In one of the last comments of his last State of the City speech, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer told the state Legislature to keep its hands off local elections.
“In conclusion, I want to speak briefly about the importance of local elections,” Brewer said. “Local elections, they’re the cornerstone of local government. They deserve to remain separate from state and federal elections.”
Brewer’s comment represents a final shot across the bow at the Statehouse, where Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Republican legislators are considering a bill to move municipal elections from the spring to the fall.
The proposal also would change local elections from nonpartisan to a system like the ones used to elect state legislators and county commissioners, in which primary elections pick party candidates who run against each other in the general election.
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Brewer said he thinks that would be a mistake.
“Local elections should not be about party affiliation,” he said. “They should be about doing what’s best for our community.”
Not everybody in the audience agreed with the mayor’s stance.
John Todd, a Republican and political activist, said he thinks shifting the elections would bring higher turnout. And he said city elections now are not all that nonpartisan anyway.
“A lot of the issues we face in the city are partisan,” he said. “Recognizing and capitalizing on that is a positive for the public.”
Brewer, a Democrat, is finishing up his eighth year and second term as mayor. He cannot run again this year because of term limits.
The previous two mayors, Carlos Mayans and Bob Knight, were Republicans.
Brewer also commented on the state of race relations in the city, lauding the recent decision to equip police with body cameras that will record their encounters with residents – a plan that black residents had sought for years.
But Brewer said the city still needs to make progress on race.
“Remember, we are public servants and we represent everyone,” he told future city leaders. “We don’t leave anyone behind.
“We know there are people who don’t enjoy the same opportunities as others. Just recently, the Kansas African-American Affairs Commission, appointed by Gov. Brownback, reported that race relations in our state have improved but, but we still have a long way to go. The report cited subtle bias. It mentioned hiring practices, the way students are treated and racial profiling.”
In a demonstration of the city’s lack of harmony on race, several protesters were escorted out of the chamber after standing up and interrupting the proceedings, just before Brewer began speaking.
They were motivated by the City Council action withdrawing its support for driving permits for illegal immigrants.
“Today, a white male majority voted to revoke the city’s support of the drivers permits,” some of the demonstrators read. “Today the city of Wichita violated the trust of communities of color, yet again.”
Brewer and the protesters are actually on the same side, in support of the driver permits.
The mayor shrugged off the interruption, saying after the speech, “this was their way of getting their message out.”
Future of downtown, infrastructure
Brewer’s comments on elections and race relations were the only overtly political parts of his speech, which focused on thanking the City Council, staff and others he had worked with during his term.
He lauded progress made on the redevelopment of downtown, the signature issue of his time in office.
“When I became mayor, one of my top priorities was working with you to revitalize downtown and we got a lot done,” Brewer said. “We created a downtown master plan and reignited development in the core area. … Today, there are dozens of new places to live, to work, to shop, and eat downtown.”
Brewer specifically mentioned apartments along the Arkansas River, the Downtown YMCA, the Lux, the Cargill Innovation Center and the Drury Plaza and Ambassador hotels as success stories for downtown development.
In addition, he hailed the recent decision by the council to move forward on building a new state-of-the-art central library downtown.
While celebrating the city’s successes, Brewer acknowledged that the city still faces challenges in fixing and maintaining its public-service infrastructure, particularly the water system.
“Our water and sewer pipes are crumbling,” Brewer said. “Last week a major leak nearly shut down our ability to deliver water to nearly half a million people. We also need to repair or replace most of the drainage systems. The total cost is estimated to be at least $2.1 billion.”
He also said nearly half of the city’s streets are ranked below nationally accepted benchmarks and about 15 percent of Wichita’s bridges need to be repaired or replaced.
Transit, Century II
And, he said, the city needs to fix its struggling transit system and consider building a replacement for the nearly 50-year-old Century II Convention Center.
He noted that it will be a challenge for future officials to pay for those kinds of improvements. Last year, Wichita voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have provided money for job creation, streets, water system improvement and transit.
But, he said, he thinks Wichita is up to the challenge.
“Our history shows us that we can overcome significant challenges when we come together and call on our unshakeable determination and our can-do spirit.”
Although it was Brewer’s final major city speech, he left the door open for some sort of involvement in the future.
“You haven’t seen the last of me yet, I’ll keep giving back,” he said.
That was a message that played well.
“I hope he will continue to find a way to continue in public service,” said Marge Zakoura-Vaughan, a longtime community activist.
She said the memory of Brewer that sticks in her mind was when the city was helping develop a grocery store in northeast Wichita. Brewer got developers to rearrange the plan to avoid forcing residents out of their longtime homes.
“He always keeps his mind on the impact (of city action) on individuals,” Zakoura-Vaughan said. “The not-so-powerful as well as the powerful.”
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.