In the past few years, city and county elected officials have just about seen it all.
In Johnson County in 2021, a charter commission meeting – a normally dry, often pro forma decennial review of the county’s operating rules – was canceled before it could get started because a large and vocal group refused to follow COVID distancing and masking rules.
The next year in Wichita, a remote meeting discussion on the use of ranked choice voting was interrupted when an unidentified staffer blurted that Mayor Brandon Whipple was a “dumbass.”
More recently, a Prairie Village council meeting on housing policy drew boos when a speaker’s time was limited. “My children are terrified of this group. I fear for my own safety,” said Council Member Inga Selders, referring to a group fighting zoning changes.
The scenes that have played at meetings where budgets, mill rates and legal minutiae once filled agendas have included people in costume and others holding up poster board signs. There have been shouting matches over policing decisions and Black Lives Matter. Twice this year, an attendee at Johnson County Commission budget hearings has shown up in a Guy Fawkes mask.
Increasingly, invectives more often associated with partisan attention seekers are being thrown around at city, county and school board meetings, where members are elected without party identifiers, say elected officials.
Not only has civility suffered, but local officeholders and political experts fear the constant confrontations will result in voter exhaustion, disengagement and perhaps a reluctance to run for office.
“We used to live in a golden age of politics where we could talk to our neighbors about politics, and it was OK that we disagreed,” says Alexandra Middlewood, political science department chair at Wichita State University. “We’re seeing less and less of that these days.”
“I THINK THINGS HAVE CHANGED KIND OF FOREVER”
Tom Mitchell, who is starting his 13th year on the Blue Valley Board of Education in northeast Kansas, says the tone at meetings changed dramatically as the pandemic took hold. The temperature has cooled somewhat in the past couple of years, Mitchell says, but “I think things have changed kind of forever.”
Others say the tone was changing even before the mask mandates and social distancing rules.
Outgoing Shawnee Mayor Michelle Distler, a 17-year veteran of the Shawnee City Council, says she noticed national rhetoric emerging in local meetings at least a couple of years before the pandemic.
When she first started on the council, she says meetings were focused on infrastructure, public safety and recreation – issues that are traditionally nonpartisan. That is not the case anymore, she says, because candidates are using national partisan talking points in their bids for office.
Paul Lyons, who is leaving his seat on the Overland Park City Council after 16 years, concurs.
He says there was never a time when the council’s actions were free of controversy – development projects, for instance, were traditionally contentious. What is changing is the basic way constituents look at elected officials.
“I always felt when I was first on the council that people generally respected the work we did on the council even though they didn’t necessarily agree with every vote I made,” he says. Even during a disagreement, most of them would look at the bigger picture of Overland Park’s livability, he explains.
“These days it’s divisiveness. Lack of respect has kind of infected local government as much as you’ve seen at the state and federal levels. So we’re seeing it now at local levels,” he says. “A lot of that is driven by people who are running for office themselves. There’s just this perception that we’re corrupted somehow, and that they run for office because they want to solve the corruption.”
A FEEDBACK LOOP
In some cases, people argue about things their local officials have little or no control over. Shawnee City Council members, for instance, last year heard an hour of impassioned public comment before supporting a ban on transgender athletes in girls’ and women’s sports, even though that issue is outside the city’s domain and squarely within the purview of athletics associations and school boards. Council members argued that they wanted to make their position clear for state legislators.
In a similar vein, a Johnson County Planning Commission meeting on zoning for solar farms erupted into climate change denialism and fear that China would one day have control over American thermostats.
Political scientists call that the nationalization of local politics, and it has been happening everywhere over the past half decade, says Middlewood.
It’s been most visible in Kansas in Wichita and Johnson County, in part because those areas have more candidates running and more news outlets dedicated to their coverage, Middlewood says.
“People are getting more plugged into the political system, which is great from a civic engagement and political engagement standpoint,” she explains. “But the downside is they’re constantly inundated with national talking points.”
The average voter doesn’t have the time to sort out which things are city council, planning commission or school board issues. Instead, they search for a label to find a candidate who shares their core values, she says. Political parties hasten that process by using national issues to drive turnout.
“It’s almost this feedback loop where voters tend to care more about national issues, so local politicians use those national issues to get interest in their campaigns and get people to vote. Which then in turn makes voters think that local government can have some sort of impact on these huge national issues.”
Michael Smith, professor of political science at Emporia State University, calls the search for party affiliation a “shortcut” that many candidates for nonpartisan office are increasingly comfortable providing. In races where the issues would normally be about street repair and stoplights, he says nonpartisan candidates are more often revealing their party identity. “You don’t see elected officials take pride in being nonpartisan anymore.”
The caustic language by former President Donald Trump against his critics, as well as social media conspiracy theories also have played a role, he says.
So too have demographic changes. Johnson County, once reliably red, has gone from purple to light blue as well as becoming more racially diverse, he says, and some people may feel threatened by those changes.
Deann Mitchell, chair of the Johnson County Democratic Party, says interest in party affiliation has intensified since she ran unsuccessfully for the Olathe City Council in 2017. Back then, she says, her standard answer was that when it comes to city issues, party brands don’t matter.
But nowadays the search for political party labels is more intense, she says. The best answer for a candidate is to just to truthfully give an opinion when the question is asked, though she says she doesn’t tell candidates to talk about party politics. County Democrats and Republicans each put out lists of their preferred candidates for nonpartisan races.
The local GOP advises candidates to talk to voters about how local issues affect their lives and does not push national issues, Holiday says. She says nonpartisan races actually suppress the vote, because people will choose not to vote rather than pick the “wrong” candidate because they didn’t have a party identifier.
“People in general don’t trust candidates, and knowing what party they affiliate with gives them a level of assurance one way or the other,” she says.
Partisanship noteably surfaced in 2020 in the nonpartisan Wichita mayor’s race. A false ad smearing Democrat Whipple made national news when it was linked to a handful of local Republican officeholders. Whipple later sued.
In the current Wichita mayoral election, Whipple faces Lily Wu, who brands herself as a political outsider. She has had substantial backing from the conservative Americans for Prosperity, a political action group that was co-founded by Wichita billionaire Charles Koch. Middlewood says the advertising that comes from that money is likely to have an effect because Wu hasn’t run for office before and doesn’t have a party label to define her.
RISING TURNOUT MAY BE ANGER DRIVEN
Tying local races to national political agendas does appear to be improving voter turnout in nonpartisan races, which have historically been low.
“Nonpartisan elections are not great for turnout,” Smith says. “I’m sure it’s because a lot of the issues people find boring until it’s in their backyard. They’re important, but they don’t always stimulate that much interest. The hot buttons definitely get people more riled up.”
Turnout figures from recent nonpartisan local elections in Johnson County would seem to bear this out. They show turnout has been on an upswing since the local election date changed from spring to fall in 2017. In the elections of 2017 and 2019, turnout was recorded at just above 17%. The 2021 figure jumped to 25.27%. Previous spring elections were more likely to hover around a 10% turnout rate or less.
Some elected officials have mixed feelings about that. Lyons and other outgoing Johnson County officials say they welcome the different points of view that residents have brought to the table. Not that many years ago, Lyons remembers, many local office seekers faced no opposition. Now there are often enough candidates for primaries.
But there are also misgivings.
“I feel like the election and the motivation to run for office right now is anger. And that is not the right heart place or mind place that you should be in an elected office. It shouldn’t be about anger,” says Shawnee’s Distler.
School board member Tom Mitchell also has qualms about how the heated rhetoric may affect a district’s ability to hire administrators and teachers.
“Overall it’s been tough for secondary education,” he says, because it has exhausted teachers, staff and administrators. “Folks move to certain cities and companies move to certain cities for the quality of schools. The economic development engine that drives Johnson County is the quality of schools.” A reputation for a lot of turmoil on the school board can discourage that growth, he says.
Middlewood and Smith also say greater engagement can come with a downside. “We want a higher voter turnout,” Smith says. “What’s the point of having a democracy if most people don’t participate and local elections are notoriously low turnout?”
But he and Middlewood say the alarmism in campaigns and social media can be an impediment to getting things done and may in the long run have the opposite effect.
Eventually, people may get disillusioned when their candidates for city councils are unable to do much about the national issues of the day, Middlewood says. “That can lead to lower participation. It can lead to people just turning away from the political system altogether and saying, ‘Government never does what I want.’ They could stop caring.”
The divisiveness may also be affecting the type of candidate who decides to run.
Toxicity is part of the conversation that party leader Mitchell has with potential candidates. She tells them they need to be prepared to make themselves open to criticism, fair or unfair. It’s a fact of life now for both political parties, she says.
Mitchell says she knows of an elected official who keeps mace handy at meetings because of concerns about the volatility of people on the dais. Mitchell says she carries pepper spray and has updated her home security.
Anger and confrontation produce candidates who are willing to put themselves into uncomfortable situations, Middlewood says. “Typically it will discourage women from running, it will discourage racial minorities from running, even religious minorities from running. So anyone who is not typically white and male and Christian are then discouraged from running,” because their demographics can be used against them, she says.
Distler says she can attest to that. She says she’s felt bullied by some men who she says would never have taken the same tone with a male mayor.
“The reason that is shocking to me is because I don’t experience that anywhere else in my real life – at my job or anything like that. I’ve never had a man try to bully me in any other area of my life except for in my role as mayor.”
Holiday says she doesn’t believe behavior at meetings or partisanship is a deterrent to finding candidates. However, there has been an issue with recruitment when it comes to school board candidates with children in the district.
She cited harassment of candidates’ children by adults who don’t agree with their parents’ views as the reason one school board member resigned and left the district. Holiday declined to name anyone, but called the problem, “the lack of tolerance for dissension or civil discourse.”
None of the elected officials or political scientists interviewed for this story could offer a ready cure for the anger and sharp words that have permeated local elections. As long as partisanship, fear and anger work in whipping up votes for candidates – who may eventually run for higher, partisan spots – the rhetoric is likely to continue, they said.
School board member Mitchell was hopeful things would improve with “a little time and a little healing.
“But I don’t know if things will go back ever to the way they were before, because the world’s different. I think we’re in this for a while.”
This story is part of the Fall 2023 coverage being provided by 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.