Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Some Notes on the First Mayoral Debate

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

The story of Tuesday night's debate is one of offense and defense. For better or worse, Mayor Jeff Longwell--at least at this early point in the race, and at least on the basis on this remarkably well-attended debate (Roxy's was absolutely packed)--is running entirely on defending his record of the last four years With the exception of one very slight snark about how the city's budgets always balance, unlike the state's (where his challenger Brandon Whipple has served in the Kansas House since 2013), the mayor never attacked Whipple at all. Whereas Whipple went on the attack frequently. Not always effectively; there were some points where he could have forced out into the open some important differences between the candidates, but chose not to, and there were other points where he picked fights over pretty unimportant, even silly stuff. But he was absolutely the one with the energy (so much so that at one point, while swinging his arm to make a point, he knocked over his water class, getting it all over himself and the podium). Mayor Longwell was calm--occasionally sounding a little weary at what probably seemed to him like having to explain the same point over and over again, but still, very much the confident incumbent. He's the one in the mayor's office, defending his place. Whereas Whipple has to make the case for change.

In this hour-long debate, the best expressions of that case came through two fairly solid attacks, both of which came in the first half-hour. The first had to do with development policies--not, unfortunately, the crucial reality that Wichita is an overbuilt city that needs to wean itself away from fiscally unsustainable construction projects, but instead the traditional (and costly) urban questions of enterprise zones, tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, and the like. Here Mayor Longwell was quick to point to new business and residential developments along Greenwich out east, along Maize out west, and along 21st in the north. Which, of course, presented a perfect opening for Whipple, whose legislative district lies in south Wichita, and who has made the lack of investment in the city's poorer southern half a key point in his campaign. (Whipple must of uttered some variation of the phrase "I want to serve all of Wichita, not just its richer neighborhoods" at least a half-dozen times.) After Whipple hammered him about south Wichita residential streets that still lack sidewalks, Longwell tried to defend himself by mentioning how he and the rest of the city council had come up with the plan that saved south Wichita's Starlite Drive-In theater. Whipple came right back at him, reminding him of the city's original plan to close the southeast Linwood library branch. Obviously this, like everything else that comes up in debates like these, is more complicated than minute-long statements and rebuttals can reflect. Still, this was a punch that landed.

The second successful attack Whipple made had to do with what Longwell, as well as everyone else paying attention to the race, knows is the mayor's weak spot--his administration's, shall we say, “failure to communicate” the land deals which accompanied his successful negotiations to get a AAA baseball team to come to Wichita. Longwell admitted the need to be more open in sharing information (at which point chuckles broke out all around the audience), but he insisted that it was a great deal for the city, one which will include a sizable increase in payments for use in the new stadium (which, of course, is itself theoretically going to be paid for the unfortunately typical arrangement of state bonds floated in the expectation of repayment via special taxing districts set up in expectation of property and sales tax receipts following, you got it, more development). Whipple blasted back that the ends don't justify secretive means, and pointed to the news just yesterday about how a deal to give away part of Wichita's downtown Naftzger Park to developers was set to slide though on the city council's consent agenda, without review or debate. Longwell frustratedly insisted that such was the fault of City Manager Robert Layton, and not him or the city council, but Whipple's point about transparency stands.

Can an incumbent mayor (and one who, despite the non-partisan character of the mayoral race, enjoys an automatic if unspoken partisan advantage?) be unseated by a bunch of moderately class-based complaints (Whipple's comments about "rich neighborhoods" is about as far as he seems willing to go; a socialist firebrand he definitely isn't) about development patterns and by a few well-expressed concerns about secretiveness and sweetheart land deals? My first guess is: "probably not," if only because there are a lot of voters along Greenwich and Maize and 21st who like Mayor Longwell, or at least probably don't particularly feel that they have been poorly served by his time in office. When you hear the mayor and Whipple basically say the same thing about funding the police department (give them more money!), exploring options for Century II (engage the citizenry!), retaining a high-skill work force (emphasize manufacturing and support WSU's Innovation Campus!), and a host of other issues, then the basis for the case Whipple needs to make only gets smaller.

For example, it's frustrating that Whipple, whose party membership alone suggests that he supports much stronger action to combat climate change than Longwell, nonetheless chose to pass that issue by when Longwell was asked about it, essentially following the mayor's lead in emphasizing various small-bore actions to assist in shifting to more renewable energy sources. And it's somewhat silly that the debate's discussion about mass transit, with The Wichita Eagle running this very week a long, detailed series on the challenges and problems our bus service faces, was derailed first into a back-and-forth about bike lanes, scooters, and the Q-Line, and then ended with sniping about whether or not the invitation Mayor Longwell's received, as Wichita mayor, to serve on a state transportation advisory committee constitutes him being "appointed" by Governor Laura Kelly. Basically, I would tell the Whipple camp: if these attacks aren't going to produce the sort of information to help voters assess Longwell's defense of his record, then don't make them. If Whipple’s only complaint with the mayor's approach to dealing with Wichita's potential water crisis is that plan the city has in place hasn't been reviewed by state experts, perhaps he should reconsider its political importance. If his defense of the idea that Wichita ought to clearly identify itself as an LGBTQ-friendly city is that important to his argument for retaining young workers, then perhaps it shouldn't be something he tags on at the end of a promise to spend more money on training and entrepreneurship support, and instead make it front and center.

In sum, I think the debate showed a incumbent with real weaknesses, but nonetheless enough confidence in his own record to--for the moment anyway--play nothing but defense, and a challenger who has some real openings to make headway with voters, but whose offense needs to be sharpened if it is to be entirely persuasive. We'll see what the next two months bring.

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