Longwell says he’s done with public office; Whipple promises end to backdoor deals

Wichita Mayor-elect Brandon Whipple said he sees his victory over Mayor Jeff Longwell as a win for the people of the city, who he said are fed up with backdoor deals, favoritism and influence peddling at City Hall.

Whipple ran an underdog campaign against Wichita’s political establishment, and he won. Celebrating victory after overcoming a campaign season fraught with anonymous attacks and partisan sniping, Whipple promised to “return the government to the people.”

He promises ethics reform and said his victory shows that the people of Wichita want change.

But those changes won’t happen unless he can convince the other City Council members of his agenda. Those council members defended Longwell and the way the city does business throughout the campaign.

Council members are elected by district, while the mayor is elected by the entire city. Three incumbent council members — Becky Tuttle, Jeff Blubaugh and Bryan Frye — were up for election Tuesday night. All three prevailed in races against challengers calling for many of the changes Whipple wants to implement.

But over the course of the campaign, the incumbents said they’re willing to make changes or review the way the city does business. Whipple said he sees that as proof his future colleagues are willing to work together.

“It’s going to take us working together to get anything done,” Whipple said.

“We’ve got to take a look at our agenda. I want to talk to the council members to get their input on it.

“Public safety is high on my list. And we need to get the ball rolling on forming an ethics commission,” he said.

Whipple, 37, grew up in New Hampshire and moved to Wichita at age 21 to work with at-risk youth at Wichita South High School through AmeriCorps. He said he stayed because, unlike his home state, Wichita gave him the opportunity to afford college and buy a home.

He said he wants Wichita to continue being a city where the American dream of paying for school without going into debt, buying a home and raising a family is affordable.

He also wants to slow the loss of talented young people forced to leave Wichita because it doesn’t have jobs in their field or doesn’t offer wages on-par with other cities, he said.

During his campaign, Whipple called Wichita “the murder capital” of Kansas. He wants to put more officers on the streets and improve the police department’s response times to calls to help contain the Wichita’s growing violent crime problem.

On election night, he said public safety remains one of his highest priorities and that he hopes to get started on that right away.

“We have to talk to the department and make sure they are getting the proper resources,” Whipple told The Eagle. “They know what they need to solve some of the problems we’re having, we have to listen and provide them what they need to keep us safe.”

In Tuesday’s election, Whipple drew 46 percent of the vote to 36 percent for Longwell.

Slightly less than 18 percent of the voters wrote in a candidate for mayor, presumably most of those votes were for Lyndy Wells, who ran a robust write-in campaign after finishing third in the August primary. Turnout was 19.6 percent of registered voters, nearly double the turnout for the August primary and 3.3 percentage points higher than the 2015 mayoral election. Results are not official until Nov. 15.

The new mayor will take office Jan. 13. The job pays $96,209 a year.

Longwell bows out

Whipple’s victory speech came moments after Longwell, mayor for the past four years, conceded defeat to his supporters, gathered at the Wave venue in downtown Wichita.

“It’s been a tough campaign as you all know, and unfortunately we came out on the losing end of this,” Longwell said.

After 25 years in public office, including school board, City Council and the mayoralty, Longwell said. “This is our last election.”

“So this also comes with relief,” he said Tuesday evening. “Tomorrow we’ll wake up being just fine.”

Longwell said despite the loss, he still feels proud of increased momentum for downtown, quality of life improvements and the $75 million Triple-A baseball stadium that’s replacing Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

About 100 people turned out for Whipple’s watch party, including high-profile Democrats James Thompson and Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson.

His mother, Tammi Whipple, traveled from New Hampshire to share the moment with her son.

She expressed irritation at the dark-money attacks leveled at her son during the campaign, including a debunked video making lurid allegations of sexual harassment.

“It’s been tough,” she said. “But he’s tough. He’s tougher than I am.”

She said she was most proud that he was able to stay above the fray.

“As a mother, it kills me to see the nasty side (of politics),” she said. “I know Brandon, and he would never say anything like what was in that video. Not ever — and I knew him as a teenager.”

Although Whipple ended up winning handily, he said it was stressful watching results pile up.

He broke out to an early lead on mail and advance votes, but each time updated results came in from Tuesday’s voting, Longwell nibbled away at the lead.

He said he entered the race because he wanted Wichitans to have “a real choice.”

“I didn’t believe (I could win) when I first got into this,” he said.

Whipple was the underdog. He raised less money. He spent less money. He put up some of his own money for his campaign.

False video surfaces

One defining moment of the campaign was a false video, produced through an anonymous New Mexico shell company, slamming Whipple with inaccurate allegations of sexual harassment.

The video — released on YouTube and Facebook — featured young actresses posing as Capitol interns and reading from a script of accusations cribbed from a 2017 story in the Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle about sex harassment complaints at the Statehouse.

However, the allegations in the news story were actually about Republican members of the state Senate, not Whipple, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives.

Eagle reporting into the New Mexico company found it shared a mailing address and registered agent with a company owned by state Rep. Michael Capps, R-Wichita, who is a business partner of City Council member James Clendenin.

One of the actresses told The Eagle that she was paid $50 to appear in the video by Matthew Colborn, a young entrepreneur who had been mentored by Capps through Wichita State University and shares a downtown office with Capps and Clendenin.

After those ties surfaced, the Sedgwick County Republican Party leadership called for Capps to resign his seat in the Legislature.

He didn’t, and instead went on former Rep. John Whitmer’s radio show and claimed that party Chairman Dalton Glasscock knew about and green-lighted the shady video, an allegation Glasscock denies.

Race became partisan

The race, nonpartisan by law, was overtly partisan in practice.

The Sedgwick County Republicans funded a mailer calling for Longwell’s re-election and urging voters to “Vote Republican on Nov. 5!”

The state Democratic Party fired back with a mailer calling Longwell “Mayor Kickback.”

The mailer also falsely said the mayor was under investigation for “corruption.” Longwell denied the claim and that Democratic Party officials refused to explain their claims.

While Longwell was investigated by District Attorney Marc Bennett during the campaign, Bennett said the subject of the probe was not corruption, but whether Longwell had properly reported gifts he received from contractors in a city water project.

Whipple campaigned on restoring public trust in local government, pointing to Longwell’s handling of the water plant project as an example of a deeper problem in Wichita that has held the city back from realizing its full potential. He said the city has developed a culture of giving contracts and tax breaks to well-connected insiders at the expense of taxpayers.

Whipple said he suspects the anonymous attack ads were bankrolled by insiders who feel threatened by his platform of being more transparent and creating an ethics commission.

Newly created anonymous entities also weighed in with several mailers attacking Whipple and Wells.

Although the group’s names were different, they appeared to be linked by a postal permit traced to a Kansas City bulk-mail service.

Campaign spending

None of the spending on the video nor the anonymous mailers will ever have to be reported, according to Mark Skoglund, executive director of the state’s Governmental Ethics Commission.

The commission has ruled that outside organizations only have to report their identity and spending if they use words from a short list of key terms such as “vote for” or “elect,” or “vote against” or “defeat.”

The Republican and Democratic party spending will have to be reported, but not until the parties file an annual report in January, two months after the election.

On issues, Whipple centered his campaign on governmental transparency, calling for gift limits for the mayor and council members and the creation of a city commission to investigate and enforce ethics.

He also won the endorsements of the city’s police and fire unions, calling for expansion of both public safety departments.

Longwell called on voters to stay the course and highlighted achievements made during his mayoralty, including the winning of a 2019 All-America City award and adding 89 new police officers to the force.

Longwell raised $73,925 from July 26 through Oct. 24 and, with money previously raised, had $126,817 available for his campaign. He reported spending $101,524.

Whipple raised $61,433 from July 26 through Oct. 24 and had $66,091 available for his campaign. He reported spending $48,646.

Wells, who jumped into the race Oct. 17 with a write-in campaign, reported raising $28,260 and had $56,351 available. He spent $48,973.

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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.
Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.