UPDATED 11:45 p.m.: David Dennis, whose campaign commercials for the Sedgwick County Commission urged voters to “save our zoo,” defeated incumbent Commissioner Karl Peterjohn on Tuesday night in the Republican primary.
With all precincts reporting, Dennis defeated Peterjohn by a 55-44 margin in a race that could help determine the political direction of the five-member Sedgwick County Commission for the next two years.
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The winner will face Goddard Mayor Marcey Gregory in the Nov. 8 general election. Gregory is running as an independent candidate.
Dennis grabbed the lead with early and advance voting results and maintained it later into the night.
“I’m overwhelmed with the support I’ve received,” Dennis said as results were final. “I’m overwhelmed with the folks that put together the team that made this possible tonight. I sincerely appreciate what the voters of Sedgwick County have done.”
His acceptance speech was interrupted by a call from Congressman Mike Pompeo.
Peterjohn called Dennis to concede the election. He also thanked those who supported his campaign.
“The ideas that we fought for in this campaign for fiscal responsibility, for voter empowerment, for letting the people decide whether property taxes should be raised, those issues are alive and well,” Peterjohn said. “Hopefully, in the future, a better and stronger messenger will be able to carry that to the voters and have more success than I had tonight.”
“There was a lot of third-party outside money that came into my race and I think that had a huge impact,” Peterjohn added.
Dennis outraised and outspent Peterjohn throughout the course of the campaign, raising $53,710 to Peterjohn’s $8,391 between Jan. 1 and July 21.
Peterjohn said he wasn’t sure if a contentious budget cycle last summer with cuts to the arts and the county health department, led to his defeat Tuesday night.
“It’s clear that the stronger support I’ve had in the past was not there tonight,” Peterjohn said.
Peterjohn did not say if he’d run for elected office again.
“At this point in time, I’m going to try and recover from this race,” he said. “I’ll worry about the future further out.”
“You do the best you can and you move forward,” Peterjohn said, who was seeking his third term in office. “We won two out of three races...and we fell a little short tonight.”
Impact on commission’s composition
A Peterjohn defeat could spell trouble for the current Sedgwick County Commission majority. Peterjohn often votes with Republican commissioners Richard Ranzau and Jim Howell in more contentious votes. Those three commissioners formed a new conservative majority in 2015 after Howell left the Kansas House after two terms.
Commissioner Dave Unruh, a Republican, and Democrat Tim Norton often fall in the minority if votes are split. They tend to be more supportive of participating in economic development coalitions, public health programs and using bonds to pay for capital projects.
Norton, who has been on the commission since 2001, is also up for re-election this year. He will face Republican Michael O’Donnell, who is leaving the Kansas Senate after one term there. Neither Norton nor O’Donnell faced a primary challenger on Aug. 2.
O’Donnell has been critical of the “rigid” nature of the 3-2 dividing line on the Sedgwick County Commission. He says he’d work to bridge the gap by taking positions with commissioners on both sides.
Taxes and spending
Dennis, a retired Air Force colonel and former state education board chairman, said the majority’s actions over the past year and a half drove him to run for office.
Dennis was heavily critical of not only Peterjohn, but the whole majority, throughout his campaign. He blamed those commissioners for not listening to the public during the 2016 budget process last summer. Dennis also raised concerns about the county’s use of cash reserves instead of debt to pay for capital projects, which he said has led to deficits in property tax-supported funds.
Some voters on Tuesday said their vote for Dennis was as much a vote “against Peterjohn” and the majority as anything else.
“I’ve never been a Peterjohn supporter, and I wasn’t today. I think the County Commission has been ideologically-driven,” said Phil Alexander, 66, of Wichita. “(Their) decisions are ideological rather than focused on the particular problem at hand.”
Peterjohn ran his third commission campaign on a platform of fiscal responsibility and looking out for Sedgwick County taxpayers. He touted the commission’s support to seek voter approval for property tax hikes. He noted that the mill levy is lower than when he first took office in 2009.
The majority wants to limit the county’s debt, focus on core government functions like roads and public safety, and reduce spending on services that can be provided in the private sector. The majority approved the 2016 budget last summer, which turned away from borrowing for road and bridge maintenance and made cuts to the arts, economic development, recreation and the county health department.
Some voters said Peterjohn’s fiscal consistency stuck with them.
“He’s always been really adamant about holding in spending and keeping taxes low,” said Mike Fuhrman, 67, of Wichita. “I agree with that stance.”
‘Save our zoo’
The Sedgwick County Zoo, which is in District 3, became one of the lead issues throughout the course of the campaign.
Dennis spoke out against a county proposal that would boost the county’s voting power on the nonprofit zoo board and set up guidelines regulating the zoo director’s public statements. He accused commissioners of trying to micromanage and run roughshod over the zoo board.
The Dennis campaign used radio ads asking voters to “save our zoo” in the waning hours of the campaign. And that message resonated with some west-side voters, like Dave Heath, 75, of Wichita.
“It’s the number one attraction in the state of Kansas. Now we have to screw that up by giving the commission more control? We don’t want that,” said Heath, an independent who voted in the Republican primaries.
“I want to see a change,” Heath said about the makeup of the commission.
But Peterjohn argued that giving the county more say on the zoo board is about giving voters more representation about the use of taxpayer dollars.
“Even though Dennis is very qualified, I felt Peterjohn’s arguments as far as the zoo made sense,” said John Fetherston, 82, of Wichita. “He’s not trying to cut money from the zoo, he’s trying to make it more financially responsible.”
Several zoo board members contributed to Dennis’ campaign.
Sheryl Wohlford, a Sedgwick County Zoo board member, attended Dennis’ watch party.
“Going forward, I think what we all really want is balance and to have a governing body that listens to and respects its citizens’ view, because I don’t feel that we have that now with the majority,” Wohlford said, emphasizing that she can only speak for herself.
Dennis landed endorsements from Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and Wichita City Council members Pete Meitzner and Bryan Frye, who argued that Dennis would improve relations between the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County. Longwell, who attended Dennis’ watch party, said he was ecstatic.
“There’s hope for this community that we can truly make a difference. People can see through the negativity and are ready for real change,” he said.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Ranzau attended Peterjohn’s watch party. Ranzau inserted himself into the District 3 race a few weeks ago when he called Dennis a “puppet” of Longwell at the end of a commission meeting.
When asked whether his comments would affect his ability to work with Dennis if he were elected, Ranzau responded: “Not as far as I’m concerned.”
Ranzau said the winner will face a formidable challenger in Gregory, who gathered more than 3,000 signatures from her district. He said Gregory must have been organized and hard-working to gather those signatures to land on the November ballot.
“Whoever wins, I wouldn’t take it for granted,” Ranzau said, earlier in the evening.
A Gregory victory would also improve city-county relations, according to Longwell.
“It gets better regardless of what happens in November,” Longwell said. “… That’s going to improve relationships with the city.”
Sedgwick County’s 3rd commission district includes sections of west Wichita and many of the county’s smaller cities like Goddard, Garden Plain, Cheney, Colwich, Andale, Bentley and Mount Hope. The heavily Republican district is the largest of the five commission districts.