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Friday, January 26, 2018

Can Wichita Elect a Governor?

[The Wichita Eagle ran a shortened version of this argument this morning; he's my fuller piece. And yes, I've already handicapped the governor's race as I see it today; consider this an addendum.]

Wichita is the largest single city in Kansas; more than a fifth of the state’s total population resides in our metropolitan area. It’s the regional economic center for over half the state. Its media outlets have greater penetration across the breadth of Kansas than those from any other city. And yet, for all that, it’s been a century since a Wichitan was elected to live in the governor's mansion in Topeka. Why?

True, Mark Parkinson (who was governor from 2009 to 2011), was born in Wichita–but he lived his adult life, and built his political career, in Overland Park and Olathe. And it's true that Edward Arn (1951 to 1955) came to Wichita and had a law practice here–yet he left for his military career, and when he got involved in politics he relocated to Wyandotte County, only returning to Wichita later in his life.

No, the only real example of a Wichitan in the Kansas governor’s mansion was Henry J. Allen (1919 to 1923), a newspaperman from Clay County who came to Wichita as a young man and built a small publishing empire here before being elected governor, then later returning to live the rest of his life in our city. (You can visit his historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, the Allen-Lambe House, in College Hill.)

There’s no law mandating where governors come from, obviously. If you look through the list of Kansas’s 46 governors, dozens of Kansas cities, towns, and rural counties are represented. Still, there are some commonalities among nearly all of them, especially over the past half-century: namely, some strong connection to the University of Kansas, to the state capital in Topeka, or to the cross-border urban agglomeration of Kansas City.  Given the way in which politics is often a function of path-dependency–people making use of the connections, both personal and financial, that others have already established, thus deepening them–maybe it isn’t surprising that Wichita, despite its large population and economic base, should go a century without providing a successful gubernatorial candidate.

Will 2018 break the streak? Among the serious candidates there are multiple Wichitans running: Republicans Wink Hartman and Mark Hutton (and maybe we could claim Ed O’Malley as an adopted son), and Democrats Carl Brewer and Jim Ward. Since this a year--thanks to the deep divisions in the state Republican party caused by Brownback’s great unpopularity, as well as the increased fired-up enthusiasm one sees on the Democratic side--in which state politics may be rather unpredictable, perhaps this will be Wichita’s chance.

But then again, perhaps not. I was recently asked, during a presentation I was giving to a local civic group here in the city, if I thought both parties coordinated to maintain the political dominance of the Topeka-Lawrence-KC corridor. I seriously doubt that--I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature. But when one compares the positioning taking place in our state parties, and adds to that a close look at the campaign finance analysis provided by the Wichita Eagle, one may begin to wonder.

Kris Kobach, thanks to his name recognition and his small core of ideologically committed followers, is widely--and, I think, rightly--considered the favorite to win the Republican nomination, with Lt. Governor Jeff Colyer, seen as his most plausible rival. Yet this is despite the fact that Hartman has more money to spend on his campaign than both of them combined, and that O’Malley and Hutton both have had more individual donors here in Kansas than either of the front-runners as well.

Similarly, on the Democratic side, the late entrance of Topeka-based state senator Laura Kelly into the race was surely at least partly the result of a panicked party establishment convinced that, in this year of opportunity, they needed a better connected candidate than a couple of politicians from Wichita. Yet this despite the fact that their level of state-wide name recognition (Brewer’s in particular) dwarfs hers. That Kelly’s fund-raising has quickly outpaced (if not entirely overtaken) all of the other Democratic candidates might reflect the reality of this judgment–maybe it’s just another reminder that the entrenched political connections of northeast Kansas are self-reinforcing.

I suspect that Wichitans running for governor today face challenges similar to our city’s social and economic prospects as a whole: namely, we often seem stuck in the middle, too big not to be considered a major player, but not big enough to compete with the major players who came before us. We clearly have the people (look at those candidates!) and the money (Wichita-area donors max out their possible contributions more frequently than those anywhere else in the state). But is that enough to convince political operatives and party establishments to take us seriously? Not to mention the voters in the primary contests in August?

As always, success breed success. So if any of those Wichita candidates break through--and if course, there are many other variables at play here than just location--they’ll be doing more than ending a long political drought: they may also open the doors to a political change in our state parties which is long overdue.

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