After winning the Republican primary for Sedgwick County district attorney Tuesday night, Marc Bennett said he understands that the office is due for change after 24 years of Nola Foulston.
“But it’s change while still keeping professional consistency in the office, too,” he said at his watch party at the River City Brewery in Old Town. “It’s not throwing everything out and starting over.”
Bennett, a deputy DA, won with 54 percent of the vote to former deputy DA Kevin O’Connor’s 45 percent in a campaign that grew contentious at times.
Voters picked a new district attorney for the first time since Foulston won the first of her of six terms in 1988. Bennett’s victory makes him the next DA because a Democrat didn’t run for the office.
Bennett’s supporters filled the brewery’s second-floor room with cheers as TV screens reflected numbers in his favor.
Although he maintained a double-digit lead for much of the night, Bennett declined to declare victory until O’Connor called him shortly before 11:30 p.m. and conceded.
“It’s gratifying and humbling,” Bennett said. “I congratulate Kevin on running a good campaign. He’s a good prosecutor. He’s an old friend.”
After calling Bennett, O’Connor said he was proud of his campaign and supporters.
“We gave the community a race with two quality candidates, O’Connor said. “We fought a good fight.”
Bennett and O’Connor worked together under Foulston for a number of years, but O’Connor left in late 2009 after a falling-out with Foulston.
Bennett has worked for Foulston for 15 years and is a deputy DA overseeing the sex, domestic violence and financial crimes unit. O’Connor left after 17 years, including the last six as a deputy DA in charge of a trial division.
Both candidates are noted prosecutors, having handled high-profile cases and combining to conduct more than 230 trials.
O’Connor ran much of his campaign based around the need for change in the DA’s office, saying that only “real change would happen if I’m elected.”
The ability to be an administrator as well as a prosecutor was a frequent topic during the campaign.
O’Connor, who has worked for the state attorney general’s office as a special assistant since leaving the DA office, repeatedly said, “I’m running for district attorney, not district administrator.”
But Bennett said he thought his message that he could do both was a key reason he won.
He noted that after both candidates addressed a civic club recently, one of the members told him, “The best salesman isn’t necessarily the best sales manager.”
“I can be that manager and a good prosecutor,” Bennett said.
Bennett will be taking over an office that has 120 employees, including 50 attorneys, and a budget of more than $8 million.
After casting her ballot at Westlink Church of Christ, Pam Mitchell, 61, said she voted for Bennett because “I think he is very thoughtful and upstanding.”
One of the challenges facing the DA’s office is handling an overloaded docket. About 20 of the office’s attorneys handle 4,000 criminal cases each year. There also are only six judges that hear criminal cases.
Bennett has suggested a restructuring of the office and the way some crimes are handled to move cases along quicker. O’Connor had said some attorneys in the office aren’t carrying their share of the load.
Foulston didn’t officially endorse either candidate, but she made it clear that she supported Bennett through her Facebook and having a Bennett campaign sign in her yard.
The candidates combined to spend nearly $140,000 with Bennett outspending O’Connor 2-to-1.
The two candidates had worked side by side for years. They both prosecuted the Chelsea Brooks case, getting two convictions and a guilty plea from a third person in the 2006 murder of a 14-year-old girl.
Both candidates have said the DA’s office has grown complacent over the years and changes are needed.
O’Connor has stressed that Bennett is a continuation of the Foulston regime. He has said his background of also working as a prosecutor for the federal government, the state and other counties will allow him to make such necessary changes as redistributing the work load for the staff.
Bennett countered by trying to distinguish himself from Foulston and saying he could energize the office.
O’Connor tried to stress he was the true conservative in the race, pushing his endorsement by the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life.
Abortion opponent Troy Newman, president of Wichita-based Operation Rescue, said he paid for robocalls to 30,000 voters asking them to support O’Connor and accusing Foulston of trying to hand-pick her successor by soliciting Democrats to give money to Bennett.
But Bennett was quick to point out he was also anti-abortion and took conservative positions on other issues. At the same time, he said many of those topics weren’t issues for the day-to-day business of the DA.
He continued to stress the importance of enforcing the law as it is written and not bringing a personal agenda to the job.
O’Connor tried to portray Bennett as anti-gun because he hadn’t spoken out against an opinion issued last year by Foulston that said allowing concealed-carry guns in some county buildings worked against public safety. Foulston’s opinion was requested by County Commissioner Richard Ranzau.
Bennett objected to that claim, saying he didn’t weigh in on Foulston’s opinion because it wasn’t his role. He also noted that he is a member of the National Rifle Association.
Bennett and O’Connor also drew different reviews in a survey sponsored by the Wichita Bar Association and The Eagle.
Attorneys who work in court gave Bennett high marks in all areas, while O’Connor drew mixed reviews.
Bennett’s reviews were positive, while O’Connor’s last two were not. The reviews were particularly critical of O’Connor’s commitment to handle administrative responsibilities.
O’Connor said his reviews were poor because he didn’t contribute to Foulston’s 2008 campaign. Foulston denied that claim.
He said he left Foulston’s office over what he called “fundamental differences with the district attorney, even down to core values.”