Election recap: Negative campaigning backfired in City Council races, some say
Some local political observers say negative campaigning backfired in two Shawnee City Council races decided April 2.
The attacks ranged from Mayor Jeff Meyers’ claim that Ward 2 challenger Dr. Mike Kemmling had not been active in the community to an anonymous supporter of Ward 3 challenger Gordon Herron labeling incumbent Jeff Vaught as a “deadbeat dad” and “backroom (deal) broker” in a mailer.
Both candidates on the receiving end of the slights won, with Vaught beating Herron 797 (62.5 percent) to 475 (37.3 percent) and Kemmling defeating Alan Willoughby, the mayor’s uncle by marriage, 673 (55.6 percent) to 532 (43.9 percent). Elsewhere in Shawnee, Ward 1 incumbent Dan Pflumm defeated challenger John Segale in a relatively clean race, 767 (55.7 percent) to 607 (44 percent), and Ward 4 incumbent Michelle Distler, running unopposed, received 633 votes.
Tony Lauer, a local activist who conducted exit polling in Ward 3, said “the negative campaigning absolutely did backfire.”
While he has been opposed to Vaught on some issues, Lauer said, they live in the same neighborhood, where he’s seen Vaught in his role as a family man.
“Calling Jeff a ‘dead beat dad’ simply isn’t true,” Lauer wrote in a blog post. “It’s far too personal and the accusation has no business in MY town.”
Lauer added that his exit polling revealed that voters had supported Vaught’s clean campaign.
“Instead of being dismissed as over the top,” Lauer said of the negative campaigning, “voters got motivated and responded. ... Voters on the fence chose to support the clean campaigns. ... The message should be clear. In Shawnee, the dirty campaigning will backfire, and it should. We won’t put up with the negativity, despite who your family is or what the issues are. Citizens are watching.”
Lauer said he didn’t think Herron was involved in the hit piece targeting Vaught. But that does not absolve him of responsibility, he said.
“It’s the candidate’s responsibility to publicly repudiate and denounce this sort of activity,” Lauer said.
Councilwoman Distler, meanwhile, was critical of the mayor for a campaign letter he wrote on Willoughby’s behalf.
“I’m disappointed and believe Meyers could have shown his support for Willoughby and criticisms of Kemmling without resorting to untruths,” Distler said.
Meyers had prefaced his letter by saying “there have been a lot of negative comments in the press about the fact that Alan Willoughby happens to be married to my wife’s aunt.” He then charged that Kemmling “has never been involved in the community,” had never been seen at a City Council meeting and decided to run for office because he opposed city sign regulations “in place to protect ... homeowners who may not appreciate his signs illuminating into their bedrooms.”
Kemmling addressed the allegations on his website. He said he had been involved in the community through church outreach events and organizations such as Sons of the American Legion and the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce.
In addition, Kemmling was the only applicant seeking appointment to a Ward 2 seat last year who attended every City Council meeting leading up to the appointment, he said, and he opposed the sign ordinance due to color restrictions. “There was nothing illuminated into any bedrooms,” he said.
Even with the mayor’s support, Willoughby “couldn’t overcome the trauma of Ward 2 history,” Lauer said. Willoughby, whose campaign centered on his extensive civic involvement, declined to comment on the race.
“I think the people were tired of what was going on in Shawnee,” Kemmling said. “There’s a perception that the tail is wagging the dog.”
Kemmling was referring to an ongoing debate about the balance City Council members should strike between representing constituents and supporting city staff. The debate became more pronounced last May, when former Ward 2 City Councilman David Morris resigned his seat.
After emails between Morris and City Manager Carol Gonzales were obtained by The Dispatch, Morris acknowledged he had resigned due to philosophical differences with Gonzales over the role of City Council members.
“Staff doesn’t see your role as ‘advocating for citizens,’” Gonzales wrote after Morris had intervened in a landscaping issue on behalf of a resident. “They see a council member’s role as being part of a city team that all works together for the overall good of the community. Based on how you have approached things since being elected, staff members feel like you always believe the citizen and always just assume that we are making big mistakes and not handling things right.”
In July, Willoughby was appointed over Kemmling and three other applicants to replace Morris. Allegations that the appointment followed private discussions involving the mayor and members of the council prompted an investigation by the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office. It found that those involved in the discussions had violated the spirit of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
“A lot of the feedback I received (during the campaign) was about the appointment process,” Kemmling said.