Politics & Government

Restaurateur, former mayors seek to launch mayoral write-in campaign against Longwell

A Wichita restaurateur has recruited two former mayors and is spending about $10,000 on a campaign to try to draft former mayoral candidate Lyndy Wells for a write-in bid in the Nov. 5 mayoral election.

The two candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot are incumbent Mayor Jeff Longwell and state Rep. Brandon Whipple.

Jon Rolph, president and CEO of Thrive Restaurant Group, said he has been urging Wells to run because Longwell’s handling of a city water plant contract “looks to me like it’s ethically bankrupt.”

Longwell could not be reached for comment.

Wells said he has not yet decided whether he will re-enter the race.

“There are some folks trying (to start a write-in), I’m not there yet,” said Wells, who came in third in a nine-candidate field in the Aug. 6 mayoral primary.

He said he wants to gauge if there’s broad community support for a third candidate, and he plans to make a decision whether to jump back into the race by the middle of next week.

“There’s a lot I need to think through before I would agree to this,” he said. “I know our time is short . . . I’m giving it every consideration.”

Rolph said he was moved to take action after recent Eagle articles that said Longwell steered a lucrative contract for the city’s new water treatment plant to friends in the development community.

He said he has no problem with Longwell having friends and connections in the business community, but when he’s actively pushing for them to get city work, those relationships should have to be disclosed.

“What we have is complex problems in front of us and you have a guy (Longwell) who’s damaged public trust,” Rolph said. “Nothing’s more important than public trust when you’re trying to build a community.”

On Tuesday, Rolph got together with former mayors Bob Knight and Carl Brewer and recorded a television ad urging Wells to get back in.

Brewer said he got involved because many people have been telling him they were planning to sit out the election.

“I have seen, when I was serving on the National League of Cities, other places, write-ins have worked, people have won,” Brewer said. “So you know that there’s a chance. I’ve never seen this groundswell of people that want another candidate other than the two that we have.

“I’ve lived here all my life and seen a lot of elections come and go and never anything quite like this.”

The last time there was a serious write-in effort in Wichita was 2003, when two candidates — Bob Knight’s wife Jane and former councilwoman Joan Cole — stepped in after theater owner Bill Warren’s campaign was derailed by news reports of domestic violence allegations and intemperate remarks he made about Wichita.

Between them, the write-ins garnered 31 percent of the vote, although then-state Rep. Carlos Mayans won with 53 percent.

“I don’t think the Warren meltdown was as bad as this,” Brewer said of the current political situation.

Also, Jane Knight and Cole split the voters who were dissatisfied with the ballot choices, which isn’t likely to happen this time around, he said.

The former mayors’ ad will start airing on Wichita television stations Thursday and will direct people to www.writeinwells.com, a site where they’ll be able to register their support for a Wells candidacy.

Rolph has purchased about $9,000 of advertising time for the spot, he said.

In addition to the water plant issue, Brewer criticized Longwell for lack of transparency on the demolition of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium for a new $75 million baseball park and the incentive package that’s bringing the Triple-A New Orleans Baby Cakes team to Wichita.

The old stadium had been torn down and the team’s move announced when the public found out that part of the deal was selling four acres of riverfront land to the team for $4 to develop a baseball village of restaurants and bars.

“Those are things (Longwell) should have asked the public about,” Brewer said.

Rolph said he decided to urge a write-in candidacy because he thinks Whipple, whose political career has been spent at the Statehouse in Topeka, lacks the experience to lead the city through the critical turning points ahead.

Whipple said he thinks he’s the actual target of the write-in effort because he’s pushing hard for ethics reform at City Hall.

“I think this is the happiest day Longwell’s had in a long time,” he said. “I think this is an attempt to continue the status quo by getting Longwell elected. This is against me.”

As for the experience argument, “at least I have governing experience,” he said. “They’re running someone who has no governing experience.”

Brewer acknowledged that Wells hasn’t held elected office. But he said Wells has been involved in city affairs for many years as a community banker and volunteer board member working with economic development and other issues.

In addition to the water treatment plant, which will be the largest project in city history, the city will have to make major and difficult decisions on development of the east bank of the Arkansas River, including the question of whether to raze Century II and replace it with new convention and performing arts facilities.

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.