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Politically, a back & forth year

By Bill Felber

Statewide, 2012 was a year when conservative Republicans solidified their hold on political power. They won an August primary war with Republican moderates, and they conclude the year with strong majorities in both the executive and legislative branches of government.

But the picture is substantially less clear at the local level, where the fight between conservative and liberal/moderate factions is likely to continue into 2013. In fact that power struggle may dominate the 2013 city election.

Both sides won victories in 2012, and at year’s end both of those victories appear more symbolic than substantive.

Conservatives succeeded in nominating Bob Reader to the 22nd District Senate seat, in the process ousting prominent moderate Roger Reitz. Reader’s nomination appeared to have been ensured when Reitz decided near the filing deadline to enter what became a three-way race also involving former House Majority Leader Joe Knopp. Since Reader was the obvious conservative pick and Knopp had tried to frame a middle path, Reitz’s decision split the anti-conservative vote and sent both him and Knopp down to defeat.

But conservatives didn’t have long to celebrate. In November, Democrat Tom Hawk — removed by voters from the Kansas House just two years earlier — rode a coalition of anti-conservatives to victory over Reader in the general election.

Hawk’s victory might have been locally meaningful, but it went against the strong statewide tide, which elected conservatives to apparent veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate. That means he will be in a decided minority in January. He was one of only eight Democrats to win a seat in the 40-person Senate.

The city’s two House seats went to incumbents, Democrat Sydney Carlin and Republican Tom Phillips. Phillips had been appointed to the seat in February when incumbent Susan Mosier resigned to take a state position.

Conservatives appeared to score their biggest local gains in races for the Riley County Commission, where Bob Boyd won a contest with Democrat Scott Seel for the seat being vacated by Al Johnson, and Ron Wells defeated Rod Harms for the seat being vacated by Karen McCulloh. Both will be installed in January.

The most enduring political story of 2012 was the battle over whether Riley County would be moved from the Second Congressional District into the First District. Conservative and moderate factions in the House and Senate fought the redistricting question to a standstill all session, resulting in a three-judge federal panel drawing its own boundaries in June. Those boundaries moved both Riley and Pottawatomie counties into the First District.

The most interesting political question entering 2013 is how the conservative-liberal fight will play out in local elections, especially April’s battle for control of the Manhattan City Commission. Two years ago, conservatives scored decisive victories with the election of both John Matta and Wynn Butler to four-year terms. That outcome was made likely when two members of the previous commission’s liberal majority — Bruce Snead and Jayme Morris-Hardeman — both declined to seek re-election, and only Phil Anderson carried the liberal banner into the April balloting. He finished last in the five-candidate field.

To date, the declared candidates are a third conservative — John Ball — along with incumbent Rich Jankovich, whose voting record has not neatly overlaid either group. Liberals are expected to offer a more complete slate of candidates next year to protect what they see as conservative threats against social service funding, mass transit and gay rights. But conservatives begin from the stronger position since both Matta and Butler are assured of two more years on the commission. That means any liberal slate must sweep all three seats in April to win control while conservatives need to take just one seat in order to retain their governing majority.

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