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Campaign contribution changes in Wichita

A change to Wichita city election law is likely to have little practical effect.

Currently Wichita city code prohibits certain entities from making campaign contributions to candidates for city council and mayor: “Contributions by political committees as defined by K.S.A. 25-4143, as amended, corporations, partnerships, trusts, labor unions, business groups or other such organizations are expressly prohibited.”

The intent of this law is to limit the influence of businesses and unions on city elections. This week the Wichita City Council will consider striking this portion of city code. The contribution limit of $500 to a candidate for the primary election, and $500 again for the general election, is proposed to be retained.

The practical effect of removing the restriction on campaign contributions from corporations and other entities is likely to be minor. Here’s why.

Last year, lamenting the role of money in national elections, a Wichitan wrote in the Wichita Eagle “Locally, I understand that elections for the Wichita City Council underwent ideal, nonpartisan campaign-finance reform years ago, and that these limits are scrupulously practiced.” This view is naive and doesn’t reflect the reality of current campaign finance practice in Wichita. That is, the stacking of contributions from multiple members of interested groups. For example, a frequent practice is that a business might have several of its executives and their spouses make contributions to a candidate. Because the contributions are made by multiple people, the money is contributed within the campaign finance limitation framework. But the net effect is a lot of money going to a candidate’s campaign in order to advance the interests of the business, thereby circumventing the intent of campaign finance restrictions.

Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Here’s how a handful of self-interested groups stack campaign contributions.

Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
In 2012 council members James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run again for their offices in spring 2013. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, two groups of related parties accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents for an entire year. A group associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000 — $4,000 to Williams, and $3,000 to Clendenin. Another group of people associated with movie theater owner Bill Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

Stacked campaign contributions to Jeff Longwell from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions to Jeff Longwell from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
In July 2012, as Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell (then a city council member) was running for the Sedgwick County Commission, his campaign received a series of contributions from a Michigan construction company. Several executives and spouses contributed. At the time, Longwell was preparing to vote in a matter involving a contract that the Michigan company and its Wichita partner wanted. That partner was Key Construction, a company that actively stacks contributions to city council candidates.

Longwell has also received stacked contributions from Key Construction.

The casual observer might not detect the stacking of campaign contributions by looking at campaign finance reports. That’s because for city offices, the name of the company a contributor works for isn’t required. Industry and occupation are required, but these aren’t of much help. Further, contribution reports are not filed electronically, so the information is not easy to analyze. Some reports are even submitted using handwriting, and barely legible handwriting at that.

The campaign finance reform that Wichita really needs is quite simple. It’s called a pay-to-play law, and it can be a simple as this: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

In other words, you can make contributions to candidates. You can ask the council to give you contracts and other stuff. But you can’t do both. It’s a reform we need, but our elected officials are not interested.

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