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Democracy at the Local Level

Tuesday was an election day here in Wichita, with the primary for mayor and three city council seats and an at-large seat on the school board at stake, so of course we did our civic duty and drove several blocks to a church up in North Riverside to cast our vote. Voting is a long ingrained habit of ours, even in these low turnout contests, and we are creatures of habit.
There’s always a certain satisfaction in exercising one’s franchise, but it’s changed over the years. When we were kids our elementary school was a voting place, and the Monday before every election day we’d get to go into the booths with the red handle that closed the curtains and click on the levers to cast our mock ballots for the candidates our parents had endorsed. Back then no one doubted the election results, and everyone accepted them no matter how it turned out, and there was something very Norman Rockwell about the process.
Nowadays you need a driver’s license or some other sort of photographic identification that they scan through a machine, which is fine by us, but we notice that doesn’t reassure those who are convinced illegal immigrants are deciding the elections. They also hand you a couple of computer printouts you run through a couple of computers in order to vote, which strikes us as rather convoluted, and we notice it also hasn’t done much to bolster public faith in the electoral process. The same anti-immigrant Secretary of State who got the photo ID requirement enacted resisted a system with a paper trail that could counter any foreign computerized meddling in Kansas elections, and we can’t blame our Democratic friends for being suspicious about that.
Another thing that’s changed is the media landscape, which is not as useful as it used to be in making our choices. The local newspaper is down to about 20 newsroom employees, the three local television statements are similarly understaffed and preoccupied with car wrecks and local crimes, and it’s hard to find any information about the various candidates. They still do the thumbnail sketches where the candidates get to say all the same things about good government and honest dealing, but that’s about it. Somehow we were unaware of the race for the at-large seat on the school board, which we care about even though we’re long out of school and have no kids, and were embarrassed to cast no vote in the race.
We follow local politics as best we can, though, and made our choice accordingly. One of the mayoral candidates ran ads on the talk radio stations that described a platform of repairing the city’s sidewalks and making Wichita a sanctuary city for the unborn, but we’ve not noticed the sidewalks in a state of disrepair and wonder how fetuses might find their way to sanctuary here, and he flier that showed him next to an embarrassed-looking President Donald Trump was another reason to write him off. Several of the candidates were the usual kooks who always run for local office, and only the incumbent and a couple of challengers seemed like serious people with relevant credentials.
Incumbent Mayor Jeff Longwell has generally done a good job, and Wichita being such a small town and ourselves being so well connected  we personally know him to be a nice enough guy with a very charming wife, but he tore down our beloved Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and ran off our beloved Wichita Wingnuts to build a shiny new ballpark and attract a Major League-affiliated team, in a deal that gave some businessman or another some recently hot Delano property for a dollar a lot, and there’s no forgiving that. The two non-kook challengers were Lyndy Wells and Brandon Whipple, both businessmen with long lists of the boards and commissions of local agencies and charities they’ve served on. A former city councilwoman we always thought too liberal for our tastes but whose honesty we never doubted knocked on our door to to make a pitch for Wells, our very conservative businessman friend “Hatman” Jack Kellogg, who has lots of dealings with the city government, also endorsed Wells, and when a couple of trusted  realtor friends made the same recommendation we settled on Wells.
Not that we had anything against Whipple, who wound up slightly behind Longwell in the race for the two slots in November’s run-off. We can’t be sure that Whipple was a Wingnuts fan, or that he’ll be any less likely than the usual Wichita politician to go knocking down perfectly good buildings to erect something more shiny or new, but except in the unlikely case that what’s left of the local media comes up with some pretty serious dirt on him he’ll probably get our vote. If Longwell wins we figure Wichita could do a lot worst, as so many big cities seem to do.
So long as we get to vote, we’ll retain an optimistic feeling. While voting we ran into a longtime friend who lives down the street who had come to vote and brought his soon-to-be-third-grade son along to demonstrate what civic-minded citizens do on election day, and when they accepted a cookie and an “I voted” sticker from the nice lady at the door he thanked her for volunteering her time to democracy and had his son do the same, and that also gave us a hopeful feeling.
Here’s hoping the kid winds up with the best possible person serving in the at-large seat on the school board, no thanks to us or the local media.

— Bud Norman

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A Tale of Two City Elections

Tuesday was Election Day in Chicago, which you probably heard about even if you’re not a Chicagoan, and also here in Wichita, which you might not have noticed even if you are a Wichitan. The disproportionate national attention paid to the two elections is easily explained by Chicago’s far larger population and national prominence, but the disparate amount of interest within each city is more complicated.
Local politics is one of Chicago’s favorite pastimes, followed with the same obsessive interest that attends the Bulls and Bears and Black Hawks and Cubs and White Sox, and for good reason. No sport in Chicago is quite so rough, features such fascinating players, or exerts such a meaningful influence on the daily lives of the citizens as a mayoral race. Chicago’s politics doles out patronage to a large portion of the city, provides essential city services to favored neighborhoods, regulates businesses according to their political donations, creates ethnic coalitions that affect race relations, and even intrudes into the private lives of ordinary people in a variety of ways. In Chicago, people have reason to care who is elected mayor.
This time around the mayoral race featured incumbent Rahm Emanuel, the former investment banker, congressman, and White House chief of staff who was known for bringing the rough-and-tumble “Chicago Way” to each job, against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a former community organizer, alderman, state legislator and Cook County commissioner, which is really all you need to know about the sorry state of Chicago politics. The big issue was the city’s rather dire financial condition, as well as its frightening rate of violent crime, although such matters as the irksome red-light camera system the city has been using to raise revenues were also raised, and Emanuel was forced to apologize for a managerial style that has been brusque even by Chicago standards, but as always it largely came down to who could make the better deals to form the larger coalitions.
Garcia enjoyed the support of the city’s sizable Latino population due to his name, along with help from teachers unions upset with the numerous school closings, but Emanuel was favored by the big business interests whose neighborhoods were spared any school closings and even got a Barack Obama College Preparatory High School opened in the affluent near north side, and we assume that despite the efforts of Jesse Jackson he also enjoyed support from the city’s sizable black population due to his past association with the school’s eponym. Throw in more campaign funds, better name recognition, and some shrewd appeals to the various ethnic groups that comprise the city’s sizable white population, and Emanuel wound up winning another term. We’re still not clear on what he intends to do about the city’s mounting debt and unfunded pensions and other fiscal woes, although we expect whatever he does will leave that affluent near north side unscathed, but we have no reason to believe that Garcia would have handled it any better.
Here in Wichita, local politics is more easily ignored, to the point that even such political junkies as ourselves tend to focus more on the national and international news. The city’s workforce is relatively small and the biggest scandals the local newspaper can find there usually involve small-time expense account padding that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Chicago, only the main thoroughfares are cleared of snow and even the richest neighborhoods are not favored with libraries or better schools, some businesses tend to enjoy preferential treatment but none are singled out for harassment, the past two mayors were Latino and black without anyone noticing, and except for the infrequent anti-smoking crusade or occasional pointless resolution about some social issue or another the city mostly lets people screw up their own lives. Besides, the city’s system of government doesn’t even grant that much power to the mayor, with most decisions left to a city council that is usually content to defer to the city manager and his staff of credential professionals. The resulting apathy and the springtime scheduling elections ensures a low turn-out dominated by teachers and city employees and activist types who routinely choose a city government more liberal than city, which reliably votes conservative in the county and state and national elections in the fall, but so far they haven’t provoked sufficient outrage to shake things up.
This time around it came down to city councilman Jeff Longwell against local businessman Sam Williams, and so far as we can tell the big issue was what to do about bringing water to this exceedingly landlocked city in a state with few rivers, no natural lakes, and a diminishing aquifer, which is a problem but not yet so pressing that the government is timing people’s showers,  as they’re threatening to do in California, along with some mud-slinging that seemed rather harsh by local standards but wouldn’t have offended even the most sensitive Chicago sensibilities. Both were white guys, which no one seemed to notice, both had resumes that could plausibly suggest some level of competence, and neither seemed to have any fool-proof plan for providing water. Longwell had the support of the business community, or at least the portion of it that’s been getting preferential treatment from the city during his tenure as a councilman, and we suspect the teachers and city employees and activist types were on his side, while Williams seemed to garner his support from the out-numbered regular folk who actually bother to vote on such a lovely spring day as Tuesday. We wound up voting for Williams, mainly because he had a somewhat back-handed endorsement from Sedgwick County Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau, whose principled stinginess and anti-government instincts we have come to admire, but when we’d heard that Longwell won it didn’t cause us any anxiety.
The low turnout might have been even lower if not for a local referendum to lower the penalty for first time marijuana offenses, which passed even though it has no legal effect because the marijuana laws are the state’s doing. Perhaps the turnout would have been greater if not for all the “yes” voters who forgot the election date or got lost on their way to the polling places, but in any case the short lines at our local voting place did not distress us. Some people judge a community’s civic-mindedness by the turn-out in an election, but in Wichita’s case the lack of interest suggests a very healthy lack of the city government’s importance. Wichitans can also boast that at least Rahm Emanuel isn’t their mayor.

— Bud Norman