Young politician enlivens Seward County Republicans
by Rachel Coleman
Reid Petty wasn’t planning to go into politics. It’s just that he found it difficult to resist his younger brother’s suggestion.
“It was almost a dare,” to enter the race for USD 480 School Board, back in 2009, he recalled. “My younger brother Ryan, who was 17 at the time, said, ‘hey, you ought to run for office. If you do, I’ll pay your filing fee.’” Almost to his own surprise, Reid said yes to the proposition. Only later did he realize how easily his brother fulfilled his end of the bargain: “I think the filing fee was something like five bucks,” he said.
Nearly two years later, the brothers’ casual conversation has prompted big changes in Seward County’s school district and political climate. Reid Petty won his school board race by one of the biggest margins in local memory — 69 percent. A year later, building on his reputation for limits on local government, transparency and responsiveness to taxpayers’ concerns, the Seward County Republican Party unanimously elected him as party chair. With veteran local politician Jim Rice and newspaper publisher Earl Watt, Petty helped establish a vibrant “We the People” grassroots political group in Seward County, raising political awareness and involvement.
“Back in Wichita, they’re jealous of us,” says county commissioner Jim Rice. “They can’t get people to show up for meetings, and we regularly have 40 show up to read the Constitution, talk about the issues, discuss candidates. ‘You guys have something good going on in Seward County,’ they tell me.”
The talk also reached Vicky Tiahrt, wife of U.S. Representative Todd Tiahrt.
“During the primary campaign, I heard about a sharp, young conservative in Liberal named Reid Petty, who was finding pretty unusual success at his age,” she said. The news piqued her interest, she said, because “the Republican party must do better with younger voters … I was intrigued to meet Reid. That he could win election to the local school board and then become President of the School Board indicated he is a leader with a much needed ability to get things done.”
When they met, Tiahrt recalls, “I felt that I was with a genuine person, a man with a strong rudder, and the energy to take his beliefs to the voters in a compelling and winning way. Reid Petty has depth. He also enjoys the friendship and support of older community members which is impressive.”
Petty has been interested in politics “since I was a kid,” he says. “I’ve always followed national campaigns and enjoyed watching debates.” Even so, he never planned to take a leading role in the process, envisioning a job in sports broadcasting on radio or television. That in fact is what whetted his appetite for something more involved than occasional campaign observation.
“I was working as the sports director for [local TV station] KLKT, and I had to attend school board meetings as part of getting some of the games televised,” Petty said. “At that point, I started to wonder why the meetings weren’t televised. It seemed to me that there should be more transparency.”
Accordingly, one of Petty’s campaign points focused on that issue, along with cooperative teacher-board relations and a promise to walk through each school in the district once a semester. He also stressed the advantages of having “a young, fresh voice on the board,” and lobbied to consider affordable alternatives that would not stress taxpayers during an economic recession.
Voters, already on edge about a controversial bond issue that included a pricey football-field upgrade with standard classroom construction and district-wide renovations, responded to Petty’s common-sense approach. He sees his popularity with levity, though:
“I don’t know that it was particularly personal; I don’t know that anyone’s ever happy with government,” he said.
A 2004 graduate of Liberal High School, Petty is one semester away from completing his bachelor’s degree in education. He commutes to Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell and looks forward to a semester of student teaching next year. Till then, he moonlights as a desk clerk at a local motel, having found that broadcasting and serious academic pursuits do not blend well. The job, he said, has served surprisingly well to boost his sense of political currents; travelers check in, glance at the television news and offer their perspective on the issues.
“And I have more time to study,” he added with a grin.
Is his choice to shift careers focus connected to his school board position?
“Not really,” he said. “I come from a family of educators. My mother went back to college while we were growing up and got her teaching degree. My two brothers plan to teach.” And his great-grandfather, N.B. Mahuron, served as Liberal’s Superintendent of Schools for 32 years, setting a record for that position.
Petty’s father, Rex, is an educator of a different sort, serving as pastor of Faith Tabernacle Church in Liberal. Years of observing his dad cheerfully persist in the good work of the ministry taught Reid to see the best in people.
“My dad is so optimistic, and that’s kind of rubbed off on me,” he said. “I can’t stay upset at anyone for very long. I get that trait from my father, that way of saying ‘things can get better.’”
As far as politics go, though, Petty said his vocational choice provides a natural limit on seeking another school-board term.
“I expect I’ll be teaching in the district, so it won’t be possible for me to serve on the board, too,” he said. “But who knows what else is out there.”
Upon his election to party chair in the county, Petty heard suggestions. He could throw his name in the hat as a possible replacement for state senator Tim Huelskamp’s spot, since Huelskamp is headed to Washington after handily winning a congressional race. He could run for office in city or county commission elections. Petty isn’t making any plans at this point.
“I considered the state spot,” he said, “but the timing wasn’t right. It was really important to me to finish out my term on the school board, and I’m concentrating on finishing my degree.”
He does list a few wider goals in the political realm, though.
“At college, a lot of the kids are really interested in the fact that I got elected. They think it’s cool,” he said. “But when I ask them if they vote, they say they don’t think it makes a difference. That needs to change. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain — and everybody these days has gotten so frustrated about politics.”
In general, he said, his involvement in setting up “We the People” meetings has shown him far more than his campaign experience or the twice-monthly USD 480 board meetings. He’s learned a lot about how the political process is supposed to work, where current policies fall short, and what citizens think about that.
Ordinary people “don’t feel like their voice is heard,” he said. “I would like to see more people read the Constitution, learn what their rights are, and get involved in the election process.”
He speaks, after all, with the voice of experience — all his 25 years of it.