Those seeking favors from Wichita City Hall use campaign contribution stacking to bypass contribution limits. This has paid off handsomely for them, and has harmed everyone else.
Not long ago a person who is politically active wrote a letter that was published in the Wichita Eagle. It criticized the role of campaign contributions in federal elections, noting “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” Later the letter held this: “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.”
The writer is correct, but only superficially. Our campaign contribution limits for city and school board offices are relatively small. What we find, however, is that the cronies, that is, the people who want stuff from city hall, stack contributions using family members and employees.
Here’s how a handful of cronies stack campaign contributions. 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.
The casual observer wouldn’t realize this 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.
So it’s not easy to analyze campaign contributions for Wichita city offices. It takes a bit of effort to unpack the stacking. You have to see a name and investigate who that person is. When you do that, you might find that a man from Valley Center who list his occupation and industry as Manager and Aviation Subcontractor is married to someone who lists her occupation and industry as Director of Marketing. Investigating her reveals that she is an executive of Key Construction.
That company, Key Construction, is a prominent company in Wichita. It is an example of a company that seeks to earn outsized profits through the political system rather than by meeting customer needs in the market. Profits through cronyism, that is. Here’s an example. In August 2011 the Wichita city council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.
Let me make sure you understand that. Mayor Carl Brewer, Lavonta Williams, and James Clendenin were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of your tax money to reward their benefactors through a no-bid contract. Since then reforms have been implemented to prevent this. Hopefully the reforms will work. I am skeptical.
In 2012 there was another incident involving Key Construction that show the need for campaign finance reform. Key and another construction company were engaged in a dispute as to who should build the new Wichita airport. The city council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner to decide the issue. Given all the campaign contributions Key was making at the time, and given the mayor’s well-known friendship with Dave Wells of Key Construction, can you guess who was awarded the contract? And can you guess whose contract was more expensive for taxpayers?
So back to the letter in the newspaper, which held: “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” I’m not going to defend cronyism at the federal level. It exists and it is harmful. But I would like to let the writer of the letter know that cronyism also exists in Wichita city government. In fact, it may be worse in Wichita. At the federal level, Congress usually passes laws that benefit an entire industry — say the sugar industry or banks — to the detriment of consumers and taxpayers. (Sometimes the benefits are quite specific. American Enterprise Institute reports that the just-passed omnibus bill contains a section that provides protection from an Obamacare provision for exactly one entity: Blue Cross Blue Shield. Conservative writer Yuval Levin explained: “This section is, simply put, a special favor for Blue Cross/Blue Shield allowing them to count ‘quality improvement’ spending as part of the medical loss ratio calculation required of them under Obamacare. And it’s made retroactive for four years, saving them loads of money.”)
That’s bad enough. Here in Wichita, however, the cronyism is more concentrated and personal. The links between campaign contributions and handouts from city hall is much more direct. We should insist that the city council stop picking the pocket of your fellow man so it can give the proceeds to campaign contributors. Campaign finance reform can help.