Government & Politics

‘It is time women have a voice.’ JoCo commission races reflect national trend

National political observers are saying the wave that may be taking over politics in 2018 is neither red nor blue. It’s pink.

It’s a big year for female candidates running for office, and at the local level, the Johnson County Commission contest is as good a test case as any. Four women are challenging four male incumbents for seats in one of the state’s most affluent counties.

In the next term, this commission will play a key oversight role in everything from public safety and mental health to parks, libraries and the levying of property taxes.

These races could maintain the status quo or profoundly change the seven-member board.

“Right now, it’s not acceptable that it’s all white male,” said Anne Pritchett, president of the Johnson County Democratic Women’s north chapter. “That’s not our county. That’s not who we are.”

But Mike Jones, chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party, doesn’t see gender as something Johnson County voters are focused on this election cycle.

“Political stances are far more important than gender,” Jones said, adding he believes most voters think the county is well run and aren’t necessarily looking for change on these nonpartisan seats.

“That’s the general perception,” he said, “that the county is the least of our concerns.”

Still, the challengers, who are running independent campaigns and not as a slate, say more energized, visionary leaders are needed to serve an increasingly diverse population, including seniors, young families, and people of many races and incomes.

All four women emphasize their career or government qualifications. But they aren’t shying away from the gender divide.

In the District 5 race, LeEtta Felter specifically raised the issue in an Aug. 19 Facebook post: “The elephant in the room...let’s discuss it. The number of females on the Board of County Commissioners =ZERO, ZILCH...”

Felter believes the commission needs more diversity to be a truly representative government. “If not, we’ve got ‘group think’ without even knowing it,” she said.

The commission races leading up to the Nov. 6 election are a study in contrasts.

Commission Chair. Ed Eilert, 78, is a veteran Overland Park politician seeking his third term as chairman. Trinette Waldrup, 39, is a businesswoman seeking her first elective office.

District 1. Ron Shaffer, 71, an architect and former Prairie Village mayor, is pursuing his second term representing the county’s northeast area. Becky Fast, 56, worked for former Kansas Congressman Dennis Moore and has served on the Roeland Park City Council since 2012.

District 4. Jason Osterhaus, 43, wants a third term representing the Overland Park area. Janeé Hanzlick, 57, recently retired as CEO of Safehome, Johnson County’s domestic violence prevention agency, where she worked for 20 years.

District 5. Michael Ashcraft, 63, is seeking his third term representing the county’s central district. Felter, 51, is a businesswoman and current Olathe School Board member.

Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas assistant political science professor, has found women make up a startling minority on county commissions in Kansas. According to an analysis he did earlier this year, 89 percent of the county commissioners were white men, 10 percent were white women and 1 percent were African-American. Only three Kansas commissions were majority female, in Douglas, Ellis and Ottawa counties.

In the Johnson County commission races, the incumbents are touting the county’s high citizen satisfaction scores and great quality of life, its prosperity and economic development progress in recent years, and the need to maintain experienced leadership going forward.

That’s the message from District 1 Commissioner Ron Shaffer. He also points to his decades of service with city council, chamber and civic organizations. He recalls that diversity was an issue four years ago when he defeated a very capable woman candidate: longtime Mission Mayor Laura McConwell.

“Our citizens, District 1, thought I was the most qualified,” he said.

Fast, his opponent, said she was galvanized to run after she attended commission meetings and didn’t hear anybody speaking up for issues she believes are paramount, including mental health, senior services and public health.

“I feel no one on the commission understands the struggles and aspirations of working families,” said Fast, adding that she advocates for those priorities as Roeland Park Council President and as executive director of the National Association of Social Workers’ Kansas Chapter.

Fast says it’s a good time to be running as a woman.

“I’ve been at the grocery store, church, and women come up to me or are on Facebook saying, ‘Thank you for running,’” she said. “It is time women have a voice. Women see a structural problem in the power circle and in decision-making.”

Ed Peterson, who served on the Johnson County Commission for 12 years, recalls that three women were serving when he first got on in 2003. But It’s been all white men since 2011.

“From my perspective, women on the board do add a dimension, a perspective that’s different from men,” Peterson said, adding that women may be more sensitive to issues involving public health and education. He said that in his experience, men are more conservative and resistant to change.

The incumbents in this year’s races don’t disagree that the commission could use some diversity — but not in their particular races.

“If the voters decide to go that route, that’s fine,” Eilert said of the possible selection of a new woman commissioner. “That’s certainly possible that the commission might benefit from having women.”

But in his own race, Eilert said he has the experience and proven results. After nearly a quarter century as Overland Park mayor, he joined the county commission in 2007 and has been chairman since 2011.

“My campaign is focused on accomplishments in the last two terms as well as ideas for the future,” he said.

Waldrup, Eilert’s opponent, said the commission could benefit from her 15 years working in insurance, risk mitigation and health care contract administration.

“I feel like there needs to be more proactive leadership on the Johnson County board, more engagement and more inclusiveness and transparency,” said Waldrup, who is the mother of a daughter in college. “I feel like I could connect more with the everyday person.”

What she hears on the campaign trail is that, “Most people are happy to see there’s a younger person, a woman and person of color getting involved.”

In District 4, Hanzlick says she brings the perspective of a wife, mother and longtime advocate for domestic violence survivors. She points to her two decades at Safehome, protecting families and public safety, and “my proven ability to provide quality service and fiscal responsibility.”

She says she will be a strong advocate for seniors and working people, including those struggling with low wages and lack of mass transit.

Osterhaus, her opponent, said he’s been going door-to-door for months and he’s not hearing that the commission needs more women. He touts citizens’ satisfaction and the commission’s efforts to lower the county property tax.

In District 5, Felter cites her background running a family business, plus her Olathe School board service, as attributes that would benefit the commission.

Ashcraft, her opponent, responds that voters make decisions based on their priorities and needs. If gender is one of those considerations, he respects that, but he believes his critical scrutiny of county spending and emphasis on better value for tax dollars is what voters want.

Former Johnson County Commission Chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh predicts at least one of the women will be elected, although she didn’t specify names and isn’t endorsing anyone.

“With four women challenging, it’s hard to believe at least one of them won’t come out on top. It’s good that four have come out to try,” said Surbaugh, who was the last female on the commission before she was defeated by Eilert and left office in 2011.

Surbaugh says that, of course, voters shouldn’t just make their selection based on gender, but it’s something to take into consideration.

Voters should go for the best, most qualified candidate, Surbaugh said, “and often, that’s the woman.”