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Voters again choose new philosophies for City Commission

By Bill Felber

Manhattan voters changed directions Tuesday, rejecting conservative philosophies they had put in power on the City Commission two years ago and moving a pair of Democrats to the head of the ballot in a non-partisan election.

The result appeared to leave the third place finisher holding the decisive vote for the next two years.

“It’s going to be an interesting couple of years,” that third place finisher, incumbent Rich Jankovich, forecast Wednesday morning.

Former city and county commissioner Karen McCulloh was the only candidate topping 3,000 votes, accumulating 3,024 to win a four-term term. McCulloh is a familiar face to city voters, having been elected to the City Commission in 1997 and to the County Commission in 2008.

Usha Reddi, a teacher at Ogden Elementary School who sought the Democratic nomination for the state Board of Education last August, finished second with 2,783 votes. Reddi also will receive a four-year term.

Jankovich received 2,701 votes.

In 2011, Jankovich ran behind conservatives John Matta and Wynn Butler, both of whose terms continue through 2013. Both McCulloh and Reddi ran on platforms that were implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — critical of Matta and Butler. Although voters had rejected liberal initiatives enacted by the previous commission and embraced conservatives two years ago, that was clearly not the case Tuesday. The three candidates generally identifying themselves as conservatives, former commissioner Bob Strawn, John Ball and Daniel Hogan, finished in the bottom three positions. The candidate generally identified as the most liberal, Debbie Nuss, placed fourth, about 375 votes behind Jankovich and about 140 ahead of Strawn.

Jankovich acknowledged his position as the apparent swing vote. “There was a pendulum swing to the left (fur years ago), then to the right (two years ago), and at the end of the day two are on one side, two are on the other and (I’m) in the middle,” he said. That status, he said, “speaks to where a lot of people want us to be.”

McCulloh said she viewed the result as “a clear call to (a return of) the moderate, middle of the road government we’ve had in years past.” She said she believed she could aid in that process. “I don’t think I could have been elected as a Democrat in Kansas if I wasn’t seen as a very moderate person,” she said.

She said the three winners had all indicated support for the library expansion and also for a fixed route transportation system, but added that “we’re not going to make inroads into peoples’ pockets.”

McCulloh also said one immediate task would be to restore public confidence in dialogue. “I am really concerned with the perception people have that minds are made up (on issues) even before the meeting starts,” she said, adding that “we need to get a lot more conversation going.”

County-wide turnout was 20 percent, with 6,930 of the 34,597 registered voters casting ballots. That compared with 22 percent county-wide in 2011, when Matta collected 3,495 votes to lead the city ballot. In Manhattan, there were 5,849 votes cast this year, a few less than the 5,976 who voted in 2011.

The USD 383 Board of Education race, a far tamer affair than the City Commission battle, was led by Marcia Rozell, who received 4,024 votes. Pat Hudgins finished second with 3,668, and Aaron Estabrook took third with 3,245. Mitch Beims got 2,732 votes.

The latter stages of the campaign were marked by an overt appeal to gender politics via a letter-writing, advertising and yard sign campaign to “elect all the women plus Aaron,” a reference to Estabrook. Aside from Jankovich finishing ahead of Nuss, that’s what happened.

In 2011, voters appeared to have rejected political over-reaches by a liberal-progressive commission that had expanded city human rights protections to include gender identity and passed a comprehensive rental inspection program. The new commission in 2011 quickly reversed course on both of those actions. 

It also, however, acted to cut commitments to various social service agencies and denied fixed-route funding to the ATA Bus Service. Matta and Butler also opposed a proposed expansion of the library that eventually was approved with Jankovich providing the decisive vote. Since both McCulloh and Reddi campaigned as advocates for those services, the result Tuesday appeared to be a second consecutive rejection of the incumbent philosophy.

Newly elected city commissioners will take office at the April 16 city meeting. New school board members take office in July.

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