March 16, 2011

Underdog Leffew wants to cut spending, engage people

Darrell Leffew owns a construction company. But he doesn't like to climb ladders.

Darrell Leffew owns a construction company. But he doesn't like to climb ladders.

He prefers to jump right to the top.

Since he was a kid growing up in Winfield, he has wanted to be president of the United States — and he hasn't entirely counted it out.

Decades later, after he and his wife, Andie, moved to Wichita, he found himself venting about Wichita politics.

When he said he wanted to get involved, the conversation wasn't about joining neighborhood association boards. It was about running for mayor.

Leffew, 52, has developed stances on a wide variety of issues.

But, boiled down, his focus is on shrinking City Hall's spending and regulation while finding new ways to engage residents who, judging by voter turnout, have tuned out.

"I'm a firm believer in majority rules," he said, noting that he would like to find a practical way to have residents vote on more major issues, such as proposed changes to the city's trash hauling.

Leffew has blasted the city's initial proposal to create a trash hauling cooperative that would keep existing companies in business with the same number of customers in a specific zone, offer recycling to everyone and charge everyone $20 a month on their water bills.

That proposal is dead, but a new one is being developed through surveys and occasional meetings among city officials and trash companies.

Leffew said he knows Wichita should recycle more, and he thinks there should be a better way to get more people to do it.

But he said government has no place in deciding which company a consumer wants to pick up their trash.

Leffew said he is a realist, and he recognizes he is an underdog in the mayor's race.

He landed a mere 9 percent of the weak turnout in the March 1 primary.

Looked at another way, Leffew had 1,470 votes compared to incumbent Mayor Carl Brewer's 11,401.

For the general election, Leffew is just hoping a majority of registered voters will vote.

"If I lose April 5, that's what the community decided," he said. "I don't take it personally."

And if he wins?

If that happens, Leffew said, he will have other people manage his business, Meridian Construction, or suspend all activity until he's no longer mayor.

He said he would like to redefine the mayor's role. He would like to use spare time that might be spent socializing at events or luncheons to visit city workers and ask them how they could work more efficiently.

Political history

Leffew's political life was quiet until 1997, shortly after he moved his family from Winfield, where he grew up, to a two-lot plot in Park City.

The Leffew home sat on one lot; the adjacent land that was part of the deal sat undeveloped.

Leffew learned two weeks later that his empty lot was being included in a special assessment benefit district that would pay to extend the road.

Leffew fumed over it. He went to City Hall to investigate, which he said renewed his interest in politics and taught him about local government.

He filed to run for the Ward 1 Park City Council seat. He later decided to back out, but it was too late to have his name removed from the ballot. He campaigned a little and came in last place with six of the 225 votes in the primary.

After his family moved to Wichita, he ran for mayor in 2007 in a crowded field overshadowed by incumbent Carlos Mayans and council member Carl Brewer.

Leffew finished fourth, behind Larry G. White, Mayans and Brewer, who got 57 percent of the primary vote.

But he found an opportunity to engage when Jeff Longwell, who represents northwest Wichita's District 5, appointed Leffew to his district advisory board. Such boards are made up of residents who weigh in on issues.

Longwell recalls picking Leffew in an effort to get the widest range of views possible for his board. Leffew publicly opposed the downtown arena tax and was very critical of local government's role in development.

In 2007 and 2008, Leffew attended most meetings of the advisory board.

Minutes from the meetings show he opposed the city's proposed ban on smoking and supported the city's proposed water rate hikes, which were largely aimed at ensuring supply in decades to come.

But he started missing the once-a-month Monday evening meetings, attending only three of 12 in 2009.

Leffew said he kept missing because of a newly reached agreement on when he and his wife could see their grandson.

In September 2009, after a string of missed meetings, he and Longwell met and agreed that Leffew should be an alternate member instead of a regular member.

Leffew missed every meeting in 2010.

But he attended eight of the 12 Thursday afternoon Metropolitan Area Planning Commission meetings that occurred while he was a member appointed by former Commissioner Kelly Parks.

During those meetings, Leffew said he learned about listening to residents' opinions and making those a major part of his decision-making process.

On Aug. 5, the commission heard three separate requests by companies who wanted to put cell phone towers in different parts of the city.

Leffew said one had strong opposition, one had no comments and another was a wash.

When it came time to vote, most commissioners wanted to defer a decision to get additional information.

Leffew was the lone opponent to that. He didn't have blanket support or opposition to the towers.

But he said the commission had all the necessary information and owed it to the residents who showed up for the meeting to vote on the issue.

Leffew also voted against a developer's effort to get zoning to put a QuikTrip at the southwest corner of Kellogg and Hillside.

He said he foresaw traffic problems that weren't addressed by the plans.

Though Leffew opposes spending a disproportionate amount of public money on downtown revitalization, he voted in favor of the new downtown master plan.

He said he took some heat for that. But he stands by the decision, saying the plan is solid and is part of the comprehensive plan, which can be changed.

Leffew stepped down from the commission after Richard Ranzau was elected and opted to appoint former member M.S. Mitchell to the board.

Ghost hunting hobby

Leffew considers himself a skeptic.

He never believed in ghosts until one strange night decades ago at his former home in Winfield.

He was sleeping in his bedroom upstairs. It was perhaps 3 a.m. His wife was still awake downstairs and he heard her scream. He bolted down the stairs and caught a strong whiff of sulfur, like someone had struck a match.

"My first thought is 'oh no, there's a fire,' " he said. "I get down there and she's just pale white, and I ask "what's wrong?'

She said she had been in the bathroom and saw a reflection in the mirror, like a figure or a head.

She drew what she had seen on a notepad. He tried to calm her down, while his young stepdaughter slept.

Leffew checked the house to make sure there wasn't an intruder.

But his wife said she had seen other things recently. Leffew had too. They wrote what they had seen before telling each other and the two sheets of paper described the same things: tiny floating lights that would create forms and move.

"It changed my opinion of paranormal — what could be out there," he said.

Years later, after moving to Wichita, Leffew and his wife joined a local group on a downtown ghost hunting tour.

"I approach it as a skeptic, because we don't know," Leffew said. "We caught photos and even some audio that we couldn't explain. That doesn't prove anything. That kind of thing will never get proven. It just can't be proven."

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