Election Day Democrat

Democrat Steve Whikehart thanks his wife Leslie (left) as he gives his victory speech on Election Day Tuesday, November 3, 2015. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

Kokomo Common Council member Steve Whikehart is resigning his at-large seat, the first-term Democrat announced publicly Monday.

Whikehart, who revealed in January that he would not seek re-election, said the reason behind the resignation is his family’s planned relocation to be closer to his job with Orbis Education in Carmel.

The resignation will be effective May 23, meaning the council’s May 20 meeting will be the final one of Whikehart’s brief but busy stint on the council, which by its end will have lasted nearly three-and-a-half years.

The Howard County Democratic Party will hold a caucus to fill the open seat once it is officially vacant. The party will have 30 days to pick a successor.

The party's vice chair, Steve Geiselman, said Monday he is not aware of anyone who has expressed interest in the seat.

“It has been the honor of my lifetime to serve on the city council,” said Whikehart in a statement.

“Therefore, this is not a decision that I made lightly. Both my wife and I have accepted new jobs recently, and I must make the decision that is best for my family. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my hometown.”

Whikehart previously worked as Kokomo’s director of development. He currently chairs the council’s Public Works and Welfare Committee and the city’s Human Rights Commission, and previously chaired the council’s Finance Committee.

“It has been a pleasure to have worked with such a progressive and innovative City Council, and with Mayor Goodnight and his administration,” he added.

“Kokomo has grown by leaps and bounds these last few years. This is because of the hard, thoughtful work and planning by the Council and the Administration. It is my hope that this group of leaders continues to move our city forward.”

Whikehart was elected in 2015 to his council seat as the leading vote-getter in the at-large race, finishing ahead of current council president Bob Hayes and vice president Mike Kennedy. 

Hayes, who called Whikehart his “right-hand guy” on Monday, said the departing councilman will “be missed very much.”

“He has been a professional colleague of the highest standard,” said Hayes, predicting Whikehart will at some point re-enter politics.

“He’s also been an elected official of the highest standard. And finally, which is most important, he is my friend. He is like, and I hate to say it, a younger brother. ... His impact on the community is going to leave a lasting footprint for years to come.”

Whikehart revealed in January 2016, his first month on the council, that he was working on legislation to ban discrimination for a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

By March 2016, that legislation had been approved by the council and signed by Goodnight. It was a highly contentious process that included two narrow 5-4 votes and a coalition of religious leaders ardently opposed to the ordinance. 

“I am adamantly against any forms of discrimination. I was elected to lead and I think this is important,” said Whikehart at the time.

Whikehart again received the spotlight during the council's 2017 vote on a smoking-ban proposal. 

It followed a controversial vote in 2014, when the council voted down various amendments to its smoke-free ordinance, which would have banned smoking tobacco in bars, taverns and social clubs, and the use of E-cigarettes in all enclosed public establishments.

After passing the amendments by a 5-4 margin on first reading, the same ordinance was voted down 5-4 on second reading after Common Council member Kevin Summers changed his vote.

However, Summers was replaced by Whikehart in the 2015 election, and Whikehart served as the swing vote for smoking ban proponents.

So in March 2017 the council approved a resolution, by a 5-4 vote, that allowed smoking to be banned in all Kokomo bars, taverns and private clubs. It piggybacked countywide legislation passed earlier the same day by the Howard County Commissioners.

Some local bar owners expressed frustration with Whikehart, who conveyed support during 2015 election debates for “compromise” in a potential smoking ban, including a grandfather clause permitting current establishments to allow smoking until they changed ownership, name or location.

Whikehart defended his position at the time, saying he brought up the idea in private meetings, to no avail, and found there “was no room for compromise.”

“It became either I do nothing or I do what I believe is right for the community, and that’s to endorse a comprehensive smoking ban,” he said in an interview after his vote in favor of the legislation.

Whikehart had attracted more light-hearted attention in late 2016 when he sponsored an ordinance that formally legalized pinball in Kokomo.

It was discovered at the time that Kokomo’s ban on the game likely stretched all the way back to 1955, when previous city officials believed pinball machines were used for gambling and encouraged “vice and immorality” and constituted “a nuisance,” according to a Tribune story.

The move attracted numerous quirky features and coverage from national media and even led to Goodnight signing the ordinance on top of a pinball machine at the American Dream Hi-Fi record store.

Roughly 18 months later Whikehart again led the charge against obsolete sections of code with an ordinance that wiped the city’s code book of disposable laws that stretched from circus fees to regulations aimed at protecting children from the dangers of kitchen freezers.

“Whether it’s been updating administrative titles, providing uniformity on grass heights for homeowners versus landlords, or repealing archaic law like the pinball ordinance, modernizing the city codes has been a pretty consistent theme of the council over the last few years,” said Whikehart.

The council’s three at-large seats will play a prominent role in November’s municipal election, with Democrats Kennedy and Hayes both seeking re-election. They are joined on the ticket by Democratic newcomer Matt Sedam.

Whikehart is the chair of Sedam’s campaign committee.

Running for the at-large seats on the Republican side are Kara Kitts-McKibben, Matthew Grecu and Tony Stewart, who were the top three vote-getters in a five-candidate primary race decided May 7.

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.