Gina Burke received nine texts and several phone calls before she sent the message “stop texting me” to Overland Park City Councilman Terry Goodman.
Burke says that when she challenged the longtime councilman for the Nov. 7 election, she never expected to be besieged by what she considers patronizing texts from Goodman urging her not to run and criticizing her candidacy.
Goodman insists that he was simply trying to encourage Burke, who has never before sought public office, to ease more slowly into the field.
Burke saw no encouragement in what she says was a barrage of texts and other communications, adding that Goodman also called her at work and met her for breakfast with Councilman Dan Stock to try to persuade her not to run.
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Several political observers said it’s not unusual for an incumbent to privately ask a newcomer why they are considering running before a filing deadline. But they added that this type of continued communication during the actual campaign is highly unusual.
“I’m glad I’m still in the race because I feel like they were trying to bully me out of my right to run,” Burke told The Star.
Among the texts Goodman sent to Burke:
“At one time I thought you truly might be a future leader for OP. Not anymore. In fact, I now view you as a threat to the tremendous City that I and so many others have worked to build,” he wrote.
She laid out the situation in great detail on her website last week, after she got an email from Goodman denying that he had tried to discourage her from running. She said she wanted the public to read the nine texts and decide for themselves.
Goodman, 70, served as a volunteer on the Overland Park planning commission for seven years before he was elected to the Overland Park City Council in April 2001. He has never been opposed through four terms in office.
“This is the first time he’s going to actually have to earn his vote and people will actually have a choice between him and myself,” Burke said.
The councilman makes no apologies, denies that he has harassed Burke and says he’s raising legitimate political concerns about her lack of knowledge or experience. His website emphasizes “proven experience.”
“Anybody is entitled to run for office,” Goodman told The Star, but he said there’s more to it. “The way our city has typically worked in the past is that people, I’ll put it this way, earn their credentials. That’s exactly what we recommended to Gina.”
That way of operating, Burke said, has led to a very homogenous council.
Of the 13 council members, only one is a woman, a fact that Burke points to as indicative that the council comprises mostly older males, with little diversity.
She says she doesn’t believe a man would have been subjected to the type of communication she’s faced from Goodman, but the councilman insists his opposition to Burke was about her inexperience, not her gender.
Burke, 34, is a businesswoman, wife and mother of two small children. She and her family moved from Independence to Overland Park about three years ago. She said she loves Overland Park for its tradition of low taxes, high-quality jobs, vibrant neighborhoods and first-class schools. But her campaign literature argues that “insulated city leaders have undermined those traditions and are attempting to remake our city through a mix of higher taxes and corporate welfare.”
Burke is one of a small group of newcomer candidates challenging the Overland Park status quo this year. It includes three women and one man running against incumbent men and a fifth man running for an open seat. They are not running as a slate but have a common philosophy against tax incentives for developers. They also argue city government should be more transparent and accessible to average citizens. The incumbents, including Goodman, respond that Overland Park is one of the best cities in the U.S. to raise a family and they will keep that momentum going.
Among Goodman’s texts was one questioning Burke’s comment that she’d like to be part of the team involved in the city.
“Gina, I am not afraid of losing. It’s just such a hassel (sic) and unnecessary expense when you draw a last minute opponent who is running ‘to be involved,’” Goodman wrote.
Goodman said Overland Park has thrived with a council that has a lot of seniority, and needs experienced representation going forward. In letters to his own supporters he makes the point: “This is a very important election, and the future of OP is at stake....Please don’t vote for a slate of inexperienced, uninformed candidates who will place the future of our city in jeopardy.”
This type of clash has become more public in this new era of social media than it might have been in the past, says University of Kansas assistant political science professor Patrick Miller.
“It can be perceived as bullying, particularly if you are the candidate who an opponent or a group of incumbents is trying to keep out,” Miller said.
He says this kind of conversation usually occurs behind the scenes and privately, when people are just thinking of running.
What’s unusual about the Overland Park instance, Miller said, is for the conversation to become public after the race is underway.
“This is an interesting case of a lot of the backstage of politics coming out into the front,” he said. “That kind of continued dialogue is weird.”
University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis agrees.
“I would say that after someone has filed, then you say let the chips fall where they may,” Loomis said. “He’s being foolish because his best thing to do was totally ignore her, if she doesn’t have experience and doesn’t have a name.”
Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University, said there aren’t many norms or informal rules in politics but one is “You do not directly call, text, write letters to your opponent.
“Traditionally, it’s never been considered good politics to get in one-on-one spats with your opponent,” he said.
Burke’s letter to constituents laid out her perspective of how this unfolded, after she had filed for office just before June 1.
From her account:
“At first, he expressed frustration when I initially refused to meet: ‘I regret that you are not willing to meet.’
“Then it was exasperation that I desired to run, with an assumption that I had been recruited, which I wasn’t: ‘Just still curious why you are so committed to running unless you have been recruited — especially when there are so many other ways to serve, become involved & learn about the city.’
“The texts kept coming. He ranted about a candidate for mayor before proceeding with a lecture: ‘To the best of my knowledge, you have not reached out to the Mayor, City Manager, Chamber of Commerce, etc. — nor have you been attending City Council meetings as the other candidates have been doing. As I said, it’s unfortunate that you did not call me before filing to express your interest, and that at you are unwilling to meet tonight. – Terry’”
Her letter goes on from there, with another text from Goodman: “I’m very sorry to see that you did not take the advice that Dan and I shared with you. I can’t help but feel that your own self interest trumped your concern for the city as a whole.”
Goodman acknowledges that after Burke filed to run just before the June 1 deadline, he met with her, along with Councilman Stock, to try to persuade her to reconsider. They told her there were better ways to get involved with the city, such as leadership training with the Chamber of Commerce, involvement with the Rotary Club, or a position on a board or commission.
He says he told Burke that if she truly believes she can better represent the Ward 4 constituents than he can, then by all means she should run. But Goodman told The Star he remains convinced that she has a “total lack of experience” for the city council position.
Burke admits she doesn’t have Goodman’s decades of political experience but adds, “I have 13 years of business experience and I think the city should be treated as a business.”
Burke says it was suggested to her that if she would withdraw, she would get help with an influential board appointment and help in future elections. “It felt like a quid pro quo,” she said.
But Goodman says that is a big distortion of what happened. He insists he never promised her any appointment to any board, and that he doesn’t have that authority anyway, and Stock corroborates that. In Goodman’s email to Burke, he wrote that he simply offered to “possibly recommend you to the mayor for appointment to one of the city’s many boards or commissions so that you could gain city-related experience that might begin to position you as a plausible candidate going forward.”
In his email to Burke, Goodman chastised Burke for saying he “scolded” her for running. “I did no such thing,” he wrote.
In addition to her exasperation with the texts and other intrusions, Burke was upset that a family with her yard sign received a letter from Goodman urging them to switch their allegiance. She posted that letter on her Facebook page.
Goodman acknowledged that he sent a letter to a family with a Burke yard sign but he says the opening was tongue-in-cheek and not threatening in any way. It read, “I almost wrecked my car while driving by when I saw a ‘Burke for Council’ sign in your yard. Hopefully I can convince you to take that sign down and put up a Gerlach for Mayor sign along with a Goodman for Council sign.” He said he called on the family with his opponent’s yard sign and had a completely cordial conversation with them.
He stood by that letter and one other that went to another potential Burke supporter, and said he has every right to attempt to sway a voter to his campaign. Those constituents did not return The Star’s phone calls.
Goodman says he has noticed that Burke appears to be closely allied with Charlotte O’Hara, who served one term in the Kansas House, has run unsuccessfully for several other political seats and who is challenging Carl Gerlach for mayor. Goodman said he considers O’Hara unqualified, and he felt Burke misled him when she said she didn’t know O’Hara.
Both Burke and O’Hara insist they did not know each other before the campaign started, and that O’Hara did not recruit Burke to run. O’Hara said she’s used to the “good old boys club” opposing her, but the repeated texts from Goodman to Burke were unusual and intimidating.
“I have never ever seen anything like this,” O’Hara said.
Goodman says it’s not her gender, but Burke’s lack of participation and knowledge in city issues that concerns him. In one text, he pointed out that she had failed to attend an important budget presentation and an important community development committee meeting. He told The Star he had only seen her at three city council meetings.
Burke acknowledged that she has not gone to budget presentations but said she has gone to a number of city council meetings and other meetings that Goodman may not know about because people don’t sign in.
Burke said her Facebook posts have gotten a lot of comments, mostly supportive, and she’s glad she stayed in the race.
“I think a lot of people are looking for more diversity on the city council,” she said. “I provide a totally different viewpoint. I’m more the voice for the younger families of Overland Park.”