U.S. Air Force colonel. State Board of Education chairman. Metropolitan Area Planning Commission vice chairman.
David Dennis, 69, has held a number of titles in his career. Now he wants to be a Sedgwick County commissioner.
And that has the potential to upend the political direction of the five-member Board of County Commissioners.
Dennis is mounting a primary challenge to Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, who has represented western Sedgwick County’s District 3 since 2009. The winner could face Goddard Mayor Marcey Gregory, an independent candidate gathering signatures to be on the November ballot.
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Republican voters in much of west Wichita and all of Goddard, Garden Plain, Colwich, Cheney, Colwich, Andale, Bentley, Viola and the unincorporated western part of Sedgwick County will be able to vote in the District 3 primary on or before Aug. 2.
But first: the Aug. 2 primary election. Dennis is heavily critical of the commission majority that is made up of Peterjohn, Chairman Jim Howell and Commissioner Richard Ranzau. Peterjohn is the only one of the three up for re-election.
Dennis says the county’s recent shift to paying for road and bridge maintenance work with cash has led to unnecessary deficit spending. And he says the county is falling short in its traditional support for public health and the Sedgwick County Zoo.
I wanted to make sure whoever does run is a conservative Republican still, but will listen to the people.
Sedgwick County candidate David Dennis
Beyond those policies, Dennis says he is concerned that those in the majority don’t listen to people who disagree with their positions.
“We need new leadership in Sedgwick County,” Dennis said. “I wanted to make sure whoever did run is a conservative Republican still, but will listen to the people.”
29-year Air Force career
Dennis, who grew up in Great Bend, embarked on a career in the U.S. Air Force in 1968, after graduating from Fort Hays State University.
He carried launch and target information to program into intercontinental ballistic missiles in the U.S. Cold War arsenal. He also evaluated the teams that carried that information to launch sites.
“You don’t make mistakes when you work with nuclear weapons,” Dennis said.
In the 1990s, he managed teams that were part of the effort to dismantle nuclear facilities in Russia and the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
“Most of the time (in the Air Force), I was trying to destroy the former Soviet Union,” Dennis said. “But actually I got to go over there and do it peacefully.”
After he retired from the Air Force in 1997, the Dennis family settled down in Wichita, on the west side.
“We’re very happy that we picked Wichita,” Dennis said.
He got his teaching certificate and taught business and computer classes at North High School.
“I wasn’t looking for a high-paying job,” he said. “I was looking for something that would satisfy me.”
He served on the state board of education from 2009 to 2013, when “we stopped arguing about evolution.” He was chairman of the board for two of those years.
“We set the science standards,” Dennis said. “I wanted to teach science in science classes. And that’s what we did.”
Dennis ran for a Wichita City Council seat and lost in 2007. But he was appointed to the joint city-county planning commission by then-council member Jeff Longwell, who is now mayor. Longwell challenged Peterjohn for a commission seat in 2012 and lost.
He’s just a sharp individual that represents the community in a way that I just truly am fond of.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell
Longwell said Dennis would help improve the relationship between the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County. He and council members Bryan Frye and Pete Meitzner underscored that point in a recent news conference announcing all three would endorse Dennis.
“He’s just a sharp individual that represents the community in a way that I just truly am fond of,” Longwell said. “(Dennis) would easily represent the constituents of west Wichita so much better.”
‘Ready for new leadership’
Dennis says people started approaching him in January about a possible challenge to Peterjohn.
“People kept coming to me wanting me to run,” Dennis said. “They’re ready for new leadership on the County Commission.”
The county has become too libertarian under the current majority, he said, pointing to last year’s brief, unsuccessful effort to get rid of small cities’ ability to review zoning applications outside their city limits. Peterjohn ultimately voted for a compromise that kept the cities’ review authority intact.
“They want as small as a government as possible,” Dennis said. “I understand individual property owners’ rights, but it also has to be balanced. Every decision has to come up individually.”
He says he would have voted against the 2016 budget that Peterjohn voted for last August.
Commissioners narrowly approved that budget, which focused on core services like roads and limited the county’s debt. It also made cuts to arts, recreation, economic development and public health, including programs related to health promotion and gathering public health data.
“We need to educate the people on the impact of their health and the cost to the community that has,” Dennis said. “We need to do a community health assessment so we know what services we need to provide to the people.”
He says the county should be open to using debt to pay for some capital projects, something it has moved away from under the current majority.
The Wichita Metro Chamber Political Action Committee has endorsed Dennis. Chamber president and CEO Gary Plummer said Dennis “might be more amenable to being a partner on economic development opportunities.”
“Quality-of-life partnerships with the (Sedgwick County) Zoo and other major assets is something we’ve had some concern about over the last year or so,” Plummer added.
‘They don’t listen’
Dennis says he takes issue with the majority over its tone as much as its political leanings.
“You can’t have the biggest employer in the city get up and speak and attack them,” Dennis said, referring to commissioner Richard Ranzau’s rebuff of a Spirit AeroSystems representative during a budget hearing last summer.
“You can’t tell the zoo, ‘you can’t say anything if it’s going to at all contradict what we have to say,’ ” he added. Dennis opposes a county proposal that would set up guidelines about the zoo director’s public statements and boost the county’s role on the zoo board.
“You can’t continually attack people that are speaking,” Dennis said. “If you’re not willing to listen, you’re not willing to grow.”
They already had their mind made up and that’s the problem: They don’t listen.
Sedgwick County candidate David Dennis
Dennis also said county commissioners didn’t take into account the majority of speakers who opposed the 2016 budget in last summer’s online and in-person budget hearings.
Commissioners “already had their mind made up, and that’s the problem: They don’t listen,” Dennis said.
Frye, who reappointed Dennis to the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission last year, said “we need county commissioners interested in working together and growing our region.”
“David is a practical, very thoughtful and reasonable person. He’s going to, in my experience, listen to both sides,” Frye said. “He’s going to do research. And he’s not going to force his opinions on someone just because he can.”
“We must have a commission interested in building bridges, not walls,” Frye added.
David is a practical, very thoughtful and reasonable person. He’s going to, in my experience, listen to both sides.
Wichita City Council member Bryan Frye
Dennis says he would be a less “ideological” alternative if he were elected to the County Commission.
“There are a lot of people I’m not going to please that are in the (Wichita Republican) Pachyderm Club,” Dennis said. “I’m still a conservative, but you’ve got to be able to weigh each different decision.”