Races for city council and school board are not supposed to be connected to political parties in Johnson County. But even so, party interest shows no signs of slowing in the many contested lower-tier races.
The Johnson County Democrats have listed their recommendations for city councils and school boards in fliers distributed through most of the county. Even the WaterOne board, with nine candidates running for four positions, has attracted their interest this year.
Meanwhile county Republicans admit to doing the same thing. “Our members ask us every election who are the Republicans in the local races. So as a service, we do send out emails and (Facebook) posts and other announcements,” said county chairman Dave Myres.
The Democrats “recommend” but do not endorse candidates — although the difference may be more of a matter of perception than a technical definition, said county chairwoman Nancy Leiker.
But the full slate of names the Democrats can recommend this fall shows how far the party has come, she said. Many candidates have walked themselves into the races without being recruited. Leiker said there are at least twice as many candidates the Democrats can recommend this year compared to other non-partisan years. The number of registered Democrats in Johnson County is increasing, she said, a trend that allowed the party to pick up some legislative seats last year.
“The county looks like it’s turning purple,” she said. “Politics is more on everyone’s mind nationally.”
National news drives new candidates to run
In fact national news – and not only about party politics – has been a driver for some first-time office seekers looking to win lower level races.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the board of WaterOne, the public utility that oversees the water supply for much of Johnson County. The board has seven members elected at large.
Nine people felt compelled to run this year for four seats on a board that is well under the radar for most voters. Three of the positions had incumbents running for re-election and two of those incumbents have served 15 years or more on the board.
Five of the challengers the Post was able to reach are running for their first elected position.
Most of them said they did not have particular disagreement with how the board is run. Instead they were inspired to run because national events have made them more aware of the impact of local government.
Ulysses Wright, who was not among the Democratic recommendations, cited the troubles with water in Flint, Mich. and Newark, N.J. as an example of what kind of power local institutions have over something as basic as clean water. Wright said he attended some water board meetings and would like to add diversity to the board’s perspective as an African American.
Climate change and sustainability of the water intakes were the issues that concerned candidates Chris Stelzer and Whitney Wilson. Candidate Greg Mitchell said he’s been interested in the water board because he remembers how much importance was placed on water supply in Denver, where he grew up.
None contacted said they’d been urged by the party to run and don’t see the water board as a partisan office. But Mitchell said he and his wife have been more civically engaged in recent years. “I think the last presidential election cycle kind of changed things for some people,” he said. His wife, Deann Mitchell, ran unsuccessfully last year for a spot in the Kansas House of Representatives.
Banker Dave Vander Veen also is a first-time office seeker. He said he was motivated more by a chance to contribute his expertise in management and development to the board than any particular issue. Vander Veen said he is friends with Dennis Wilson, who is stepping off the board this year, and was contacted by Wilson and Dave Lindstrom, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in 2020 about the open position on the water board.
JoCo commissioner says county board should be partisan
County Commissioner Mike Brown came down hard on the Democrats last year, saying their support of commission candidates will prompt him to ask for a change in the county charter to make the county commission a partisan election. Other local bodies should make their own decisions, he added.
Brown was incensed about the Democrats’ active involvement in the commission races. Last year two incumbents, Jason Osterhaus and Ron Shaffer, were ousted by candidates backed by Democrats.
Brown draws a distinction, though, between active politicking like party donations of money and printing costs and the more passive support the Democrats showed this year with their list of recommendations.
All kinds of groups put out those lists in the interest of seeing their candidates elected, he said, and that’s a reasonable thing to do.
“What does alarm me is the Democrat party of Kansas and the Democrat party of Johnson County writing checks to candidates directly, paying for mailers, paying for lit(erature) drops and literature printing and paying people to go door to door,” he said. “There’s always been an understanding that parties stood out of the way in non-partisan elections.”
“I promise you and anyone who reads your article I’m bringing it up to the charter commission,” he said, noting that the idea failed by one vote at the last charter commission and when he brought it up to the county commission about a year ago.
Leiker, however, said the county Democrats are not making contributions to any of this year’s candidates, although they may be allowed occasional use of office space and a mention on Facebook. Precinct workers going door to door on behalf of the party are volunteers, she said, and the Democrats never pay to run a campaign for any candidate.
Myres agreed with Brown that non-partisan elections are often in name only.
“There is no such thing in the real world as true ‘non-partisan’ races. It only means that there will not be an ‘R’ or ‘D’ next to the candidate’s name on the ballot,” he said in an email. “Democrats use ‘non-partisan’ in local races as camouflage to hide who they are from voters.”
He said Brown is only trying to bring transparency to elections.
“The Democrats were not being called out for their involvement but for their hypocrisy, because Democrats claim they never do just what you have proof that they indeed do in these local elections,” he wrote in an email to the Post. “Republicans have always been open and upfront about any activities in local races.”
It’s not unknown for politicians to start at a small local office and later run for bigger things. Annabeth Surbaugh is one example, having served on the water board before becoming the chair of the county commission.
Myers turned that around on county Democrats when asked if they recruited anyone, pointing out that Shawnee City Council member Lindsey Constance began climbing the ladder when she filed to run against Kansas Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican.
Leiker, however, said Brown just wants to have Republicans represented on the ballot because he thinks it will help their chances. But the county is becoming less Republican, she said. “In five years it will be turning more purple than red. It will be a mixed bag and then U, R, I or whatever won’t matter.”
She stopped short of saying Democrats are borrowing a page from the Republican playbook, though.
“The whole end game is to have good things happening in communities,” she said. “That’s our goal. To make our community more livable for ordinary people.”