Elections

Why did Peterjohn lose? Unpopular majority or crony capitalists

Dennis reacts to early lead

David Dennis, running against incumbent Karl Peterjohn, for a seat on the Sedgwick County Commission, reacts after the first election returns showed him with a lead over Peterjohn.
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David Dennis, running against incumbent Karl Peterjohn, for a seat on the Sedgwick County Commission, reacts after the first election returns showed him with a lead over Peterjohn.

What led to David Dennis’s victory over Commissioner Karl Peterjohn in the Republican primary Tuesday night?

Some say voters expressed their frustration with the conservative Sedgwick County Commission majority, which includes Peterjohn and commissioners Richard Ranzau and Jim Howell.

“People as a whole were ready for a change,” said Goddard Mayor Marcey Gregory, who is running as an independent candidate and will face Dennis in the Nov. 8 general election.

But Ranzau and Howell said the Dennis campaign used false narratives to shape its message. Ranzau blasted “crony capitalists” for swaying the election through campaign contributions.

“Our overall approach and message, I think, resonates with the people because we’re fighting for the taxpayer,” Ranzau said. “That being said, it’s hard to campaign against a myth.”

‘Their unhappiness’

The majority has worked 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 in the private sector. The 2016 budget approved by the majority last summer turned away from borrowing for capital projects and cut spending for the arts, culture, economic development, recreation and the county health department.

Dennis sought to turn the race into a referendum on the majority, contending those commissioners were selling quality-of-life programs short, breaking community partnerships and not getting along with city of Wichita officials. He also campaigned against a majority proposal to boost the county’s voting power on the nonprofit zoo board.

Commissioner David Unruh, part of the commission minority, said the Dennis victory was emblematic of concerns about the County Commission’s tilt under the majority.

“Many people have communicated to me their unhappiness,” he said.

“I think David Dennis and I might agree more on those issues that are critical,” Unruh said.

I firmly believe picking a fight with the zoo and the zoo board was one of the main factors in Commissioner Peterjohn’s loss last night.

Sedgwick County challenger Michael O’Donnell

Commissioner Tim Norton said Dennis’ “thoughtful and balanced” message resonated with voters. But he didn’t want to attribute the result to any one factor, like the county’s direction under the current majority.

Norton, the commission’s only Democrat, faces his own re-election fight — against Republican Sen. Michael O’Donnell — in November.

“What we have seen across the state of Kansas is people are tired of incumbents and they’re ready for new leadership and new direction,” O’Donnell said. “I firmly believe picking a fight with the zoo and the zoo board was one of the main factors in Commissioner Peterjohn’s loss last night.”

‘Understand the full story’

Chairman Jim Howell said Dennis ran an effective campaign.

“Dennis did a good job at narrowing the topics to a half-dozen talking points. He repeated them often,” Howell said. “Although I don’t agree with the way he described the points.”

He said the criticisms levied at Peterjohn for cuts to the health department and funding for the Sedgwick County Zoo were misleading. He said last year’s budget cuts were about efficiency and this year’s zoo funding was flat with last year.

“I hate to say it’s unfortunate,” Howell said. “It was good for Dennis those messages were effective. But I don’t think the voters necessarily understand the full story behind those comments.”

It was good for Dennis those messages were effective. But I don’t think the voters necessarily understand the full story behind those comments.

Sedgwick County Chairman Jim Howell

“Their premise is that the majority doesn’t like the zoo or the majority isn’t funding things that they believe are important,” Howell said. “Even though if I were to sit someone down and explain to them the actual facts around those pieces of data, it de-esclates those arguments pretty quickly. It’s hard to get an audience to listen … long enough to really get that deep understanding.”

Howell did say voters were “pretty clear” they were unhappy with the county.

“I care very much that we’re making sure that we’re responsive to what the voters are prioritizing by this vote,” Howell said.

‘Crony capitalists’

Ranzau said he thought Dennis profited from focusing on the Sedgwick County Zoo.

“The ‘Save the Zoo’ narrative by the Dennis campaign resonated with people,” Ranzau said. “ But what are you going to save the zoo from? Record attendance and record revenues.”

“The crony capitalists in the community took this as an opportunity to fund a campaign to get a fighter for the taxpayer out of office under the guise of saving the zoo,” Ranzau said.

The crony capitalists in the community took this as an opportunity to fund a campaign to get a fighter for the taxpayer out of office under the guise of saving the zoo.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau

Commissioners received a report July 25 from Deputy Zoo Director Ryan Gulker on the financial status of the zoo. While attendance jumped thanks to the new elephant exhibit, Gulker said hot weather had softened the boost the zoo had expected and budgeted for.

“My concern is the taxpayers aren’t actually going to get what they thought they were going to get,” Ranzau said. “You’ll get more crony capitalism but that’s because who funded his campaign by and large.”

Ranzau said crony capitalism referred to corporate welfare and incentives.

Dennis said Wednesday he got contributions from a broad cross-section of the community. He said his criticisms of the majority weren’t the main part of his message.

“The main thing I tried to talk about was listening to the citizens,” Dennis said. “I tried to run that entire campaign positively.”

Asked about mailers he sent labeling Peterjohn a “former special interest lobbyist” for his former role with the Kansas Taxpayers Network, Dennis responded “That was the truth, wasn’t it?”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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