Dispatches from Overland Park’s final mayoral election forum

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Mike Czenige at Overland Park mayoral panel. // Photo by Shawn Stewart

On July 24, Overland Park Christian Church hosted the fourth and final Mayoral forum for Overland Park’s candidates. Reverend Bobby Love of the historic Second Baptist Church of Olathe kicked off the meeting. He was followed by Jay Holbert, Branch President of the Johnson County NAACP. Moderator India Woods was introduced. She went over the protocol for the forum.

Then there were the four candidates for mayor. Overland Park was recently named to the top four “Best Cities to Live in America” by Niche. It is consistently ranked among the best places and cities in which to live, as well as one of the best places to raise a family.

So you can’t blame candidate Curt Skoog for repeatedly reminding the audience that he has been there for 16 years. Skoog has served since 2005 as a councilman for the city of Overland Park. That is impressive and he clearly deserves a share of the credit for the accolades bestowed upon the city.

Nothing really broke from expectation early in the forum. Clay Norkey, attorney and leader at the well-known Church of the Resurrection, has the edge on oration. Norkey reminded us that his “campaign can be summarized in three phrases: Respect the Past, Embrace the Future, and Empower the People. We need to build on our strong foundations; bring in new, forward-thinking leaders; and empower the people through better public engagement, full transparency, and real accountability.”

The transparency and accountability of which Norkey speaks has endeared him to an influential member of the Overland Park community, Sheila Albers. She has worked tirelessly since her teenaged son was shot and killed by Overland Park police. Albers has successfully shown that for all its awards, the city and its police department have work to do as it relates to transparency.

At about the midpoint of the forum, India Woods quoted from a questionnaire that was sent to all candidates and then published in The Pitch: “What will you do to address that fact that in 2020, you were six times more likely to be arrested if Black than your white neighbors by the Overland Park Police Department?”

This question is derived from the KORA data Rachel Rae received from Overland Park’s police department. I was not made aware ahead of time that MORE2, who put the forum together would use the question, but now the only candidate who had refused to answer the questionnaire, Mike Czenige, was forced into acknowledging the question.

Czenige is the only candidate to have a party symbol on his signs: an elephant. Party politics are generally considered irrelevant for municipal office. He was also the only candidate to throw in months after the other candidates had announced and completed the questionnaire, and the only to avoid communicating with The Pitch. Except for a brief email that read, “I appreciate the request, but I am going to decline to participate. I am spending all my time walking and speaking with my likely voters. Thanks for reaching out.”

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Overland Park mayoral panel. // Photo by Shawn Stewart

When asked if it was something about The Pitch’s readership and social equality groups, which were the questionnaire’s audience, that made him think they weren’t “likely voters,” Czenige did not respond.

Czenige repeatedly uses phrases like: “Tough on crime,” “We need to stop rising crime,” and “I support law enforcement.” He used all three on Saturday as well—hinting at the KORA data as being “incomplete data.” His reason for the assertion was not made clear, but Czenige referenced that we didn’t know where the arrestees resided.

“Incomplete data?” Sheila Albers asked. “Where people live doesn’t matter!”

I asked Czenige if he could explain what was incomplete about the data which the candidates have had for months. I asked the police department the same question since he said the department concurred with him. The Overland Park Police Department and Czenige did not respond.

Czenige is the only candidate to avoid that question and proposing solutions. The three other candidates made tangible commitments to fix the disparity.

“I will make it a priority to diversify,” Skoog says, as he referred to the people who would be appointed to committees. He continued, saying that going forward “we need to be upfront with policing data.”

Norkey seemed to up the ante a little. “Why aren’t we doing something about this now? We need to correct this now!” says Norkey emphatically. He had earlier doubled down on the commitment in his campaign pledge to finding “diverse voices.”

Farassati, a cancer scientist who is a favorite among racial equity activists, pointed out that these were things he had been talking about for years.

None of these: a long-time council member, an attorney, nor a scientist mentioned finding flaws with the question’s data. Nor did they have difficulty committing to making Overland Park equitable for its Black citizens. Only Czenige did so.

The problem with Czenige is not that he’s conservative. Most of his platforms are similar or the same as candidate Farassati’s anyway.

“I don’t know what Mike really stands for,” Farassati says when asked about his and Czenige’s similar campaign platforms. “He has just borrowed most of the policies I’ve been very public about for the last four years.”

If you are fiscally conservative and want to reign back the level of tax incentives given to developers, there are plenty of people who stand for that. But only one candidate—from some of the terms he is employing to the symbol he has decided to put on his signs for a municipal position—seems to be courting the kind of audience that doesn’t want to prioritize equality in America, 2021.

In my opinion, there is no place for that as the mayor of the flagship city of our country’s charter Free State.

Categories: Politics