Society Magazine

The Potential Of, and the Problems With, Wichita’s (More) Partisan Future

Posted on the 13 January 2022 by Russellarbenfox

The Potential of, and the Problems with, Wichita’s (More) Partisan Future

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

 (From left to right: Mayor Brandon Whipple; Mike Hoheisel, councilmember for Wichita District 3; Maggie Ballard, councilmember for Wichita District 6; Brandon Johnson, councilmember for Wichita District 6. Photo credit: Chris Pumpelly)

There’s been a lot of talk about the “new Democratic majority” on the city council that officially took power on Monday night. WSU professor Chase Billingham, in particular, observed last August what the consequences of the November elections might mean should they go the way Mayor Whipple wanted them to (which they did), and in a long Facebook post on Monday, Billingham considered a relatively small-stakes fight during last week’s council agenda review meeting in ways that makes his observations from last year seem pretty prescient: namely, that with three--presumably reliable--Democratic votes on the council, Mayor Whipple appears both capable and willing to pursue agenda items that he previously knew he wouldn’t have the votes to push forward. And he wants the Republicans on the council–who have long enjoyed an unstated and basically uncontested majority on the council but are now in the minority–to know it.

So is the business of the city council, or the way it conducts business, about to radically change, and if so, how should the people of Wichita feel about that? Answering those questions aren’t easy, because it obliges one to figure out just what the business of our, or any, city council, actually is--or ought to be.

Is the business of a city council the sort of thing which even ought to be construed in partisan terms, much less one where talking about having a “Democratic majority” on a council is meaningful? There’s plenty of reason to think “no,” and a lot of those reasons are echoed by the members of this Democratic cohort themselves. In a long article on partisanship in municipal elections published in the Kansas Leadership Center Journal last November, Ballard affirmed “local elections should stay nonpartisan in nature and focused on local issues,” while Johnson claimed that keeping city council elections and candidates “focused on the issues” makes it “harder to simply paint candidates with broad partisan brushes.” These views are reflective of a perspective that is more than a century old: the presumption that partisan groupings, being more national and ideological, have nothing to do with figuring out how to keep potholes filled and otherwise managing the rules and resources necessary for living and working together in a city, and hence that municipal elections shouldn’t involve candidates identifying themselves by a party label, much less running with the support of party organizations. Hoheisel echoed these presumptions in an interview after his election, stating that his “political leanings are irrelevant” to the business of the city council.

One problem with all these assumptions, however, is that they are not actually grounded in complaints over partisan identification or political beliefs. Rather, they really turn on the voting and funding practices which partisanship activity is usually seen as connected to, and the fact that many of those activities are seen as corrupting. To be sure, that’s a legitimate concern. However, there isn’t a lot of evidence that making municipal elections non-partisan actually evades any of those practices or activities (which, of course, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who remembers the mayoral election of 2019, where the lack of partisan labels certainly didn’t prevent corrupt actions and accusations from dominating the campaign).  In fact, the evidence mostly indicates that Democrats and Republicans elected to municipal positions tend to act—despite the constraints which our system imposes upon city governments–pretty similar to other Democrats and Republicans elected to all other political positions. And voters pick up on that similarity pretty quickly, with Democratic and Republican voters casting their ballots (and making their donations) accordingly.

This doesn’t mean Democratic or Republican voters are any less likely to hold Democratic or Republican officeholders accountable for failing to keep potholes filled, absent other considerations. Nor does it mean that national partisan positions will always be a good predictor of local partisan ones (for example, promoting bike paths, farmers markets, and alternative transportation and environmental sustainability generally are usually seen as liberal or progressive causes in the United States, yet Councilmembers Becky Tuttle and Bryan Frye, both Republicans, have been smart and consistent supporters of both). But it does mean that those “other considerations”—which reflect the wide variety of ways in which most of us identify our interests and respond to public concerns in an electoral way—are always going to be present. Going to extra lengths to prevent cultural or socio-economic or racial or any other considerations from “polluting” municipal elections by connecting them to partisan positions beyond those of pure municipal management is, I think, a fool’s errand (not to mention, given the way our system, for better or worse, strongly supports the freedom of speech and association, potentially unconstitutional). Allowing people to organize and run for office with those considerations—and those partisan connections—explicitly present would make possible a wider (and, I think, a more responsible) engagement with the diverse interests present throughout Wichita’s city council districts. Hence my belief that our city council elections should be partisan, as I’ve argued againand againand again.

But whatever your opinion on bringing partisanship to the forefront or hoping to keep it subdued when it comes to Wichita’s city council, the fact is that in 2019 Wichita elected a mayor who—as he put it in the same article which quoted Ballard and Johnson—has a “different viewpoint” when it comes to partisanship, seeing it as “less scary and dirty” than many may make it out to be. Whipple’s belief that partisanship is a valid—perhaps even unavoidable—tool when it comes to leadership is, I think, correct. That’s not a defense of the many ways in which partisan thinking makes compromise--which the fundamental, ambition-vs-ambition, Madisonian logic of our constitutional system accepts as essential—more difficult. The worries expressed by Lynn Rogers, Kansas’s state treasurer, former lieutenant governor, and a Wichita resident, about the rising partisanship in Wichita’s (and other Kansas) municipal elections, especially when it comes to rules about candidate eligibility, can’t be easily dismissed.

The Potential of, and the Problems with, Wichita’s (More) Partisan FutureBut it is also valid to note that parties and their members—both those who run for office and those who vote for them—don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re shaped by their electoral environment, and those shapings change as the wider environment does. Insofar as the state of Kansas and the city of Wichita are concerned, it is reasonable to see both of them as going through, however slowly, the same demographic and ideological transformations, particularly in regards to both urbanism and liberalism, as the nation as a whole has over the past 30 years. It’s also worth noting that Whipple and all three of the other Democratic members of city council members are young enough (clockwise from top left: Ballard—39; Hoheisel—38; Johnson—35; Whipple--39) to have been shaped by those same transformations.

None of this means, of course, that any of these folks are clones of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or other youthful progressive darlings of the moment; they are all their own people, with their own roots and histories here in Wichita, Kansas, which is very much not New York City. (Whipple’s record as a rather moderate Democratic state legislator before he ran for mayor ought to conclusively prove that.) And yet…Wichita nonetheless isan American city, one that is, like other American cities, becoming more diverse than it was before, more progressive than it was before, and thus more Democratic than it was before. (Wichita may not ever be blue, but it went for Biden nonetheless.) And moreover, it’s not like the Kansas Republican party which those who identify as Democrats—like Ballard, Hoheisel, and Johnson--define themselves against hasn’t greatly changed over the same time period. So overall, I think it’s fair to wonder just how much of the angst some feel about Whipple’s willingness to bring partisanship, especially Democratic party partisanship, into Wichita’s municipal elections is a function of either 1) the way it potentially gives effective electoral expression to newly emergent—if hardly dominant--progressive interests in our city, or 2) the way it challenges the (admittedly often successful!) strategies which previous generations of Kansas Democrats developed to deal with Republican dominance, as opposed to solely because it presents a challenge to municipal norms and expectations. If nothing else, it is a question that serious political observers should keep in mind: that Mayor Whipple, by approaching city elections here in Wichita with an unapologetically partisan eye, may have made himself and the city of Wichita into a significant part of the story of party development in the Sunflower State.

I need to emphasize that “may,” however. Successfully building a partisan majority in a nominally non-partisan context will only ever be of interest to political nerds like myself if it isn’t conjoined with partisan direction that can be successfully pursued and will make a difference in the perception of voters; otherwise, that electoral achievement will be remembered by everyone who isn’t a partisan themselves as a lot of conflict which didn’t necessarily change the status quo. Hence, Whipple and the three other Democrats on the council need to be able to show voters that, now that they have a majority, they can do something that wasn’t done before, or do what’s been done before better. Given the heavy policy limitations which city governments operate under, that’s easier said than done. The recent struggle to pass a non-discrimination ordinance in the city, despite the sturm und drang which surrounded its writing and passage, might in retrospect be seen as low-hanging fruit in terms of distinguish votes on the council, at least in comparison to other municipal matters before them.

Among those issues that are most obviously within the legal grasp of the city council—including land use, business subsidies, and law enforcement--it’s not clear that these four Democrats will be sufficiently united as to make their majority position as effective as it might be. For example, Johnson has strongly advocated for expansive (and expensive) redesigns of our downtown core, and pushed against the idea of the council being wholly bound by public referendums on Century II and other historic buildings; Hoheisel, by contrast, has criticized new major downtown projects as inappropriate, spoke fondly of restoring Century II, and defended the idea of conducting a “binding vote” on its fate. Similarly Hoheisel, during his campaign, expressed significant doubts about retaining Robert Layton as Wichita’s city manager; whereas last week, both Whipple and Johnson gave Layton a strong show of support by voting to give him a raise. And while Johnson has long been engaged in efforts to change the Wichita’s overly violent police culture, the police union was crucial to Whipple’s election as mayor, and it is reasonable to presume that he wants to retain their support.

None of these facts suggest policy orientations that might not change or involve a significant rethinking or compromise once people get down to the nitty-gritty, of course—but by the same token they demonstrate, I think, some of the obstacles to declaring some immediately obvious common agenda which this Democratic majority shares. Which leaves this particular electoral accomplishment, at the moment, resting primarily on its members being young and new(ish) and thus, presumably, a breath of fresh air. In politics, where the ability to deal with others from a position of knowledge and influence is often key to getting things done, such freshness can only take you so far. Still, this is their first week, with everyone still getting used to the new arrangements; maybe only now, with these new members officially on the council, will we see some new unifying initiatives emerge that weren’t on anyone’s radar screen before.

Do I happen to have any recommendations for what those unifying initiatives might be? Why yes, I do...


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

Magazine