Ad man Sam Williams looks to be CEO of Wichita

Wichita mayoral candidate Sam Williams at his campaign headquarters on March 10.
Wichita mayoral candidate Sam Williams at his campaign headquarters on March 10. The Wichita Eagle

Sam Williams sits on a cerulean blue couch in his campaign headquarters, nervously picking at the edges.

“Stuck in the Middle With You” plays on the radio as volunteers – mostly family members – make calls, urging people to vote for Williams for mayor on April 7.

For a few moments, a guy who spent a lifetime in advertising has trouble articulating why he should be mayor of Wichita.

“It’s uncomfortable for me having this conversation talking about me,” Williams says, still picking at the couch.

But then, he refers to the citizens of Wichita as clients. He stops picking at the couch and sits up.

“Clients are our bread and butter and you have to have the ability to sit down and understand what they’re saying to you and what they need. And sometimes what they think they need is not what they need.”

Williams, who retired last year as an executive from Sullivan, Higdon & Sink, the state’s largest advertising firm, looks at the world and the role of mayor through the eyes of an ad man.

“We need to be the most customer-friendly city in the world. A citizen comes to the government for help, we shouldn’t give them a list of things to do, we should ask them, ‘How can we help you get it done?’ That’s the environment I’ve known my whole career. It’s personal service. A city needs to be run that way, too.”

In Wichita, the mayor is the CEO of a $600 million company, says Williams, 63. And he thinks he’s the man for the job.

“You’re one of seven people leading the company – the city – but you are elected as a whole and therefore you have to be collaborative, you have to be inclusive, you have to understand that there are 385,000 people that make up this city and you have to have room at the table for everyone to have a conversation. That’s the kind of leader I hope to be. That doesn’t mean you don’t make decisions. It just means that people can feel like they understand it, they trust it and they can be a part of it.”

Mayoral candidate Sam Williams talks with citizens before an Arts Council forum Thursday at the Mary Jane Teall Theater in Century II. (March 19, 2015) Fernando Salazar The Wichita Eagle

Faith a constant

Williams is used to making friends.

Born in Riverton, Wyoming, to a land surveyor and a homemaker, he grew up in an 8-foot by 48-foot mobile home, bouncing from state to state.

The family moved three or four times a year. Williams “got used to making friends and being able to get along with people.”

When he was 11, the family moved to Anchorage, Alaska.

“We moved to the frontier, and that was going to be stability.”

One constant for Williams has been his faith. He’s been a member of the Mormon church, called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his entire life.

Halfway through college, he served a two-year mission to Germany, where he met his wife, Marilyn, a fellow missionary.

It was “kind of a love at first sight thing,” he says.

At the end of the mission, the two returned to the United States and got married. Since Marilyn was from Salt Lake City, they made their home there.

Williams, who had studied the French horn and political science before the mission, switched career plans to better care for his family. He earned an accounting degree at the University of Utah.

He worked for Arthur Andersen – a now-defunct national accounting firm – and later another company as chief financial officer.

A ‘Renaissance man’

The family had six children under 15 when Williams was hired by Al Higdon to join Sullivan, Higdon & Sink in Wichita as the company’s first chief financial officer in 1989.

“Marilyn came out in December and she hauled the kids across the Plains. It was like 20 below zero when she got here and the wind was blowing and the wind chill was like 30 below zero and she was like, ‘What have you done to me?’” he jokes.

Higdon, whom Williams refers to as a “second father,” says Williams went beyond the financial role.

“He thinks beyond that in terms of marketing, human resources, business development. He’s just a guy who is a ‘Renaissance man’ in terms of his ability to take on new disciplines and master them and make major contributions.”

“He believes strongly that this town can be better than it is and he wants to try to help make it that way so his children and his grandchildren who are here will want to stay and be able to grow and prosper as he feels he has been able to,” Higdon said.

Four of their six children live in Wichita. Several family members – including Marilyn – are Shockers, but they don’t make it to games very often.

“I’m very involved in church activities and so Sunday is just kind of an off day, so when they started having those Sunday games it just kind of changed things,” Williams says.

Faith is still a big part of Williams’ life. For the past seven years, he has been president of the Wichita Stake of the Mormon Church, which consists of about 10 wards, or congregations. They stretch west from Pratt, north to McPherson and south to Wellington, and Williams said he puts thousands of miles on his car each year traveling to them.

“We’re all lay ministers, we don’t get paid or anything for what we’re doing. It’s just been a big part of our life.”

Williams said he will continue in that role if he becomes mayor.

“That is a calling that I have,” he said.

Mayoral candidate Sam Williams talks with citizens Thursday before an Arts Council forum at the Mary Jane Teall Theater in Century II. (March 19, 2015) Fernando Salazar The Wichita Eagle

A ‘clear choice’

Williams calls his race against City Council member Jeff Longwell “one of the most important elections in the modern era of Wichita.”

“We have a clear choice on directions: We can keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them or we can have someone who can help us move into the future in a more confident and better way based on the experience of having done that with business organizations for years,” he says.

He has not run for public office before but has been involved in other leadership roles.

He was chairman of the Wichita Area Metro Chamber of Commerce in 2010, and its political action committee has endorsed his campaign for mayor. The PAC’s largest donor is Koch Industries, according to filings with the Sedgwick County Election Office.

Williams is also the immediate past chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

He was appointed to the newly formed state K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission last July by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and was elected its leader. After it made recommendations, he was among those who signed on to a minority report proposing greater changes, including reducing the number of items teachers could negotiate with school districts.

A ‘business-friendly’ environment

Williams says he supports Gov. Sam Brownback’s vision of lower taxes and smaller government. Lawmakers aggressively cut income taxes in 2012 and 2013; the state faces a projected $600 million shortfall for the next fiscal year.

There’s an attitude throughout the state that we are in crisis, Williams says.

“If those kinds of problems don’t get solved at the state level, it affects us mentally. … You have to solve problems so you can emotionally get by them.”

He said Brownback’s effort to create a “business-friendly” environment is necessary to grow jobs.

“I believe very strongly the lower the tax environment, the more business you’re going to create. Along with cutting revenue, you’re going to have to cut expenses and you have to set priorities,” Williams said.

“Has that been done the way I would have done it? Maybe not. Well, not maybe not. I think there’s been confusion and some decisions that need to be repaired and fixed. But the overall concept of having a very business-friendly (environment) – in terms of regulation and tax and fees – is very important.”

‘I made a mistake’

Williams has faced some challenges in the race.

His campaign drew criticism for featuring “CPA” prominently on mailers during the primary. He last was a certified public accountant decades ago in Utah.

“I know the stink over the CPA stuff. But still, I passed the test, I have the body of knowledge. That is a unique qualification. But also, having run a business … I understand what it takes to grow a business. What a community has to be like to grow a business.”

“I talk ‘ethics’ and ‘trust’ and then at the same time, I made a mistake,” he says. “But I admitted I made a mistake.”

And he’s aware that claims by some businessmen that he voted for last fall’s failed city sales tax proposal, while he adamantly says he did not, could cost him votes.

“I hope it won’t,” he says.

Williams would not answer The Eagle’s questions about his tax vote before the primary. He later told the Pachyderm Club, a Republican group, that he did not support the tax.

Movie theater magnate Bill Warren then said Williams had told developers at a meeting last November that he voted for the sales tax.

Williams is critical of the way the council handled the 1-cent sales tax proposal. The council voted 6-1 to put the issue on the ballot, with Longwell the lone “no” vote.

“A strong leader would have been able to work with the council to say we’re not ready to do this, this is not defined in a way, (we’re not) in touch with citizens enough.”

He also would have handled a proposal seeking reduced penalties for first-time marijuana differently, he said. The council put the issue on the April 7 ballot after petitioners presented thousands of signatures. The state attorney general has said the proposal conflicts with state law.

Williams said he would have sat down with petitioners to redirect their efforts to the state and to promise he would talk to the state on their behalf.

“I agree we need to treat people we’re mad at different than bad people and I agree we’re wasting millions of dollars on this stuff, plus lives are being destroyed,” Williams says. “But let’s do it in the right way. Alienating – what we did with those two (issues) is we’re dividing citizens of our city and it’s not moving us forward. We need to be building a community and not dividing us. Every decision that we make as a council that is broad scope needs to take that overall welfare of the entire city into consideration as much as it does individual districts, and that’s a huge opportunity.”

Mayoral candidate Sam Williams takes part in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Delano on March 14. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

A ‘great privilege’

Williams, a self-admitted “Type A guy,” says running for office is one of the hardest things he’s done.

“I’m used to being in control and it’s not that I’m not in control, but the candidate becomes kind of – it can go to your head because it’s putting your life out there when you’ve been able to protect it. … I understand now why it’s so hard.”

“But it’s a great privilege. Having people cast their vote, and I believe our vote is probably our most – along with our property rights – our vote is the most precious right, privilege we have as a citizen. And to have people use that to express their trust in me was probably one of the most humbling things I’ve ever felt. I’m still amazed with the feeling that came along with that.”

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

In his spare time

▪ Movie: “The Sound of Music” (1965)

“It’s crazy, but that is my favorite movie. … In fact, I can sing it for you. I get razzed for that one, but my kids all know that. Now they’ve come out with a sing-along version awhile ago. It’s great.”

▪ Books: Author Clive Cussler audio books while running.

“It’s kind of adventure type. It’s not mystery stuff.”

▪ Instruments: French horn in college, guitar now

“I’m learning how to play the guitar and started learning how to do that a little over a year ago. That’s been hit by the campaign. I’m not getting to play the guitar as much as I want to. … It’s especially hard when you’re playing the French horn accompaniment. You can’t just ‘oompah-oompah’ (by) yourself.”

▪ Sports: Golf and running more than 50 marathons, including finishing the Boston Marathon in three hours and 20 minutes

“When you qualify for Boston, that’s a big deal. Age wise, that’s a big deal because it’s hard to do. It takes a lot of training.”

Fundraising, endorsements

▪ Sam Williams had raised $85,656 through Feb. 19, according to the most recent campaign finance filings with the Sedgwick County Election Office. Reports show he’s spent more than $26,900 since Jan. 1. He loaned his campaign $10,000 in August.

His endorsements include the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce PAC and former Mayor Bob Knight.

▪ Jeff Longwell had raised $47,254 and spent $40,087, according to the campaign finance reports.

His endorsements include the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local Union 441, the Wichita Area Association of Realtors and the International Association of Firefighters Local 135 Fire PAC.

▪ At Kansas.com: See who is contributing to the candidates in a searchable database attached to this story.

How to vote in advance

By mail

Get an advance voting application from the Sedgwick County Election Office, 510 N. Main, Suite 101, in Wichita, or online at www.sedgwickcounty.org/elections. Fill it out and fax or mail it to the election office. Advance ballots will be mailed to those who apply by April 3. Voters can fill them out and mail them in; they must arrive by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

In person

You can vote at the election office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays beginning Wednesday and 8 a.m. to noon March 2. You also can vote at an advance voting center April 2-4.

Election Day is April 7.

For more information, call the election office at 316-660-7100 or go to www.sedgwickcounty.org/elections.

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