Age: 60 Address: 817 Tenn. Family: Divorced; two grown children. Occupation: Custodial supervisor Substantial business interests: Constance lists ownership interests in one pension fund and two mutual funds, but does not list any ownership in businesses or rental property. He does serve as the president of Kansas University’s Support Staff Senate.
Dennis Constance remembers a lot about Lawrence in the 41 years since he first came to the city as a Kansas University student.
He remembers that he was out of town the night the Kansas Union burned in the 1970s, and how he had to prove to a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper that he actually lived in the city before he could return home.
He remembers the political “chaos” of the mid-1980s when he served on the Lawrence City Commission as developers sought to build a mall in Downtown Lawrence.
And he remembers watching the city add subdivision after subdivision during the go-go ’90s, wondering if Lawrence was heading down a wrong path.
All those could make good stories to tell, but as Constance hits the campaign trail as one of eight candidates seeking a seat on the Lawrence City Commission, he’s more likely to tell a less dramatic story about a snowy Lawrence day.
“I knew this guy who had his transmission go out in his car,” Constance said. “He was laying on his back in the dead of winter, in the snow, with his wife reading him the instructions as he tried to fix this transmission. He needed the car to get to work, and he just couldn’t afford to have someone fix it for him. Yet, he was full-time employed at the time.
“That’s a wrong picture, no matter how you slice it.”
Changing that picture has been the central theme of Constance’s second act on the political stage. After losing a re-election bid in 1989, Constance gradually has been working back into the city’s political scene. He was a major organizer behind the efforts in 2002 to create the city’s living wage ordinance, which requires companies that receive a tax abatement to pay all employees at least $11.45 per hour. More recently, he was a leader of the Save the T Campaign, which successfully campaigned for passage of two sales taxes to fund the city’s public transit system.
“I think we definitely need to pay attention to the bottom end of the spectrum,” Constance said. “That is what both of those issues — the T and the living wage — had in common.”
The idea of keeping the working class happy and financially healthy is a linchpin of Constance’s economic and political philosophy.
“I’m a believer that most social ills result from an inequality in wealth,” Constance said. “One of my goals will be to make sure the playing field is as level as possible.”
And Constance says he’s in a good position to survey the working class landscape because most days he’s knee deep in it.
“I’m in housekeeping,” said Constance, who has been a custodial supervisor at KU for about 30 years. “I clean toilets from time to time.”
That position isn’t exactly what you would call a perch atop Mount Oread, but it has been a good job for learning about people — something that Constance, who has his degree in psychology from KU, appreciates.
“Any job that involves waiting on people or picking up after people can be very instructive,” Constance said.
What he’s generally learned is that people don’t think enough. They leave candy wrappers or pop cans laying around when there is a trash can just a few feet away. They don’t think about how their actions affect other people.
“One of my themes is that we need to think about what we do,” Constance said.
Perhaps nowhere will he emphasize that more than in growth and economic issues. On growth issues, he said the City Commission needs to closely consider whether there is enough demand for future retail and housing projects.
“I have thought for some time we’ve been building more retail and housing than we’ve really needed,” Constance said. “I think that has basically caught up with us.”
On economic issues, he said he wants to focus more on helping small, local companies grow and expand and spend less effort on attracting companies from other communities.
That will mean strengthening relationships with KU and its research efforts, he said. Constance believes he can help in that regard. In addition to working at the university, he’s held several leadership positions there. He’s currently in his third term as the president of the University Support Staff Senate, an organization that represents the rights of many non-faculty members. He also currently is on the search committee that is seeking a replacement for outgoing Chancellor Robert Hemenway.
Constance is bringing up the on-again-off-again idea of consolidating Lawrence city government with Douglas County government. Constance has stopped short of endorsing the idea, but said he thinks the community ought to seriously consider a unified government after seeing such arrangements work in other communities. Nearby, Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County created a unified government several years ago, and Manhattan and Riley County have a shared police force.
If the city doesn’t go down the consolidation route, he said the community ought to consider expanding the City Commission to seven members in order to add more perspectives to the group.
On other issues, Constance said:
• He would not rule out a tax increase to address the city’s budget issues. He said he believes property taxes generally are fairer than sales taxes.
“I don’t believe in taxing the daylights out of people, but I won’t sit here and tell you I’m a no-tax person,” Constance said. “I think quality government costs money, and you do have to be able to pay for it.”
• He does not support the idea of across-the-board cuts to social service agencies to make up for an expected shortfall in city revenues.