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Are local elections becoming nonpartisan in name only?

For 114 years, Wichita voters and others around the state have cast ballots in local elections that don’t identify candidates by political party. But beneath that nonpartisan veneer, partisanship increasingly colors the politics of local government. When asked, local experts and officials offer contrasting views on whether it makes sense to stick to the nonpartisan path. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the Nov. 2 general election results.

Municipal elections in Kansas hit a partisan low point in 1907, when the city of Wichita experienced a rather rancorous and confusing vote for mayor.

The hullabaloo coincided with the flowering of the nationwide Progressive movement, which had ushered in a “good government” wave rebelling against machine politics and the political parties that operated them.

In the optimistic fervor of the day, advocates for nonpartisan elections saw an opportunity to clean up corruption, encourage government to be more responsive to constituents and pave the way for regulations to protect the health and safety of workers and consumers.

Two years later, the Kansas Legislature embraced the push and mandated that all municipal and local school board elections in the state become nonpartisan.

Chase Billingham, associate professor of sociology at Wichita State University, says the rise in the late 1800s in the United States of so-called Tammany Hall politics – which got their name from a New York City political organization but came to embrace all machine politics – led to an era of reform at the start of the 1900s known today as the Progressive Era. 

“The history of nonpartisanship in city elections, including in Wichita, goes back to this Good Government movement in the early 20th century that really tried to focus on local government being about local community and cooperation and getting things accomplished at the local level, where national level political splits were less relevant,” he says.

This era saw the advent of secret ballots, the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote for women, the passage of the 17th Amendment for direct election of U.S. senators (previously elected by each state’s legislature), and the adoption of more professional, manager-run city governments.

Not all of the movement’s initiatives panned out. Legislation of this era included the failed experiment of Prohibition and the codification of racial and ethnic discriminatory practices that still affect the country.

But local nonpartisan elections have, to a large extent, proved to be an enduring legacy of the period. The National League of Cities reports that 22 of the nation’s top 30 largest cities still hold nonpartisan elections.   

   

  • Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple and his wife, Chelsea, performed their civic duty in the August primary and at the same time gave a civics lesson to two of their children, 7-year-old Adrian and 6-year-old Tristan. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)
Shaded Red and Blue

Fast forward 114 years, and Wichita voters and others around the state will cast ballots in the Nov. 2 general election that didn’t identify candidates by their political parties. But beneath that nonpartisan veneer, partisanship increasingly colors the politics of local government in Wichita and beyond in shades of red and blue.

A couple of prominent examples: A Republican elephant graces the campaign logo of Mike Czinege, a leading candidate for mayor in Overland Park. The school board race in Manhattan comes down to three candidates backed by the local Republican Party and three supported by the local Democratic Party. Republicans backed three successful challenges to incumbents on the Wichita school board. 

Republican and Democratic operatives played key roles in the 2019 mayor’s race in Wichita, and issues of partisanship have clearly bled into governance. The vote to replace a City Council member who resigned in a disgrace linked to the 2019 mayoral race, discussions of a non-discrimination ordinance and the passage of an ethics reform package all had partisan overtones. 

To local political observers such as Russell Arben Fox, professor of political science at Friends University, the concept of nonpartisan elections in a political environment where voters increasingly make their decisions based on their party preferences is becoming an unsustainable facade.

Not telling voters the thing they most want to know about candidates is confusing, even to the small percentage regularly turning out for city elections.

“Everybody knows who’s a Republican, everybody knows who’s a Democrat and everybody knows that they will probably vote that way most of the time, so it seems to be a no-brainer. We already have voters who vote on a partisan basis. That’s how they express their interests,” Fox says. 

But the corruption that inspired local government’s turn away from partisanship isn’t far from the mind of Trey Cocking, the deputy director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, an organization devoted to strengthening and advocating for the interests of the cities of Kansas. 

“We currently have a system that is designed to hire the best minds to lead the city regardless of party affiliation. A switch to partisan politics would put party affiliation as the first requirement,” says Cocking, who spent 10 years in city administration including more than seven years as city manager in Atchison. 

“All of a sudden, the city manager now needs to be a Democrat or a Republican, depending on the party in control, and unfortunately, when you inject partisan politics, that tends to move further down into departments. This could easily get us back to machine politics. We tried this before in local government (prior to) 1909 and it was corrupt.” 

Sure, party labels get more people interested in races. But how well are unique local issues served if they become enmeshed with polarizing national topics, Cocking asks.

“I like people who are elected to do the best policy, not the party policy,” he says.

The approach, Fox says, is rooted in the fact that cities exist through charters by the state government and have no authority other than that expressly granted by the state, a constitutional opinion known as Dillon’s Rule. 

“This argument became accepted by many people that cities are just administrative units of the state and not political bodies worthy of home rule. Let’s just hire a manager to run the city and have elections so that the people will be able to make clear to the manager what our priorities are,” says Fox.

This is the system in use in Wichita today. 

A nonpartisan City Council and mayor hire a professional city manager who employs staff to run the city, ideally working together in harmony to make Wichita a better place for its residents. But Fox senses that system has outlived its usefulness, although there have been no formal proposals in recent years to change it. One candidate for City Council, Mike Hoheisel, questioned the model during a recent debate before the Wichita Pachyderm Club, and he and his opponent, Council member Jared Cerullo, expressed support for replacing current City Manager Robert Layton, The Wichita Eagle reported in October. (Hoheisel defeated Cerullo in the race.)

“I think that council-manager system is no longer appropriate for Wichita, which has grown large enough and divided enough in terms of ethnicity, in terms of culture, in terms of economics and so forth that we really need to allow the council to act like a legislative body to represent the interests of different parts of Wichita,” Fox says.

But others see an antidote to the partisanship that makes government so tumultuous elsewhere.

Writing in The Eagle in 2017 on the 100th anniversary of Kansas enabling the council-manager form of government, H. Edward Flentje, professor emeritus at Wichita State University, said: “Take a look around at the cities and counties in Kansas that are governed by locally elected officials in combination with professionally trained managers and celebrate with me the 100-year anniversary of this good government model.” 

Partisanship Bubbles up to the Surface

But most anybody knows the shift in local governance to nonpartisanship and professional management hasn’t snuffed disagreement or clashes between different political and ideological viewpoints.

The Roman writer Terence said, “There are as many opinions as there are people” and this certainly applies in the political forum. For many people, political opinions are held passionately and form the foundation of their worldview. 

And, as is human nature, people tend to coalesce around like-minded individuals, people with opinions similar to their own. This makes partisanship, be it on the basis of red or blue or some other factionalism, nearly inevitable. 

This nation’s founders feared political factions would tear the country apart and opposed them, right up to the point they created them. Similarly, just labeling local elections as nonpartisan has done little over the past 100 years to change human nature or the contentious political landscape, where various factions fight, sometimes literally, to institute their own solutions. 

In 1958, when Wichita had a commission-style city government, one commissioner was knocked from his seat by another during a disagreement at a regular Tuesday night commission meeting, a perfect example of what was termed in those days as the “Tuesday night fights.” The situation appeared rooted in both partisan and personal dislike, according to news reports at the time.  

Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple, who won a nonpartisan election in 2019 after seven years as a Democratic state representative in the Legislature, has a more partisan background than other city leaders accustomed to nonpartisan elections, although he favors sticking with nonpartisan city elections.  

“I have a different viewpoint, I think, than my colleagues do here because I worked in a partisan environment” he says. To him, partisanship is “less scary and dirty.”

Even so, it was during his nonpartisan mayoral campaign when a partisan attack on him led to a scandal that rocked the city and resulted in the ouster of a City Council member and electoral defeats of a county commissioner and a state representative, all active in the local Republican Party. 

“While parties don’t have a statutory role in local elections, party influence is still here,” Whipple says.

When the City Council voted this year to replace that ousted council member, the vote appeared divided along partisan and ideological lines. 

The conservative faction prevailed, choosing the candidate backed by the local GOP, Cerullo, over Joseph Shepard, a candidate who was a party official in the local Democratic Party.  

“It was so blatantly partisan, even though everyone who voted to fill that seat will tell you it was not,” Billingham says.

These days, partisanship seems inescapable, in part because levels of partisan antipathy have skyrocketed to quarter-century highs, bleeding over into disagreements at what seems like nearly every level of government. Nearly 60% of Republicans and Democrats had a very unfavorable opinion of the opposing party in 2016, up from around 20% in 1994, according to the Pew Research Center.

The dislike is so profound that negative partisanship, in which partisans shape their views in opposition to the party they dislike, is a defining feature of  the era in the eyes of some political observers.

So if people want to choose their candidates on the basis of party, why not go ahead and let them?   

Back in 2015, the Legislature discussed going in this direction. In moving local elections from the spring to the fall of odd-numbered years, it stopped short of making local votes officially partisan. But it did vote to add the option for partisan elections for some local entities.

City governments in Kansas, but not school boards, now have the option to hold partisan elections, although according to the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, none currently do. 

It’s not a status quo that the Wichita City Council appears eager to change, although several academics argue there would be benefits from doing so. 

 

  • Wichita City Council Member Brandon Johnson
    "By keeping the election and candidate focused on the issues, it is harder to simply paint candidates with broad partisan brushes," says Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)
Political Potholes

Wichita Council member Cindy Claycomb, who lost her reelection bid to represent west-central Wichita in District 6 in the November election, supported keeping nonpartisan elections, using an oft-quoted concept about local politics and potholes. 

“In general, I am opposed to partisan races at the municipal level. Partisan politics have nothing to do with fixing potholes, or the hundreds of other  neighborhood projects and initiatives on which City Council members work,” she says. 

But the candidate who will replace Claycomb on the city council, Maggie Ballard, feels similarly. 

“Simply put – I agree that local elections should stay nonpartisan in nature and focused on local issues,” Ballard said in a written response to questions. “Local government affects our day to day lives more than any other level of government. People deserve local elected officials who are focused on serving them and not a personal or political agenda.”

Council member Brandon Johnson, who represents east-central Wichita in District 1 and won reelection, is on board as well.

“By keeping the election and candidate focused on the issues, it is harder to simply paint candidates with broad partisan brushes. In my experience, I have had to hit the doors and phones and earn each vote no matter of their party affiliation,” he says.

This reporter also reached out to Cerullo and Council members Becky Tuttle, Jeff Blubaugh and Bryan Frye, but did not receive a response.

Claycomb, Johnson and others echo the main theme in favor of nonpartisan elections cited by the National Council of Cities on its webpage devoted to the issue of nonpartisan versus partisan local elections. Political parties, according to the organization, are irrelevant to providing services, and cooperation between elected officials belonging to different parties is more likely.

But there are downsides to having candidates run absent a party label, says Neal Allen, associate professor of political science at Wichita State University.

“The best argument for partisan elections is increased information for voters. It’s a lot to ask a voter to keep up with what the mayor is for, what the members of the city council are for,” he says. Voters, he says, use party labels as cues in deciding who to vote for and without those cues, they tend to apply other factors like name, race or gender – cues that have little bearing on suitability for the position. 

“I think we’d be better off to bite the bullet and make them partisan elections,” Allen says. Fox, the Friends University professor, also thinks Wichita’s size makes it too large to be served with nonpartisan politics. 

“We’re not some small little village where we all get together in the high school gymnasium and achieve some kind of consensus,” he says.

Adding to the mix is the vastly altered media landscape of the 21st century that makes it harder for voters to get unbiased information on candidate views on issues. Traditional news sources are no longer the sole-source gatekeepers they were in the past. 

Social media is now the way information gets out and it is seldom nonpartisan. It does, however, make a big impact.  

The scandal in the 2019 nonpartisan mayoral race that centered on a video that falsely accused Whipple of sexual misconduct with women at the state Capitol first raged online before consuming local election coverage. It was eventually exposed as a highly partisan attack on Whipple by a city  councilman, county commissioner and state representative, all Republicans. 

In summarizing the pros and cons of the approach, the National League of Cities notes the complaint that nonpartisan elections tend to favor the more affluent parts of the electorate.  

“One of the reasons for Wichita to move to nonpartisan elections was to exclude people without means or networks. Political parties, on the other hand, always have an incentive to add more people to their rosters,” Allen says. 

 

“Simply put – I agree that local elections should stay nonpartisan in nature and focused on local issues. Local government affects our day to day lives more than any other level of government. People deserve local elected officials who are focused on serving them and not a personal or political agenda.” – Maggie Ballard

What Would Change?

 Yet neither Allen nor Fox thinks a change to explicitly partisan elections would be a major shift to the Wichita landscape.

The people and organizations who want to be involved are already involved. Parties already spend money on preferred candidates, use their communication networks to push candidates they back, and motivated contributors already fund campaigns. 

“You might see a few more elephants on yard signs,” Fox says of changes one might see.  One important aspect that might change, Allen said, would be in the run-up to the election in the primaries, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. 

But not too many people are paying attention. Voter turnout for Sedgwick County in the August primary was 6.6%. With decreased nonpartisan media coverage and little civic engagement or excitement, explicitly partisan media – social media and talk radio – play an outsized role in providing information about candidates.

Despite the increased partisan warfare in the background of this fall’s races, voter turnout only ticked up a bit for the general in Sedgwick County, to about 15%.  

But increased motivation to turnout isn’t the only way explicitly partisan elections could benefit voters. Shifting to partisan elections could also force more robust debates within those partisan ecosystems, Allen says. 

“One of the things parties do is give their core supporters the chance to weigh in before the general election in a primary where candidates would have to defend their positions,” he says. 

He says political beliefs are on a spectrum even within parties and you find hard-core fringes along with middle-of-the-road members in both major parties. Voters would be better served, he said, if candidates in party primaries had to outline their beliefs for how local government should run.  

For example, he says the debate over the common but contentious use of financial incentives for new businesses by local government is a discussion that needs to be had but is lacking. 

“I don’t think we have a robust discussion on that, and primaries would give us that,” Allen says.

But critics of partisan primaries say they have plenty of downsides of their own, including incentivizing politicians to “keep in lockstep with a narrow and extreme slice of the electorate, rather than govern in the public interest,” in the words of Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America, a group that favors limiting the influence of partisanship in politics.

A shift could also keep some local candidates on the sidelines because they work for employers, including the federal government, that have allowances for nonpartisan public service but don’t allow for partisan campaigning.   

Almost everyone agrees voter turnout – hovering around 10% in recent years for local elections – would increase, but only slightly. 

“I think that parties are organizations that can disseminate information to their voters and can mobilize voters to get out and vote. In the absence of that, you’re going to see only those voters who are already self-motivated or have a vested interest in the outcome of elections being more likely to cast votes,” Billingham says. 

Even with greater party involvement, however, no one expects more than a small bump in voter turnout unless an issue comes up to excite voters. 

“The party money and the party label would activate more members but it’s not like, all of a sudden, you’re going to see 50% turnout or even 40% turnout. You probably get a couple of percentage points at best,” Fox says.

Where the debate goes from here is unclear. 

As long as enough candidates committed to the nonpartisan approach keep winning, the wave toward nonpartisanship that started in the early 20th century is unlikely to break anytime soon.

But if more candidates who see partisanship as a benefit to their candidacies and agendas – rather than a hindrance to good government – get the nod from voters, Wichita and other cities in Kansas could be headed to an era where partisanship in local government begins to move out of the shadows. 

 

Discussion Guide
  1. What do you think has changed over the years to make local elections more partisan?
  2. In what ways might this be a good change? In what ways might it be a bad one?
  3. What kind of leadership might be required to respond to changing political dynamics
    in your community?

 

Cover of Journal about Father Kapaun

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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