Michael O’Donnell defeated incumbent Tim Norton in a tight race for the Sedgwick County Commission.
Norton, a Democrat running for his fifth term on the Sedgwick County Commission, faced a strong challenge from O’Donnell, a Republican state senator and former Wichita City Council member. O’Donnell will represent District 2, which includes Haysville, Clearwater and parts of south and southwest Wichita.
“They said it couldn’t be done. But we collectively did this,” O’Donnell said to cheers at a Republican watch party at the downtown Drury hotel. “I’m truly humbled by the people of southwest Sedgwick County.”
In western Sedgwick County, retired Air Force Col. David Dennis took an early comfortable lead over Goddard Mayor Marcey Gregory and ultimately prevailed with 63 percent of the vote.
Dennis will replace Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, whom Dennis defeated in the August Republican primary. District 3 includes large parts of west Wichita as well as Goddard, Cheney, Colwich, Garden Plain, Andale, Mount Hope, Bentley and Viola, scattered across the western half of the county.
Dennis said just before midnight he felt “wonderful” after the victory.
“I think what we did was stay on message the entire campaign from the primary on,” Dennis said. “I’m ready to go to work come January.”
O’Donnell, who originally trailed Norton by 400 votes, called his early deficit “better than I thought it would be.”
He later said he was “extremely nervous” even as the race had gradually turned more in his favor.
O’Donnell had moved out of the main watch party room as the race tightened.
“If I had a more comfortable margin, I’d be in there,” he said.
Wichita City Council member Jeff Blubaugh shepherded O’Donnell into the main watch party room, encouraging people to congratulate him after O’Donnell insisted in the hallway the race wasn’t over.
Earlier in the evening, Norton was positive at his watch party, telling a supporter: “This is the easy part here. We’ve walked the neighborhoods and we weathered all the hard stuff. We’ve got friends here, and we’re going to party.”
Norton’s son, Scott Norton, said, “we’re here to celebrate a win or a retirement.”
Just after 10 p.m., with 32 of 46 precincts reporting and O’Donnell up by about 600 votes, Norton said: “It’s a dead heat right now. ... I’m ready to do my job for four more years, or I am ready to retire.”
At 10:40 p.m., Norton’s watch party began winding down, and the candidate said he might watch the final returns from home.
Either way the election goes, he said, “I always sleep good at night. I’m comfortable in my own skin.”
Norton did not concede the race or make a statement Tuesday evening after the final results were in.
Impact on county government
The two races will determine the political direction of the five-member Board of Sedgwick County commissioners until 2018, when the other three commission seats are up for election.
Since 2015, Sedgwick County government has been run by a conservative commission majority made up of Peterjohn and Commissioners Jim Howell and Richard Ranzau. They want 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 by private companies.
Those commissioners voted to cut recreation, the arts, culture and the county health department in the summer of 2015.
Norton and Commissioner Dave Unruh, a Republican, 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 like roads and bridges.
Peterjohn’s seat will be filled by Dennis, who was a critic of the majority during the campaign.
A Norton victory would have likely signaled the end of the current majority when Peterjohn leaves office in January.
O’Donnell has taken positions from both the majority and the minority and has criticized the rigid division among county commissioners.
O’Donnell spent $158,087 between July and October – four times more than Norton during the final stretch of the campaign. O’Donnell argued Norton had served too long in county government and that the county needed new leadership. His campaign ads and mailers frequently criticized Norton for increases in commissioners’ salaries during his tenure on the commission.
O’Donnell thanked Norton for his 16 years on the Sedgwick County Commission during his victory speech.
“(Norton) was too liberal for the county. But he really is a good man,” O’Donnell said. “He did a lot for the city of Haysville after the tornado of 1999. And I intend to do a lot.
“I’m glad that we ran a positive campaign talking about the issues. I’m sorry that the other side chose not to,” he said.
During the campaign, Norton, 69, touted numerous county achievements he had a role in over the past 15 years. He argued he was the candidate that deeply understood and cared about the district.
The race quickly became the more negative and contentious of the two races. O’Donnell mailers sent by the Kansas Republican Party attacked Norton as a “career politician” who routinely raised taxes and enriched himself through pay raises and the use of his county credit card.
And O’Donnell was so plagued by campaign sign vandalism throughout the district that he bought deer cameras with campaign funds to catch sign vandals.
O’Donnell’s campaign Facebook page posted a video Tuesday that shows a Democratic staff member allegedly throwing an O’Donnell campaign sign in a dumpster.
Norton said he didn’t find out about the video until he was en route to his watch party in Haysville at Ilusion Studios.
“That’s not the way I run my campaign,” he said. “It’s sad there’s people out there that think they need to do things like that. But unequivocally, I had nothing to do with it.”
In District 3, both Dennis and Gregory initially framed their campaigns against Peterjohn, arguing that the commission majority he was a part of failed to listen to residents at last year’s budget hearings.
Dennis, 69, served a 29-year-career in the U.S. Air Force before retiring as a colonel and moving to Wichita. He became a teacher at North High School.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau said he could work well with Dennis despite calling him a puppet of Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell during the primary.
“Both sides fight and say things,” Ranzau said.
“I’m just ready for this whole thing to be over and know what our fate is, everywhere ... at all levels,” he added about the O’Donnell-Norton race earlier in the evening.
Unruh attended a small Dennis watch party.
“I think I’ll be able to work very nicely with him,” Unruh said.
Unruh said the commission would have a “different personality” no matter who had won in the District 2 race.
“The commission will be less extreme in many of its decisions,” Unruh said.