Students ask the tough questions at municipal election forum 

Kansas Rep. Brandon Whipple, left, and Mayor Jeff Longwell answer questions Sunday during a student-led forum for candidates in the Nov. 5 municipal elections. Whipple and Longwell are candidates for mayor of Wichita.

Morgan Anderson

Kansas Rep. Brandon Whipple, left, and Mayor Jeff Longwell answer questions Sunday during a student-led forum for candidates in the Nov. 5 municipal elections. Whipple and Longwell are candidates for mayor of Wichita.

While many of them are not yet old enough to vote, a group of high school and college students made their voices heard to candidates at a forum for upcoming local elections.

Mayor Jeff Longwell and challenger Brandon Whipple answered questions at the forum, which was held Sunday at Wichita’s Advanced Learning Library — a $38 million project that opened for business last year.

“The people who are running for election should have to answer questions from the people,” said Durell Gilmore, lead advocate and community organizer for Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit that helped organize the forum.

Candidates answered questions from a broad range of topics at the forum, some of which were not specifically addressed last week at the first debate of the general election. Those topics included affordable housing, food insecurity and racism. 

Candidates seemed particularly caught off guard by a question about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

“If elected, will you work on a city ordinance to declare that WPD (Wichita Police Department) will be (focused) on keeping everyone safe instead of working with ICE?” a student asked, reading an audience-submitted question.

Neither candidate answered the question directly, instead focusing on the safety aspect. 

Partially because of the Law Enforcement Training Center at Wichita State, Longwell said, Wichita police officers are better equipped to handle daily issues. He said the length of their training has steadily increased over the years from nine weeks to nine months. 

“It’s a complicated process, and we want to make sure that we get them all of the right skills to ensure that we’re going to be able to keep this community safe,” Longwell said.

He also stressed the department’s recent hiring of a Spanish-speaking public information officer.

Whipple, a state representative from District 96, responded to the question by discussing a proposal to send social workers along with police officers on cases involving people with mental health issues.

“(A social worker) who has more experience in these situations might be able to read the situation differently and come out with a better outcome for everyone,” he said.

Sedgwick County and the City of Wichita are currently testing a program similar to Whipple’s proposal called the Integrated Care Team (ICT) that responds to 911 calls related to mental health. It features a law enforcement officer, a qualified mental health professional, and a paramedic.

Whipple also stressed the importance of community policing, a method which involves officers living in and getting involved with the community around them.

Gilmore, spokesperson for Kansas Appleseed, said difficult questions were part of the appeal in hosting a student-led forum.

“(The forum) came about because we want to make sure that they’re also answering questions they’re not always asked — questions that we seem to gloss over,” he said.

Another question asked candidates what they plan to do to promote racial equality and combat white supremacy.

Whipple spoke in no uncertain terms.

“You combat white supremacy by calling it out and not accepting it,” he said. “We have people in the political discourse that are trying to accept that this is the new norm — that we can have people who are white supremacists and that we should accept that viewpoint. And I don’t think we should.”

He also spoke in favor of bringing back the Wichita Civil Rights Commission and passing a citywide ordinance that outlaws discrimination based on identity.

Longwell, mayor since 2015, said it’s important for the city government to represent the demographics of the larger community.

“When we look at our hiring practices, we’re trying to be as very diverse as we possibly can be,” Longwell said. “We have to develop boards, committees, and directors that look like our community.”

The second half of the forum was reserved for candidates of the USD 259 Board of Education.

Youth involvement key to event

Jonathan Liu, a junior studying biology at Newman University, was one of the students who asked questions during the forum. He’s also an art-large senator in the school’s student government.

Despite traditionally low turnout, Liu said it’s important for young people to be educated and involved in the local political system.

“I think that the political system is very, very complex, and it’s very difficult for you to understand,” Liu said. “I think it’s important for young people to become knowledgeable at a lower playing field, so they can start to understand how things work at a local level.”

Results from the Sedgwick County Election Office show that turnout in 2015 elections was just 16.3%, with 44,506 ballots cast. That was up from 12.8% in 2011.

The League of Women Voters, a civic organization formed after women gained suffrage in 1920, set up a table at the forum to help voters get registered.

Local nonprofit groups Progeny and Root the Power also helped organize the forum.

Both mayoral candidates praised students for their part in bringing the forum to fruition.

“It is inspiring to see young people coming out and taking part in our civic engagement process,” Whipple said.

“I want to thank the youth for leading this — what a great opportunity,” Longwell said, asking students in attendance to participate in the Mayor’s Youth Council. “You can decide on the impact that you want to have.”

Longwell and Whipple are set to face off in the Nov. 5 election after earning the first and second largest portions of the primary vote.