A small Kansas town is reeling after a baby-faced 23-year-old manipulated procedural technicalities to reinstall himself as mayor in one night, seemingly taking a page from the playbook used by former President Donald Trump after he was voted out of office.
Only, this time, it worked.
“People have said this reminds them of Germany in 1935,” Jeffery Jones, whose bid for a council seat in Goddard, Kansas, collapsed last week as Hunter Larkin abruptly took control, told The Daily Beast. “Like, ‘Hey, we don’t like you anymore and we’re gonna vote you out and put our own person in.’”
The convoluted machinations by which Larkin maneuvered his way back into power were described as “essentially, a coup” and reminiscent of a totalitarian regime, according to one recently departed council member. And while Goddard, a Wichita suburb with a population of just under 5,400, isn’t necessarily going to influence policy shifts on a national scale, the strategy used by Larkin—a right-winger who last year promoted an appearance in Goddard by accused sex pest and conservative kingmaker Matt Schlapp—could serve as a stark warning of what’s possible elsewhere.
“I have to hand it to Larkin,” Wichita Eagle columnist Dion Lefler wrote. “I’ve covered cities for a long time and have seldom seen a political takeover that was this sleazy, and yet this well-orchestrated.”
Larkin’s improbable ascent to office can be traced back to August 2020, when the then-mayor of Goddard stepped down amid a fraud charge for counterfeiting tickets to the local zoo’s “Zoobilee” charity fundraiser. Then-21-year-old City Council President Hunter Larkin was appointed to the job.
In November 2021, Larkin, who by day works as an accounting manager for a fiberglass oil field pipe manufacturer owned by a wealthy local family that has helped fund his political aspirations, was busted for DUI. He later pleaded guilty, receiving a sentence of probation and staying on as mayor until May 2022, when he resigned in the wake of a news report calling his ethics into question. Larkin said he was leaving office to focus on a statehouse run, but kept a seat on the city council.
“This campaign is about giving a voice to the people of our community and defending what so many of us hold dear, like voter integrity, the right to bear arms, protecting the unborn and keeping Critical Race Theory (CRT) out of schools,” Larkin’s campaign website thundered. “As your next Representative, I can promise that I will fight for just that!”
Vice-Mayor Larry Zimmerman was then appointed Goddard’s mayor, and has filled the position since—until last Tuesday night.
The agenda for that evening’s city council meeting didn’t appear particularly unique, at least on the surface; members would, among other things, consider a sign regulation amendment, discuss a road closure request for a Lions Club car show, and appoint a new city councilperson after a councilman named Michael Proctor relinquished his seat on Dec. 31.
Zimmerman nominated Jeffery Jones, who works as a hospice chaplain, for Proctor’s old job.
However, the vote ended in a tie. So Zimmerman instead nominated Aubrey Collins, a radio host and residential solar panel salesman who goes by “Cowboy Rip.” Collins’ candidacy was approved, and he was sworn in.
And, according to Jones, “That’s when everything kind of went haywire.”
As Collins was being seated, Larkin, who lost his bid for the Kansas legislature, immediately moved to amend the agenda and hold a non-public executive session to discuss “unelected personnel.” According to Lefler, the newspaper columnist, Larkin was eager to cast out City Administrator Brian Silcott, who has been critical of him in the past.
At this point, Jones left, thinking the meeting was over.
“Had I known what would happen next, I would have stayed,” he told The Daily Beast. “Because when they came back, that’s when Hunter asked for the election of a new mayor.”
When they returned, Larkin swiftly proposed removing Zimmerman as mayor, a motion which was approved by all except Zimmerman himself. Vice-Mayor Sarah Leland was then installed as mayor of Goddard—briefly. She immediately addressed the others, saying she felt she did not have “the capability to do these job duties… especially the current situation we are dealing with, so I would like to nominate Hunter, as I feel he can complete the steps that need taking.”
And with that, Larkin became mayor, switching seats with Leland, now his second-in-command. Larkin quickly moved to oust Silcott, who he considered a fly in the ointment, prompting now-ex-Mayor Zimmerman to quit his city council seat in protest.
“Before you get to that point, I’d like to tender my resignation from the city council, effective immediately,” he said, and walked out.
The council then filled Zimmerman’s empty council seat with resident Keaton Fish, a support staffer at a local special-ed school. As he took his position, Larkin introduced a motion to terminate Silcott’s employment. They then went to a second closed session to discuss Silcott’s firing, where the decision was consummated. (The next day, Assistant City Administrator Thatcher Moddie resigned.)
“The day and age where unelected bureaucrats ran this town is over,” Larkin later exulted. “This governing body is going to be more involved than ever before.”
This, Jones argued on Friday, is wholly disingenuous.
“Hunter said ‘we’re tired of being run by unelected bureaucrats,’ but I’m like, ‘Well, you’re kind of unelected.’ He was elected as a council member, no one voted him in as mayor [either time]. And right now, there’s a petition out for a recall.”
The recall campaign was started by Proctor, the councilman who quit office on Dec. 31. He called the situation in Goddard “a disaster.”
“He needs to go,” Proctor told The Daily Beast of Larkin, adding that he was baffled by the vice-mayor’s support for his mayoralty.
He said he will need roughly 168 signatures to move the proposal forward, and feels confident he’ll get them.
“Look, there’s complete outrage over this,” he told The Daily Beast. “Getting those votes won’t be difficult, there are plenty of willing participants.”
Proctor has also started a Facebook group called “For Goddard’s Sake,” where he is organizing and rallying support.
“This city is a joke!” one commenter wrote. “in who’s right mind is DUI kid a good choice for mayor after not being re-elected.”
“[H]unter has made it clear that he intends to turn the city into a rental community by helping his developer buddies build as many multi family dwellings as possible,” wrote another. “This is a very clear pattern all in the name of ‘growth’ and it is going to fundamentally change this town. He and his gang now make a majority and will be able to approve whatever Hunter’s little heart desires.”
“So where can concerned citizens file complaints?” wrote a third. “Surely we have a lawyer or three within reach who can help Goddard with its latest problem. Anyone?”
Proctor said he will be filing a report with the sheriff’s office, alleging campaign finance improprieties by Larkin which Proctor claims violate the Goddard city code.
“Somebody’s gotta do it,” he said. “Somebody’s gotta stand up. Otherwise, there’s a vacuum that’s going to be filled by somebody who shouldn’t be doing it.”
Replacing Silcott will also be a heavy lift, according to Proctor, who said Goddard last week “went from a city where up-and-coming city managers would love to come and work, to a bottom-of-the-rung situation, overnight. He’s delivered quite a mess.”
Fish did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. Zimmerman, for his part, told local outlet KWCH that Larkin’s maneuvering “wasn’t right.”
Brady Burdge, an assistant district attorney in Wichita who was in the running for a council seat but withdrew his name on Monday due to his heavy workload, said he found the Larkin situation “really unfortunate.”
“It is definitely troubling,” Burge told The Daily Beast. “The local level is where it all starts, and you definitely don’t like to see things like that happening in your own community… [Larkin] has had trouble in the past building trust with our community, and it looks like it happened again.”
Jones said he is not planning to fight the outcome of the election, and is “just going to let the chips fall where they may.” At the same time, he isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
“I feel honored that the mayor at the time selected me, but I’m not going to raise a fuss,” he conceded on Friday. “I told them at that meeting that I want to effect change within Goddard, and if I can't do it from the [city] council, I’ll do it from the community. And I’m going to be there at as many council meetings as I can, where I’ll be bringing up questions that the people want answered.”
For his part, Aubrey Collins said he is looking forward to his first experience serving in public office.
“I have no comment other than, we’re going to do the best we can for the city,” Collins told The Daily Beast. “I believe the steps that were taken will allow Goddard to win. Goddard is gonna win, based on what transpired.”
Before the council session concluded, Larkin remarked, “Today was a tough day. I know. Wasn’t fun, I don’t think anybody here enjoyed it. But I want you all to know it was done out of love.”
Larkin, who told local NBC affiliate KSN TV that he’s not concerned about any challenges to remove him, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Daily Beast.