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O'Donnell: Hooked on politics, public service

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 25, 2011, at 12:06 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, April 1, 2011, at 5:14 p.m.

Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly said that O'Donnell bought a house on West Haskell in 2006. He rents the house from Grace Baptist Church.

Michael O'Donnell may be only 26 years old, but he is no political novice.

He already has run for public office twice and campaigned for many candidates.

"I just had an affinity for it because of the way you're able to shape policy and impact people's lives for the better," he said. "I just love that, and feel I have a calling for public service."

O'Donnell, a sales and marketing rep for Clear Channel radio, is making his third bid for public office. He is competing with Joshua Blick for the District 4 seat on the Wichita City Council. He finished second to Blick in a five-candidate primary.

O'Donnell's interest in politics is rooted in the time he spent as a kid with his father, the Rev. Mike O'Donnell, senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church, who was an anti-abortion protester during the so-called Summer of Mercy in Wichita in 1991.

His father was arrested on O'Donnell's seventh birthday, a fact they still joke about, O'Donnell said.

He also worked with his father at the church and accompanied him on visits to politicians at City Hall and the county building.

O'Donnell said he became hooked on political action.

"I just saw the ability to impact our community by being a public servant and having a passion for your neighbors and neighborhood, wanting to make a difference," he said.

He worked on Bob Knight's campaigns for mayor and governor, helped with former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt's campaigns, and handled communications during Wink Hartman's congressional campaign.

O'Donnell waged his first campaign when he was 20, running for mayor of Bel Aire. He finished second in a field of four.

"I learned a lot," O'Donnell said. "I loved it."

His parents had moved from the district to Bel Aire in the mid-1990s to be close to his mother's job at Sunrise Christian Academy. His father continued as pastor at Grace Baptist Church, 1414 W. Pawnee.

O'Donnell attended Sunrise Christian Academy after spending kindergarten and first grade at Kelly Elementary in District 4.

Residency controversy

O'Donnell said he moved back to District 4 in 2007, and ran for City Council that same year. He survived the primary but was removed from the ballot for failing to meet residency requirements.

He said he was remodeling a house in the 1400 block of West Haskell that he was renting from Grace Baptist Church. He said he hadn't transferred his voter registration from Bel Aire before he filed for office, which he called an oversight.

He rarely slept at the new house, spending nights at his parents' home in Bel Aire instead.

Election officials eventually ruled that where someone sleeps is where they reside, and determined he resided in Bel Aire.

O'Donnell said he was splitting time between his house and his parents' house. He stayed nights at his parents' house because he was a full-time student at Friends University, worked at Clear Channel in northeast Wichita, and was busy campaigning. He'd stop in to use their Internet and get home-cooked meals, he said.

"I was, needless to say, overwhelmed. So, yes, I was spending the night up there," O'Donnell said.

He said he has lived full time at the house in District 4 since the summer of 2007.

O'Donnell graduated from Friends the same year with a degree in history. He serves on the board of his father's church, is on the board of the South YMCA and the American Cancer Society's Cattleman's Ball, and volunteers for community events.

Age not a drawback

District 4, which covers south and southwest Wichita, needs an advocate because it is like "the proverbial stepchild" of the city, O'Donnell said. Roads aren't as well maintained as in other parts of the city, and flooding problems persist.

He doesn't think his age is a drawback to serving on the council.

"I think many people are unhappy with the direction of the current council, and their age is substantially more than mine," O'Donnell said.

And this is the same district that elected Bill Gale and outgoing council member Paul Gray to the City Council when they were in their 20s.

Knight, the former mayor, said O'Donnell's youth should be considered an asset.

"I like the idea of having some generational equity here," he said. "I don't subscribe to the notion everybody ought to be 55 or 60 to be elected."

O'Donnell is smart and cares about the city, Knight said.

"I think he really has some very strong principles concerning truth and fairness. He's a compassionate, caring guy," Knight said.

Having a young person on the council would help Wichita retain its youth, O'Donnell said.

Jobs also would help.

"Young people don't move to cities because they have great downtowns," he said, "they move to cities because they have great jobs.

"If there's no jobs, an arena you can't afford to attend isn't going to keep people here."

O'Donnell also wants to be someone older people in his district can trust. His grandparents and many retired people live there.

That's one reason he opposes such economic development tools as community improvement districts and tax increment financing.

"We have senior citizens close to getting taxed out of their homes," he said.

Instead, he said, he wants to lower property taxes.

"The only way we can do that is by lowering spending. And by lowering spending, we have to target things that aren't essential. "

The essentials include police, fire and infrastructure, he said.

"We have to be able to compete, and I believe that competition would be Wichita, Kansas, having a lower tax base," O'Donnell said.

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