does, is something I don't know, any more than I know all that much about Clendenin himself. But as our city continues to move forward through these difficult times, it's something to think about, all the same.

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