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Final tidbits from Tuesday's Lawrence City Commission election
It is time to clean out the City Commission election refrigerator. There are canned speeches, moldy questionnaires and calorie-laden political advertisements in here. But I’ve had enough of all that, so I’ll just pass along some leftovers of a different type — leftover notes from my notebook.
• Let’s set the table for who is who in this new City Commission. First, Hugh Carter and Aron Cromwell will finish their terms at next Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. Mike Dever and Bob Schumm were the two incumbent commissioners who were not up for re-election. Mike Amyx and newbies Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan will be sworn into their terms at next week’s meeting. That’s your five.
• Schumm’s one-year term as mayor will end on Tuesday. If tradition holds — and it will — vice mayor Dever will be elected by his fellow commissioners to serve a one-year term as mayor. Also, it is expected that Mike Amyx, as the top vote winner in the election, will be elected as vice mayor. That means he’ll be in line to be the mayor in April 2014. If tradition holds, Farmer, as the second-place finisher, is in line to be the vice mayor in April 2014, which means he’ll be mayor in April 2015.
• There was so much action with the political newcomers last night — Farmer, Riordan and fourth-place finisher Leslie Soden — that it was easy to overlook the accomplishment of Amyx. The downtown barber shop owner won his fifth term on the City Commission. His first term on the commission was a two-year term in 1983. All the rest have been four-year terms. So, at the end of this new term, he will have served 18 years on the City Commission, although not consecutively. I’ll have to brush up on my history to determine who, if anyone, has served longer on the City Commission. In addition, Amyx served four-plus years as a Douglas County commissioner in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“I woke up at 1:15 in the morning (election morning),” Amyx told me at last night’s vote counting. “I was so excited I couldn’t go back to sleep. I’m as excited today as I was in 1983.”
• Political pundits (in Lawrence, I think that is just code for guys who sit on bar stools and talk about politics) will spend a bit of time figuring out what impact the new political action committee Lawrence United had on the race. Two of the three candidates it endorsed won election, but the question will be whether they won because of the PACs endorsement or in spite of it? The PAC endorsed Farmer, Riordan and unsuccessful candidate Rob Chestnut.
For Farmer, the numbers didn’t change much from the primary election, when he finished second by about a 400-vote margin. On Tuesday, he finished second with about a 440-vote margin. Farmer was solidly in the top three all night long, and that pretty much was the case during the primary election too.
For Riordan, the situation was different. He won third place only by 97 votes after having secured third place in the primary by 310 votes. And Riordan definitely had a tension-filled night. Until the last West Lawrence returns came in, it appeared he was going to lose to Soden, who was seeking to become the first candidate in recent memory to go from sixth place in the primary to the top three.
Riordan told me last night that he thought some voters did react negatively to a well-funded PAC becoming involved in a City Commission race. But Riordan, a Lawrence physician, also pointed out that people who believed PAC funding would influence him perhaps were forgetting something. The biggest contributor to Riordan’s campaign was Riordan himself. He estimated that once all the figures are totaled, he will have provided about 60 percent of the funds — about $18,000 — for his campaign.
The third candidate endorsed by the PAC, Chestnut, certainly didn’t get a boost. He was in fourth place after the February primary but fell to sixth place on Tuesday. One difference between Chestnut and the other two is that Chestnut also was the subject of a supportive mailing by the Americans for Prosperity group in the days before the election. Perhaps the takeaway is that help from Americans for Prosperity is no help at all in Lawrence city politics. Or that may just be hokum as well. It is worth noting that Chestnut finished last in the ballots that were voted in advance as well, and a good number of them likely were cast before the AFP mailer. So, I don’t know. That’s the thing about political punditry — there’s a lot of guessing involved.
• Speaking of guessing, that's what some people will be doing to try to figure out Soden’s rise in the general election. Was it — as she suggested — an indication that Lawrence residents still are pretty divided over this proposed recreation center? Soden and Amyx were the most outspoken candidates on the issue. Or, was it that the Lawrence electorate really does want to have a female voice on the commission? There hasn’t been a woman on the commission since Sue Hack left the commission in 2009.
In the primary election there were two female candidates — Soden, who finished sixth, and Judy Bellome, who finished seventh. Between the two, they got 19.6 percent of all the votes in the primary. In the general, Soden, the lone woman in the field, got 16.3 percent of the vote. What does that mean in relation to our question? I don’t know, but I got the abacus out to create a number, so I’m darn sure going to use it.
• Finally, it is worth remembering that we have these elections to create a City Commission that presumably will go out and do something. Now the question is: What will this next commission do? It will be interesting to watch. I can tell you that some of the first words out of Riordan’s mouth involved discussion of a new police headquarters facility. The idea got more talk in this election than it did in the last election. For what it's worth, the three candidates endorsed by the police officers political action committee won the election.
But the new facility could cost between $20 million and $40 million to build. If it moves forward, it will follow an $18 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library, a $25 million recreation center, a $64 million sewage treatment plant that will come with a multiyear increase in sewer rates, and a new curbside recycling program that comes with a $2.81 per month rate increase.
Probably one of the bigger issues the next City Commission will have to figure out is the mood of the public. Does it still have an appetite for large projects or will it want to take a pause?
• One last number for the election: the 16.3 percent voter turnout rate. The number is what it is, but Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said it is worth noting that the rate is affected by several precincts that are dominated by KU students. It has been tough to get them interested in city commission or school board elections. The Burge Union, for example, had three voters, which produced a turnout of 0.25 percent.
Four Lawrence precincts saw turnouts higher than 30 percent:
• Brandon Woods, 1501 Inverness Drive: 33.6 percent.
• American Legion, 3408 W. Sixth: 32.9 percent.
• Liberty Memorial, 1400 Massachusetts: 31 percent.
• Pioneer Ridge Assisted Living, 4851 Harvard: 30.7 percent.
Who knows, this could be one of the last elections we have in April. There continues to be talk at the Statehouse of moving city and school elections to November. I asked Shew what he thought about that. He said he had concerns about combining the races with the partisan presidential and gubernatorial races that take place during the even-numbered years. He said that would make for a multipage ballot, and would add complications for both voters, who would have far more races to become educated about, and for election workers.
But he said an idea to move the city/school elections to November in odd-numbered years — when they would still have the ballot to themselves — is intriguing. He said it is possible that if residents knew that there would be an election every November, it might be easier for folks to remember to vote. But he’s unsure. It will be worth watching to see if such a proposal advances at the Statehouse.
This confuses me. Surely everyone already eats, sleeps and breaths Lawrence City Commission election news. My favorite item in the paper today is the On the Street question where we ask — on Election Day, mind you — how interested folks were in the City Commission race. One guy answered: “I’m interested. I didn’t realize the election was today, but I’ll definitely read about it tomorrow.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Nah, I think I’ll just find my seat and become a political pundit for the rest of the day.
UPDATE: I just recently received a new spreadsheet from the Douglas County Clerk's office showing the voting totals by precinct for the election. Click here to see them for yourself. They provide a lesson in Lawrence election mathematics: What's most important is not winning a precinct but always finishing in the top three.
Don't get me wrong, winning is good. Just ask Amyx. He won 41 of the 64 precincts in the city in route to a runaway first place finish.
But the next most frequent winner was Soden, and by a lot. Soden won 14 of the 64 precincts, but finished fourth in the vote totals. That's because in several precincts, she finished out of the top three.
To show how unimportant winning a precinct is, Farmer and Riordan — the second- and third-place overall winners — each finished first in just two precincts.
Riordan won the precincts at Langston Hughes Elementary and a very small precinct at the Lawrence Union Pacific Depot that had six votes.
Farmer won the precincts at the Lawrence Bible Chapel on Monterey Way and a small precinct at Prairie Park Elementary that had 21 votes.
Chestnut won at Corpus Christi Catholic Church and a small precinct at Free State High School. Soden won the precincts at: Pickney, Douglas County Senior Services; Carnegie Building (2 precincts); Trinity Lutheran Church (2); Hillcrest Elementary; Central United Methodist Church; Cordley Elementary; Centennial Adult Education; Liberty Memorial; Haskell Stidham Union; East Lawrence Center; New York Elementary. So, a strong East Lawrence and central Lawrence base.
Amyx won all the remaining precincts.
Lawrence City Commission elections aren't decided by wards. All five seats on the commission are at-large positions. If the city had a ward system, it seems likely the results would have been different this year.