State Sen. Michael O’Donnell tapped into the Garth Brooks mania that gripped Wichita last month to generate some campaign cash through an unconventional, but apparently legal, concert-skybox fundraiser.
But it’s unclear whether he’ll spend the money to run for re-election to his Senate seat or give it up to challenge Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton.
This week, O’Donnell acknowledged that he was considering running for the commission and he recently moved to Norton’s district, which includes Haysville, Clearwater and parts of Mulvane and south Wichita.
“I’m focused on serving in the Kansas Senate right now,” O’Donnell said. “I might be open to ways I can better serve in any capacity, whether that is a seat on the County Commission or in the private sector.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
O’Donnell’s Senate campaign finance report raised questions among Statehouse Democrats because it contained $2,152 in expenditures for tickets to a Garth Brooks concert.
Candidates are barred by state law from spending campaign money on personal entertainment.
The country-music legend played a series of six shows at the Intrust Bank Arena Dec. 3 through Dec. 6, adding four appearances after the initial two Wichita shows sold out almost immediately.
O’Donnell said he rented a luxury box for one of the concerts, plus bought additional tickets on the floor near the stage from Jeff Martin. Martin owns Martin Event Services, the contractor that provides security and crowd control at the arena.
The campaign disclosure form shows that O’Donnell reimbursed himself from his campaign fund for $1,552 for the skybox and reimbursed Martin $600 for the additional tickets.
He said he resold the tickets for campaign donations of $1,000 a couple to 16 couples, all of whom had access to his campaign party in the luxury box.
He said several prominent Wichitans joined him, including City Council member Jeff Blubaugh, television personality Sierra Scott, Splurge Magazine owner and publisher Jody Klein and real estate developer Gary Oborny.
“It’s a unique way of raising campaign funds. I’ve never heard of that before,” said Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
She said it’s legal “as long as he sold those tickets to couples. “If he bought the (skybox) booth with campaign funds and took his family, that would be personal” and an unacceptable campaign expenditure, she said.
O’Donnell’s campaign finance form showed that he began 2015 with senate campaign funds of about $107,500, and raised $66,700 in 2015.
If he decides to seek the county commission seat, he’d have to give up that money because state law doesn’t allow transfers from one campaign to another, Williams said.
O’Donnell recently sold his home on High Street, near 13th and West streets, to a cousin, and moved to a rented duplex on South Sheridan just north of Kellogg.
While he still lives in his Senate district, which covers parts of west and south Wichita, the move takes him out of fellow conservative Republican Karl Peterjohn’s commission district and into the district held by Norton, the commission’s only Democrat.
The commission is a full-time job that pays $89,715, substantially more than the part-time Legislature. Former state Rep. Jim Howell left his House seat to run successfully for the commission in 2014.
Candidates have several options for disposing of stranded funds when they switch races, including giving the money to their political party, donating it to charity or refunding it to donors.
O’Donnell said he “could easily refund money to donors” if he does opt to go for commission instead of state Senate.
For now, O’Donnell can continue to spend money from his Senate fund to generate general goodwill that would help him in either campaign.
His spending report shows a pattern of picking up the tab for lunches and dinners with supporters and gifts for volunteers who have helped with his Senate campaign.
The form report also showed payments of $1,000 to his mother, third-term Bel Aire City Council member Peggy O’Donnell, and payments to local blogger/activists Mike Shatz, $2,500 and Bob Weeks, $750.
O’Donnell said his mother earned the pay by helping out with his campaign accounting and that Shatz and Weeks performed campaign research.
Weeks is a conservative/libertarian blogger.
Shatz, a frequent critic of Wichita police, publicly clashed with O’Donnell when O’Donnell was a City Council member and Shatz was a spokesman for the left-wing Occupy movement.
However, O’Donnell said he and Shatz “always had a very cordial relationship” and “he’s helped me out tremendously.”
Shatz said he had assisted O’Donnell in reaching out to “my friends” and provided some research on school closures involving O’Donnell’s likely senatorial opponent, Wichita school board member Lynn Rogers.
Shatz said he trusts O’Donnell as an individual and a friend, even though he disagrees with him on many issues.
O’Donnell said his move to Norton’s district is more happenstance than intention.
“I didn’t even put my house on the market,” O’Donnell said. “My cousin approached me about buying my house. He needed the garage in the backyard. My cousin offered me a great deal.”
He said it’s the third time he’s bought a home, renovated it and flipped it for a profit, although he never lived in the other two.
O’Donnell’s family-related housing arrangements were an issue in the 2012 Senate race.
Before he bought the High Street home, O’Donnell took some heat for living in a parsonage house on the grounds of his father’s church.
He initially said he paid rent for the house, but later said he was allowed to live there rent-free in exchange for doing janitorial and maintenance work at the church.
Ultimately, the county ruled that the house had lost its property tax exemption because it wasn’t actually being used as a church parsonage and O’Donnell paid more than $2,000 in back taxes.
O’Donnell won his Senate seat in 2012, a year when conservative Republicans mounted an all-out and successful effort to take control of the Senate by purging moderate Republicans.
He easily beat moderate incumbent Sen. Jean Schodorf in the Republican primary. But in November, he barely edged out Democrat Tim Snow, a political unknown whose campaign was crippled by revelations of drunk driving and bad debts when he lived in Morris County before moving to Wichita.
This time, Democrats are set up with a more formidable candidate in Rogers, a 15-year member of the Wichita school board.
Since Howell was elected to the County Commission, Norton has been visibly frustrated with the majority’s focus on cutting budgets, employees and services — and some of his conservative colleagues’ use of televised county meetings to deliver personal speeches on federal and international affairs.
He considered retiring at the end of his term, which would have left an attractive open seat for O’Donnell to run for.
But Jan. 4, Norton announced on Facebook: “After lots of conversation about the future and running one more campaign with Susan … I am definitely running for re-election.”
In both the Senate and commission districts, unaffiliated voters are the largest group, meaning they won’t have any effect on selecting the parties’ nominees but could be a significant factor in the November general election.
In the 25th Senate District, the breakdown is 13,736 unaffiliated voters, 10,319 Republicans and 9,280 Democrats.
The split in the 2nd Commission District is 20,132 unaffiliated, 16,750 Republicans and 11,191 Democrats.