It was a packed house at the Frankfort Middle School cafetorium – a lunch room with an arched stage off to one side. Supporters of incumbent Mayor Chris McBarnes, many clad in neon green tee shirts advocating their candidate sat on one side. Across a physical -- if not ideological – aisle were backers of Third District City Councilman Lewis Wheeler, many dressed in red.
As recently as late last year, it looked like McBarnes would hold to a long-held and oft-repeated statement: two terms as mayor and then step into private life. But he surprised many when, just after Thanksgiving, he announced he’d challenge Wheeler – running now for nearly a year -- for the job.
Wheeler has been a critic of McBarnes’ spending priorities. Multiple times during the 90-minute debate, he cited what he sees as projects failing to meet fiscal projections. He mentioned new managers of the city golf course returning to the city council to ask for bigger subsidies and came back more than once to a planned renovation of the TPA Park swimming pool.
“Hopefully it can pay for itself in the long run, but we have a history of putting together amenities that do not pay for themselves," Wheeler says. "And we’re trying to put together a pool right now that’ll take 30 years to pay off, but it’s only going to last 20 years.”
Wheeler appeals to those in the community worried about tax increases that McBarnes has ushered in to pay for upgrades to the city’s wastewater system and electrical utility, as well as to help pay for projects like downtown’s Prairie Creek Park.
The mayor Tuesday admitted some taxes have increased, but says he’s placing bets on the future growth he thinks they’ll create.
“So yes, it’s put a little uptick in pressure on property tax rates, but I believe that the investments will pay off, our assessed value will continue to grow, like what we’ve had with PepsiCo and Frito Lay and tax rates are coming down," McBarnes says. "And if I get voted out of office for that, that’s okay with me. You can underline it twice.”
McBarnes returned time and again to well-worn talking points like the fact the city’s rainy day fund has neatly doubled during his time in office. But Wheeler not only questions those numbers, but says the city isn’t transparent enough about its spending…
“On the 30th of June, you have to certify your cash on hand. And if you go back, go to the 30th of Junes, you’ll find we’ve twice had a deficit spending," Wheeler says. "Go look up the 30th of June in 2016 and ’17 – we had a half-million dollars deficit spending.”
As evidence of transparency, McBarnes pointed out more city meetings are now available as audio downloads on the Frankfort website, even if it’s sometimes taken months for the audio to be uploaded. But he says the city has to do business differently than it has in the past if it wants to evolve out of the population stagnation of the last 70 years.
“No one likes borrowing money for a project," McBarnes says. "But again, if we want our city to go to the next level, if we’re tired of average, if we’re tired of normal, if we’re tired of barely getting by, and not getting any sniffs from any Eastside Nines or Goodrich movie theatres or Buffalo Wild Wings, gosh darn it we gotta do something different. Because the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results.”
The candidates were asked how they’d appeal to the town’s Latino population, who make up about a quarter of the city, but are often overlooked. Wheeler pointed to his time as a missionary in Central America.
“I’d be the first bilingual mayor of Frankfort. I speak Spanish as well as English," he says.
But later in the debate, he appeared to portray Frankfort’s Hispanic population – few of whom attended the debate -- as a unilateral bloc of voters…
“I spent five years of my life living in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. And I can tell you the culture they come from is extremely suspicious of government.”
It’s a skepticism Wheeler hopes to use to unseat McBarnes, who won the 2015 primary election by collecting 90 percent of the vote. But McBarnes hopes for a message of: the more things change, the more they stay the same. And he says the city needs to change or remain a place with business investment, but few people moving there.
“Economic development in the 21st Century is: you attract the people and the jobs will follow," the mayor says. "It used to be you attract the jobs and the people will follow. It’s the exact opposite now.”
In a race that’s been waged mostly on social media until now – with rumors, attack ads and rebuttals propagating on the internet, the two candidates did manage to come together at the end of the night.
Wheeler told a story of Abraham Lincoln’s defeat of Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential race. Lincoln needed a place to put his trademark stovepipe hat as he delivered his inaugural address and Douglas, gracious in defeat, reportedly offered to hold it for the man who’s just beaten him for the office.
Wheeler, like Lincoln a tall man who towers physically over his opponent, said if he lost Tuesday, he’d be happy to – at least figuratively -- hold the incumbent’s hat during the January 1 inaugural.