WICHITA — Less than a week from the Republican primary, Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn questioned out-of-state campaign contributions to his challenger Wednesday, alleging a “pay-to-play” atmosphere at City Hall.
Wichita City Council member Jeff Longwell, vying for Peterjohn’s District 3 seat on the commission, called Peterjohn’s assertions a case of sour grapes. Longwell noted that he had raised about three times as much money as Peterjohn in the filing period that ended Monday.
Peterjohn jabbed at Longwell from outside the county courthouse at 525 N. Main. Shortly after beginning his news conference, two fire trucks raced by, silencing him. Wichita blogger Bob Weeks, one of Peterjohn’s supporters, joked that Longwell had called for the fire trucks. Another Peterjohn supporter suggested Longwell had jumped out of a City Hall window.
Peterjohn questioned $3,250 in campaign contributions from Michigan residents connected to Walbridge, a construction company that has partnered with Wichita’s Key Construction to win the contract for an expansion at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. The contract has been controversial because the Walbridge/Key bid was not the lowest. Wichita company Dondlinger and Sons and Indianapolis-based Hunt Construction Group put in the lowest bid, but officials of the city-owned airport said the Dondlinger group had failed to comply with requirements that 7.11 percent of the work go to minority- or women-owned subcontracting firms. Key/Walbridge bid $101.5 million, and Dondlinger/Hunt bid $99.4 million.
The City Council, including Longwell, rejected Dondlinger/Hunt’s appeal on July 17. Campaign finance records show that Walbridge executives donated to Longwell’s campaign on July 16 and July 20. John Rakolta Jr., CEO of Walbridge, made a $500 donation on July 16, as did his wife, Terry.
Other Walbridge executives, including Ronald Hausmann, executive vice president, and his wife, Esther, made $500 contributions on July 20.
Peterjohn called for Longwell to return the donations or donate the $3,250 to charity.
Longwell said the contributions had no bearing on his decision-making.
“We often get contributions from a wide variety of sources, including out-of-town people,” Longwell said.
He said he was proud to have Rakolta as a supporter because Rakolta was a finance chair for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2008.
“I’ll argue it’s not such a bad thing to have a Mitt Romney connection,” Longwell said.
Longwell raised $61,940 from Jan. 1 through July 26, and Peterjohn raised $20,064 during that same period, election records show.
“It truly sounds like sour grapes to me,” Longwell said of Peterjohn’s complaints.
Peterjohn’s news conference drew an inquiry by Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman, who received a call from someone who claimed Peterjohn had held his news conference in front of the historic courthouse across the street. People can vote in advance at the historic courthouse, and state law does not allow campaigning within 250 feet of a polling place.
Lehman said she measured from the historic courthouse to where she believed Peterjohn had made his statements and said she came up with 252 feet “as the crow flies.” Peterjohn was a few more feet away from where she measured.