Steve Rose

‘Nonpartisan’ JoCo Commission becoming more partisan and less conservative

Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert, who is known as a traditional Republican, just won re-election to his third term by a landslide.
Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert, who is known as a traditional Republican, just won re-election to his third term by a landslide. File photo

Repeat after me: The Johnson County Commission is nonpartisan. You have to keep repeating it because it is easy to forget and even easier to ignore. In fact, it’s kind of laughable.

The citizens of Johnson County voted in a heated election 18 years ago to have commissioners run for office without party labels. A majority of voters decided it made no sense to inject partisan politics into such nonpartisan issues as sewers, the jail, Med-Act, deeds, parks and libraries.

At the time, I argued against the change from partisan to nonpartisan because it was my belief then —and still is now — that voters would still identify commissioners as members of either the Republican or Democratic Party, even though those parties would not be specified on the ballot.

Since that law passed, some Republican candidates running for the county commission have included on their political signs and other advertising material the GOP elephant to help voters identify them as Republicans, even though these are supposed to be nonpartisan races. Democrats almost never have mentioned their party affiliation in campaigns because until now, Democrats in Johnson County rarely have won local elections.

My, how things have suddenly changed. Right now, it’s cool to be a Democrat in Johnson County. In fact, in the recent November election, all but one of the Democrats running for statewide office carried Johnson County. The Democrats surely give thanks each day for unpopular President Donald Trump and gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach, whose combined negatives unleashed a huge backlash in Johnson County.

That attitude even seeped as far down the ballot as the county commission races, where two challengers who were openly supported by Democratic Party organizations upset two incumbents who were widely known as Republicans. Becky Fast upended Ron Shaffer, while Janeé Hanzlick narrowly defeated conservative Jason Osterhaus.

The challengers were not subtle. Their campaign materials of county commission candidate Janee Hanzlick stated that they were paid for by the Kansas Democratic Party. There was no such wording on campaign literature for the other Democratic county commission candidate, Becky Fast.

How ironic. The fear among moderates in the county has been that the right wing was trying to take over the commission. At one point, it would have taken only one more conservative to muster a four-member majority on the seven-member commission. A right-wing coup would have allowed a stifling agenda to gain traction, much like what has occurred in the Wichita area with the conservative-dominated Sedgwick County Commission. Instead, the Johnson County Commission has dodged that bullet for now. If anything, the commission will tilt more to the left.

The campaigns of the two Democrats and the well-known priorities of the Democratic Party suggest that the commission will be under some pressure to boost spending on mental health, even though that department has received 10 percent increases each of the last four years. Additional likely priorities include other social services, such as public health and senior programs. And there is likely to be a push for affordable housing, which presents a challenge in affluent Johnson County.

Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert, who is known as a traditional Republican and who just won re-election to his third term by a landslide, has a reputation for providing measured leadership when dealing with significant differences in points of view. He will need to perform a real balancing act with the new commission. It will include two liberals, two conservatives, two traditional Republicans and one swing-vote commissioner, Steve Klika, who pivots in all directions.

This promises to be a challenging mix the likes of which the county commission has not experienced since it was expanded from three to seven commissioners several decades ago. And it is about as partisan as a nonpartisan government can be.