Upstart mayor ushers in new era of politics

The inauguration of Brandon Whipple as Wichita’s 102nd mayor marks a new era in local politics.



January 22, 2020 - 2:19 PM

Brandon Whippie

The inauguration of Brandon Whipple as Wichita’s 102nd mayor marks a new era in local politics.

A lot of questions are on the table as the 37-year-old Democrat assumes the “non-partisan” position at the helm of City Hall.

But one big question stands out: How the heck did this relatively unknown, brash, outspoken, non-traditional politician displace an incumbent mayor who was backed by all the traditional power centers in local politics?

Incumbency is a huge advantage, and Mayor Jeff Longwell was the clear favorite out of the gate. But something was different about this election.

Things were changing, and a hint of that change came from upstart folk singer Lacey Cruse, who upset incumbent Richard Ranzau for Sedgwick County Commission in 2018. The same commission district that had elected a hard-line conservative like Ranzau turned on a dime and chose the philosophical opposite, an unknown progressive fresh face who had courted Hispanics, seniors and anybody else who felt under-served by the current commission.

This new electorate also blindsided the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose endorsement of Longwell continued a series of ill-chosen political candidates. In the 2018 primary, the Chamber backed Hugh Nicks against incumbent Ranzau, but the Chamber’s endorsement carried little weight despite an all-out attack campaign that only served to help Cruse win the general election. In the 2015 mayoral race, the Chamber endorsed its former CEO Sam Williams, who lost to Longwell.

The Chamber had played a much different role when Carl Brewer ran for mayor in 2007. The Chamber had tired of incumbent Carlos Mayans and provided Brewer with heavy financial support, paving the way for Brewer’s eight-year term as one of Wichita’s most popular mayors.

So what was different in 2019? Longwell, in a recent interview on KPTS-TV, said he lost the election because the Wichita Eagle had prosecuted him in the court of public opinion for various ethical shortcomings. What he didn’t acknowledge was that his campaign was out of touch with a changing electorate.

Longwell lost the social media battle without putting up a fight. His campaign didn’t even have a website, while Whipple’s team was using every digital tool available to track the public’s mood and its reaction to political messaging. Whipple was reaching out to voters who would end up handing him 46% of the vote, 10 points ahead of Longwell.

Whipple attributes his success to a basic communication strategy, using social media and personal interaction to develop a relationship with voters.

It wasn’t so much that the voters had changed. Rather, they were more engaged and informed through social media. Young and old alike were making the same demands for accountability and transparency.

Now that the dust has settled, the challenge for Whipple is to live up to the expectations of the 46% who voted for him. It won’t be an easy task to develop consensus and confidence from a skeptical council. But the lessons learned from this election will likely reshape local government for years to come.

Dale Goter is a media consultant, former journalist and former lobbyist for the city of Wichita.