Opinion: Mayors, the other first responders
Among U.S. governors, Kansas’ Laura Kelly and her advisers rank among the clearest and most decisive in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, governors face limitations. Residents — and viruses — often cross state lines, and Kansas shares its most populated border with Missouri, whose governor was far slower to respond and now seeks to lift stay-at-home orders prematurely. Also most law enforcement is handled by the local, not state, government. This makes mayors key allies, leaders and decision-makers in times of crisis. Around here, some mayors have shown strong leadership while others have struggled.
Topeka Mayor Michelle de la Isla won national recognition for her response. De la Isla assembled a rapid-response team that meets every morning to assess the latest developments, including one member whose entire focus is to combat false rumors, which mostly spread online. These include one baseless allegation that she was about to place the city under martial law. De la Isla’s task force also monitors supplies of medical equipment, state and national developments, and the latest figures on how the virus is impacting Topekans.
De la Isla also reached a campaign truce with likely opponent Steve Watkins, who currently occupies the congressional seat she will seek this fall. These two shifted the politicking to their campaign staffs, so they can better focus their own time on the pandemic response.
Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas is not a Kansan, but his influence is having a dramatic effect here. When Missouri and Kansas governors took wildly different approaches, Lucas took on a task that would be impossible in normal times. The mayor and his allies convinced all counties in the K.C. metropolitan area, on both sides of the state line, to agree to a coordinated plan for stay-at-home directives. This includes Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth, and Douglas counties in Kansas — all population centers. Lucas is also coordinating his efforts with St. Louis-area officials in Missouri. Essentially, he is doing what his own state’s governor would not. Like de la Isla, Lucas has experienced homelessness, and both have expressed specific concerns for how the pandemic affects that vulnerable population. All of this is remarkable for a metropolitan area that was, until recently, notorious for foolhardy “border war” policies, using tax incentives to lure businesses to move back and forth across the state line without creating any new jobs.
Unfortunately, things have not gone so well for Wichita’s mayor, Brandon Whipple. Whipple has handled the nuts and bolts of the pandemic fine, for example discussing it with constituents on his monthly KPTS call-in show and following the lead of the city’s public health director in issuing directives. Yet he faces almost-constant criticism. Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Roger Marshall disrupted one of Whipple’s call-in shows with a partisan rant, despite the fact that Wichita is not even in the district Marshall represents. Whipple has also faced strong opposition from Sedgwick County officials and one particularly vocal city council member. The attacks are unfair, but the newly elected mayor still needs to be the bigger person, refusing to take the bait of his opponents, who are still bitter over his upset victory and his affiliation with the Democratic Party.
Like nature, power abhors a vacuum. When Missouri’s governor dawdled and Kansas’ Legislature sought to undermine Kelly’s emergency powers, mayors like de la Isla and Lucas stepped into the breach. Whipple faces unfair criticism, but he would still be well-advised to put personal disputes aside and follow these other mayors’ examples.
— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.