Carl Brewer showed up for his appointment with necktie askew and wondering aloud whether he should cancel.
He’d promised to drive all over Wichita on this Friday morning and talk about his successes and mistakes.
There was much to drive by. Eight years as mayor. And things sometimes didn’t go as planned. Like on this day.
Never miss a local story.
Hurricane-force wind gusts only hours before had collapsed a hangar at Jabara Airport, pushed over light poles along Woodlawn and Webb, and cut power to thousands.
“Maybe I should be at City Hall,” he said. “But … well.” He thought for a moment.
There’s a good city staff in place to help people with storm damage, he concluded.
“They’ve got this. So … let’s go.”
Plans gone awry
For three hours, he wheeled his black Chevy Impala around Wichita. Tuesday, he will step down as mayor, take a short fishing trip and then head to Spirit AeroSystems, where he’ll work in government relations.
He stopped by the WaterWalk development where he and two previous mayors had tried and failed to galvanize downtown with a different kind of development.
The original idea, from late in the last term of Mayor Bob Knight, sounds extravagant now: a water walk near Kellogg and Main, connecting the Arkansas River to downtown, along a man-made canal, lined with restaurants, bars, apartments and shops, like the one in San Antonio, lined with restaurants, bars, apartments and shops. At one point, the popular Bass Pro chain seemed headed to Wichita to anchor the thing.
But after recessions came, and Mayor Carlos Mayans questioned the idea, the plans got scaled back, dwindling WaterWalk to a shadow of the first vision.
Brewer said the City Council did what they could to make something of it, though when he said that, it was in a way he didn’t quite mean. “I think we did a good job of turning lemonade into lemons,” Brewer said.
Votes and consequences
Brewer inherited and then encountered daunting problems, starting almost immediately after his first term began. In May 2007 a tornado destroyed almost the entire town of Greensburg, two hours and 110 miles to the west.
“That’s when people got to see the real Carl Brewer,” said Jeff Longwell, the council member who will become mayor on Tuesday. The state and federal government used Wichita as a staging area to help Greensburg. Brewer had been mayor only a month, but he had commanded a National Guard company after the 1999 Haysville/Andover tornado.
“His military training (21 years in the National Guard) allowed him to quickly lay out what we needed to do,” Longwell said. “And his leadership there then set the tone for how we’d cooperate with our friends and neighbors. He was really, really good.”
After that, Longwell said, “Carl led us through what many people say was the worst recession since Great Depression, helped us figure out not only how to balance the budget but ride through that storm together; he insisted that it wasn’t going to just be staff that took pay cuts but council members.
“And after that, he helped us jump-start downtown development.
“He was a very good consensus-builder, but he was quiet enough in public that people might not realize that he was not nearly as quiet behind closed doors, when he was pushing to get something done.”
Part of the legacy Brewer will leave us, Knight said: “The image of a really good man.”
A good man
Brewer, as he drove through downtown, pointed to a number of buildings that were empty years ago and are now home to businesses, in part because he helped build consensus.
What helped, he said, was the support he and other leaders gave to building the Intrust Bank Arena and requiring it be built with a sales tax. Critics attacked the tax and the arena as wasteful, and still do, he said; but the arena succeeded, created a new boost to the downtown, and, he said, even contributed to revitalizing public use of downtown’s Century II convention hall.
Even kids on his Mayor’s Youth Council contributed ideas and energy. The idea to ban smoking in Wichita establishments was first proposed and then enthusiastically pressed home by kids on the Mayor’s Youth Council, he said. Being a leader sometimes means encouraging others to pitch ideas, he said.
The City Council’s relationship with the Minnesota Guys developers led to disappointment for Brewer and to securities fraud charges against the developers themselves, David Lundberg and Michael Elzufon.
But Brewer said council members often don’t have a choice in taking on some of the relationships they do. The Minnesota Guys, for example, became serious players in downtown development because some in the private sector sold them properties at 25 percent of their value, Brewer said.
So the council engaged the Minnesota Guys, he said, and offered tax incentives because that was the only way the city could have a say in what might happen.
“We began to have doubts about them eventually, and began to watch them closely,” Brewer said. “But the fact is, you have to make investments in downtown, if not with them, then somehow.”
It all broke down, he said, “because they had a very aggressive vision about what they wanted to do, but they financially just couldn’t do what they needed to do.”
The right to vote
Brewer thinks it says something good about Wichita that he is a black man who was elected twice – the second time winning 69 percent of the vote – as mayor in a town with a black population of about 12 percent.
Brewer said he took residents’ complaints about racial tensions seriously. He, more than anybody, insisted that the city buy body cameras for the police force, which will cost close to $1 million.
But he and Lavonta Williams, the other black member of the City Council, have never thought of themselves as black local government leaders, he said.
“We thought of ourselves as human beings, as citizens who who want to do the best for all citizens,” Brewer said.
One of his biggest beefs with residents, he said, is that so few of them vote. Voting ought to be as precious to us as our cellphones are, he said.
“I can promise you … if you’re late to work, and you leave that cellphone at home, they’re going back to get it; that’s going to happen.
“Voting needs to be thought of with the same anxious feeling of urgency,” he said.
He already knew
One advantage to all the residents of Wichita, he said, was that he and Lavonta Williams and Norman Williams, who retired last year as police chief, grew up in northeast Wichita within a few doors of each other.
They knew the history of many people in town. That headed off potential trouble sometimes, he said.
Some black people have accused police of racial profiling. A WSU study requested by the city found that Wichita police ticketed black motorists at disproportionately higher rates than white motorists, so there was no doubt in Brewer’s mind that some complaints might be valid. But not all.
“Wichita is a big city, but it is also a small city,” he said. “So if you are selling drugs, or doing something else that you should not be doing, and then try to make the argument that you were racially profiled … we’re probably going to know. And in some cases, we’re probably going to say … ‘Oh, come on.’ Because we’re going to know what the history is.”
Bandits or something
Mayors come and go, he said, but the city only turns out as well as the people in it truly want it.
He talked about how Koch Industries had done such a great job of supporting charities. And he talked also about how disappointed he felt that Koch opposed the city’s sales tax vote to raise money to create jobs, fix streets and find a new water source.
“Just say no – that is easy,” he said. “I saw the campaign literature, which I knew disturbed every single council member. What they tried to imply was that the City Council members were stealing your tax dollars. Like they were bandits or something.”
It was hard to bear, but politics is often like that, he said. You should never get mad at somebody for knocking you, he said. Because you need them, maybe. You can’t govern alone.
Twenty minutes after he criticized that Koch-backed stance, he drove past the Boys and Girls Club, and pointed out how the Kochs have given generously to that charity.
His point, he said, was that the same people who knock you for one thing are the same people might help your town by supporting other things – as the Kochs have done repeatedly, he said, by supporting everything from the Koch Arena at Wichita State University to the Sedgwick County Zoo to the Boys and Girls Club, and more.
So he never got seriously bent out of shape after people knocked him, he said.
He did his best by everybody, he said.
For eight years as mayor, and long before that, he tried to do right by Susie Morgan.
She made him promise
Morgan was his grandmother; she died last June, 96 years old.
He drove past the little box houses on North Minnesota where he grew up in daily, anxious poverty. He pointed to the bleak little white house, empty for years now, 2052 N. Minnesota.
Two small bedrooms and couches that slept six kids and Brewer’s mother and stepfather. His mother was a seamstress. She made Lavonta Williams’ wedding dress in that little house.
There was a willow tree in the yard, he said, and his mother would explain the strength inherent in family by saying that you can break one branch of a willow, “but if you bind several branches in a bunch, you can’t break that.”
But the stepfather was an alcoholic and beat him more than once, Brewer said. Brewer didn’t want to go to church. He wanted to rebel for a while.
Then he pointed to the little house up the street, where Morgan sheltered him after beatings and talked to him about God.
“With trouble in the family, I spent more time there than I did at home,” Brewer said.
Grandmother Morgan made him, no matter how cold or hot, cut grass or shovel snow for neighbors.
She lived in need, gave love freely, preached the word of God; she was a Pentecostal, and some of what she preached just made him grin and shake his head.
She cleaned white peoples’ homes, he said, “and I went to work as a toddler helping her do that.”
She was thoroughly good, to him and everyone else, and when at last her body and her mind wore out, she’d watch the public TV channel as Mayor Carl Brewer led the City Council meetings. And she would become confused about what he was doing there, on TV. If anyone else was in the house, she’d point to the TV.
“Look,” she’d say. “He’s preaching.”
‘Shut up and listen’
It is not easy or simple to govern a city like this, Brewer said.
The best life lesson he learned in city politics, he said, was to “shut up and listen.” When you do not talk, he said, people feel this need to fill that gap of silence … so they keep talking. And you learn things.
He thinks he did OK as mayor, but he also said, “I was just the guy with the ledger for a while, and now it’s somebody else’s turn.”