Michael Ryan

Why would Johnson County voters want to turn local elections into partisan brawls?

Associated Press file photo

Do residents of Johnson County think their political landscape should more closely resemble Washington, D.C.’s?

It’s hard to imagine that. The ice-pick partisanship in our nation’s capital is stabbing holes in the country’s fabric not just by the day, but by the hour. I, for one, am ready to fill sandbags to help stave off the rising waters of partisanship.

Yet the supposedly nonpartisan races across Johnson County have become more baldly partisan lately. Local Democratic and Republican parties are both declaring candidate preferences in races where partisanship makes zero sense. From city and county government to school board, Johnson County Community College and even the area’s water utility board, it apparently matters now whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.

Why?

Best I can tell, Democrats across the country, and in the county, are riding a wave of anti-Trump sentiment in an effort to seize the reins of power at every level of government. I saw it in Fort Worth, Texas, where Tarrant County Democrats made no bones about making local elections partisan. And when I Googled “Democrats local election candidates” the other day, the top result was a website for the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee that advertised, “Elect State Democrats! Resist the Trump agenda.”

What the Trump agenda has to do with running water or running Johnson County Community College, I’ll never know. But the Democrats’ nationwide push for local candidates is likely a contributing factor to a field of nine candidates running for four seats on the otherwise obscure WaterOne Board — and 11 candidates, now pared down to six, vying for three seats on the JCCC Board of Trustees.

Republicans point to a $10,000 Democratic Party contribution to a JCCC trustee candidate back in 2017 as fueling partisanship. And, strangely, the three Republican contenders running in this election were somehow not invited to a public forum for JCCC trustee candidates prior to the primary in August.

“We kind of got pulled into that,” Republican-leaning JCCC trustee and Nov. 5 reelection candidate Nancy Ingram says of the partisanship — adding on her website, “I oppose the hijacking of this board by any partisan interest. Creating chaos around our board does not forward (the college’s) prospects and it must stop.”

Johnson County Democratic Chairwoman Nancy Leiker has said, as paraphrased by the Shawnee Mission Post, that while “many candidates have walked themselves into the races without being recruited … there are at least twice as many candidates the Democrats can recommend this year compared to other nonpartisan years.”

Whether organic or coordinated, the flood of candidates is certainly changing the political landscape in Johnson County. And that’s good and bad. More civic participation is good; is more partisanship?

Republican County Commissioner Mike Brown thinks the county actually ought to be open and above-board about the partisanship that’s already there, and is even recommending that Johnson County’s charter be changed to provide for openly partisan races at the county commission level when the charter commission meets late next year.

“In reality, Johnson County already has partisan elections of commissioners,” Brown says, adding that the state and county Democratic parties have have “have poured money” into local races that are supposed to be nonpartisan.

He makes a good point. The question I have is, has that threshold been permanently crossed? Is there absolutely no hope for nonpartisanship, even on the local level?

There certainly seems to be that hope in Overland Park, the last city in Kansas to hold partisan elections, and where voters decided in 2001 to have nonpartisan local elections — just as county voters decided the year before for commission races.

Then, as now, the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce supports nonpartisan local elections.

County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert once opposed nonpartisan races as mayor of Overland Park but says he’s since “learned the wisdom” of them and now opposes partisan races — with one big caveat: If races continue to be made partisan anyway, “that will change a lot of people’s minds.”

Mine included.

“Johnson County has had 20 years of incredible success, good local governments and quality elected leaders with nonpartisan races,” notes local civic activist Mary Birch. “Switching means instead of talking about schools, streets, police, fire, jails, sewers, libraries, parks and mental health, the conversation shifts to extreme ideologue issues. Our quality of life cannot survive governance from extremists on any side.”

Absolutely. Though, it must be said, it’s hardly extreme for Republicans in Congress to demand access to the Democrats’ closed-door impeachment inquiry; yet, Republicans felt compelled to storm a secret hearing Wednesday.

That’s the path that partisanship has put the country on.

Be careful what you wish for, Johnson County.

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