John Waltner, current County Administrator for Harvey County, is one of the many dozens of central Kansas Mennonites who have served in local government. In 1985 he was elected mayor of Hesston, an office he held for 25 years. Along the way he had his eye on service in the Kansas state legislature.
Waltner’s interest in public service has multiple sources. He spent his early years in India, the son of missionary parents. He attended Woodstock School, where one of his classmates was a future king of Nepal. His father was informed and concerned about the political scene, both in India and the United States. Waltner graduated from Bethel College with a history major and planned to be a public school teacher. In graduate school at Kansas University he was inspired by writers on urban community development as diverse as Robert Dykstra, who wrote about American frontier cattle towns, and Francisco Guicciardini, who wrote about the history of Florence, Italy.
As mayor Hesston, Waltner’s biggest challenge–and opportunity–was helping the town recover from a devastating tornado in the spring of 1990. Senator Bob Dole helped the town with an Economic Development grant of two million dollars. As a history teacher at Hesston High School from 1990 to 2001, Waltner attempted to encourage student interest in local, state and national political issues.
In 1998 John ran for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives left vacant with the retirement of Ellen Samuelson. Four years earlier, in 1994, John had set aside his Democratic party identity to co-chair Samuelson’s general election write-in campaign after she had lost the Republican primary to a religious right-wing Mennonite candidate–Cedric Boehr. Samuelson won in the general election. It was a magical moment–the only time in Kansas political history that a candidate defeated in a primary came back to win in the general election.
But in 1998 the magic did not work for Waltner. One disappointment was that Samuelson and other Republicans did not cross party lines to reciprocate his support of 1994. Waltner’s Republican opponent in 1998 was Carl Krehbiel, president of an independent telephone company in Moundridge. Waltner and Krehbiel had traditional “Mennonite” names, but Krehbiel’s family had left the Mennonite church in an earlier generation. Waltner was a member of the Bethel College Mennonite Church. Both candidates were middle aged (52 and 49) political moderates who agreed on the major issues. Both were pro-choice on abortion, supporters of a new state highway plan, and advocates of funding for public education. Krehbiel had the advantages of a majority of registered Republicans in the district, and of superior funding resources. The Democrats, in a last-minute campaign blitz of radio advertisements and printed flyers, questioned how out-of-district contributions by supporters in the telephone industry would affect Krehbiel’s judgment in office. But Krehbiel won the election handily by 3,509 (55%) to 2817 (45%) of the votes.
Waltner went on to a number of different positions of public service. For nine years he served as Harvey County special projects coordinator, and as chairman of the Regional Economic Area Partnership. In December 2009 he was appointed Harvey County Administrator. He remains a strong advocate for involvement in local government. “For most people most of time,” Waltner says, “local issues have a greater impact than state or national issues.”