Rep. Jim Howell talks as fast as a kid making a Christmas list, and his rapid-fire speech picks up even more when he’s talking about aviation.
Laid off from Boeing in January, Howell is working a contract job for Cessna on the Scorpion program. He served in the Air Force during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and has 23 years of aviation experience in Wichita. He thinks that makes him uniquely qualified to serve on the Sedgwick County Commission.
Howell, a Republican, is running to represent District 5 in the southeast part of the county, where he has spent 41 of his 50 years. He lives with his wife, Leah, and five children in Derby. Commissioner Jim Skelton decided earlier this year not to seek re-election. Howell faces Derby Mayor Dion Avello in the Aug. 5 primary election. The winner will face Democrat Richard Young in November.
“I’m addicted to airplanes,” Howell said at his home. “My dog was going to be named ‘Propeller.’ ”
Working primarily in flight test instrumentation, Howell has lit about 1,000 fires aboard planes to test smoke detection, he said. He has worked on the KC-135 and KC-46 and has been on a negative-G flight. He went to the Paris Air Show in 2005, and aviation work has taken him to Iceland, Bolivia and Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories.
“I’ve seen the inside” of aviation, he said. “That is a tremendous asset. I think (the commission) has been missing that perspective.”
Howell is in his second term as a state legislator. Boeing allowed him to take leaves of absence to work in Topeka, he said.
When he announced his candidacy for the commission last year, Howell said he wanted to solve problems closer to home.
Boeing offered him jobs elsewhere, but he declined, he said.
“I would rather be in Kansas, so we decided to wait to see what God would provide,” he said.
Howell said he knows some are saying, “Well, Jim Howell just needs a job,” but he swears that’s not the reason he is running for county office.
“I have watched the County Commission for years,” he said. “It’s dominated by Tim Norton and two Republicans who vote with him. Those three guys are aligned.”
He would like to see the commission get back to more conservative roots, he said.
Howell is late to an interview at his house because someone broadsided him in traffic and fled the scene in a rental car, he said.
His wife folds blue campaign T-shirts while she and a reporter wait for him.
When he arrives, dressed in a suit, he plops down on the couch and apologizes for being late. The family’s Labrador retriever, Shadow, nudges up against him.
Howell tells his wife he can’t drive his car in parades with the side dented like that.
“It’s ugly,” he tells her.
Howell talks about his background. Born in Colorado, he moved to Salina before kindergarten. His family moved around a lot, and his parents divorced when he was 12, he said.
He has lived in Derby and Oaklawn in District 5 and graduated from Southeast High School. He joined the Air Force and deployed six weeks after getting married.
At Southern Illinois University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology, studying efficiencies in manufacturing processes, he said. That, coupled with management experience and a degree in organizational management and leadership from Friends University, has helped him as a state legislator, he said.
Howell said he had a rough childhood.
“It was by God’s grace that I didn’t end up in a place like the (Judge Riddel Boys) ranch,” he said. “I’ve done some bad things in my life, and I’m embarrassed by that.”
His father moved away when he was 13, and they don’t have a close relationship, Howell said.
He said underage drinking was common for him.
His own experiences have led him to support the boys ranch. He pushed to get the county more money for the ranch, helping secure $750,000 last year.
“I took that as an action item personally,” he said of efforts to save the ranch, which is closing this month. The ranch helps “save kids’ lives, keeps them out of prison and saves the county $1 million a year,” he said.
Howell drafted a bill that orders a new cost study of youth residential centers and requires more accountability.
“The county was not engaged,” he said.
The county worked against his efforts, he has said, by not testifying in support of the bill and by offering retention incentives, or bonuses, to ranch staff members.
“What I experienced ... was extreme disappointment in our county government,” he said. “I frankly am angry about the fact that they’ve made the decision to close JRBR.”
Howell has stressed that he doesn’t plan to automatically vote with certain commissioners.
Some have assumed that he and Commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn will form a new majority. He has said sometimes he will vote “no” and sometimes “yes,” regardless of a majority.
That includes votes on economic development, he said.
He said he won’t automatically vote against incentives for companies but will judge each on its own merits.
“I need to see proof that it will work,” he said, “and I think the burden of proof is on them. They’re going to have to prove their side. I don’t want to waste any money, but if it’s good for the district, I will support it.”
He has said he wouldn’t have supported a tax-increment financing district in Derby at the southeast corner of K-15 and East Patriot Avenue, where Menards has bought land to build a home improvement store across from an existing Lowe’s. TIF districts use future taxes to help pay for improvements, and this one is expected to generate more than $2.2 million in part to improve an intersection that the Kansas Department of Transportation says has a higher-than-average rate of accidents. It would also pay for drainage improvements and landscaping.
Art Meadows has known Howell through Boeing and Calvary Baptist Church.
“I think he’s got the right priorities, which are infrastructure and core services for government,” Meadows said.
The Derby resident said he is supporting Howell because “I know him to be a man of his word. If he says he is going to do something, he’ll do it.”
Howell also is open to reconsidering a position after listening to constituents, he said.
Howell, who teaches gun safety, supported allowing concealed handguns at the Statehouse.
Derby resident Daryl Timmerman said he supports Howell because “he votes the way I like. He’s pro-NRA (National Rifle Association). He’s conservative. I can talk to him about different issues, common-sense issues.”