First mayoral debate marked by talks of transparency, city development 


Daniel Caudill

State Rep. Brandon Whipple, an adjunct professor at Wichita State, and Mayor Jeff Longwell speak Tuesday during KMUW’s mayoral debate. The two will square off for mayor of Wichita in the Nov. 5 general election.

Candidates for mayor of Wichita made their cases to voters Tuesday at the first debate of the general election. 

Mayor Jeff Longwell and State Rep. Brandon Whipple, District 96, took the stage at Roxy’s Downtown for the debate, which was hosted by KMUW as part of the radio station’s “Engage ICT: Democracy on Tap.” 

Longwell and Whipple were given three minutes for introductory statements before answering a series of questions largely submitted by the public. Candidates did not see the questions ahead of time. 

“We’re at a pivotal moment, and because of that, I’m offering myself as a change,” Whipple said in his introduction. “I’m offering a new voice to city hall — one that has legislative experience but also has a change of vision.” 

Whipple’s opening statement reflected the 37-year-old’s broader strategy throughout the debate to present himself as a fresh face with progressive ideas about running City Hall. 

As the incumbent on stage, Longwell, 60,  leaned heavily on his track record of spurring development in Wichita, lauding the city’s new baseball-stadium project and the $70 million Cargill headquarters — among other projects. 

“Four years ago, Wichita needed to focus on jobs, and we did. Today we have more jobs than people in the city,” Longwell said in his introduction. “Today we need to focus on filling some of these opportunities in Wichita.”

Whipple made frequent jabs at Longwell and his administration, questioning their transparency and casting doubt on their commitment to the common people of Wichita. 

“While we want to bring private-sector development, we have to do our part in Wichita . . . [to work] on infrastructure not just in the rich areas, but in south Wichita and other areas as well,” Whipple said. “If we’re going to go above and beyond that, we need to get the input from the people.

“Good leaders don’t tell you what they’re getting; they ask you what you need,” he said. 

Longwell quipped back.

“The nice thing is, I have a track record, and one that shows we are listening to the people,” he said.  “After listening to the people, we came up with a plan to save the Starlite Drive-In. For those of you who don’t know, the Starlite Drive-In sits in south Wichita.” 

Another private development that Longwell praised is Wichita State’s Innovation Campus, which he described as a unique asset in drawing people to the region. 

“The Innovation Campus at WSU is certainly changing our opportunities, also,” he said. “Because it’s targeting young people that can come to Wichita State and not only get a degree and a great education, but have a unique learning opportunity with internships that you can’t do in other parts of the country.” 

Other topics in the debate ranged from crime and public transit to education and economic development. 

Longwell and Whipple advanced to the general election in August after finishing as the top vote-getters in the primary. Longwell earned about 32% of the vote, while Whipple received about 26%. 

Longwell was elected mayor in 2015 after representing District 5 on the Wichita City Council for eight years. He is not officially associated with a party, but his official Facebook page lists him as a precinct committeeman for the Republican Party.

A career Democrat, Whipple was elected to represent District 96 in the Kansas House of Representatives after defeating Republican Rick Lindsey in 2012. He is a ranking minority member on the Higher Education Budget Committee. 

Wichita’s mayoral office is nonpartisan. 

A spectator’s perspective

Russell Arben Fox, political science professor at Friends University, attended the debate. He said he thought its structure was conducive to productive conversation. 

“It allowed for the possibility of some actual disagreement — some actual conflict to emerge,” he said. 

Fox said his overall impression of the debate was that Whipple had Longwell on the defensive by coming at him on several angles. Still, he felt each candidate missed some opportunities to get a point in on their opponent. 

“There were places where there could have been some very productive disagreements, and they didn’t do it,” Fox said. 

For example, he said there could have been a broader discussion of Innovation Campus if the right questions had been brought up by the candidates. 

“There’s a lot of really serious questions that could be asked about the cost, effectiveness — even the overall mission of the Innovation Campus,” Fox said. “But because it’s got the buzzwords and because it has money behind it, no one’s really challenging it.” 

Three local journalists made up the media panel that asked questions: Carla Eckels of KMUW, Suzanne Perez-Tobias of The Wichita Eagle, and Molly McMillin of the Kansas Society of Professional Journalists.

Tom Shine, KMUW director of news and public affairs, moderated the debate. 

This installment of Engage ICT was broadcast live on 89.1 FM and on KMUW’s official Facebook page. Watch the full debate here

Established in 2016, the event is held monthly by KMUW to promote civic discussion.