Published Online: March 5, 1997

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As the mayor of Hesston, Kan., and a high school government teacher, John Waltner has always encouraged young people to get more involved in the community. At least one of his students has taken his lesson to heart--by running against him for mayor.

Christopher Friesen, a senior at Hesston High School who is enrolled in Mr. Waltner's government class, said he felt it was time for a change in the central Kansas town of 3,300 about 35 miles north of Wichita.

Last week's nonpartisan primary race narrowed the field to two. Mr. Waltner garnered 59 percent of the vote; his student had 31 percent. A third candidate was eliminated, and the teacher and student will face each other in a runoff election April 1.

"I beat the third candidate by a large margin, larger I than expected," Mr. Friesen said last week, "but I still have a way to go."

The 18-year-old candidate, with the help of a campaign staff composed primarily of his classmates, has been going door to door to generate votes. He said one of the first things he's asked is often, "'Are you serious?'"

Mr. Friesen says both he and his teacher are very serious. "Mr. Waltner has been supportive, but he wants to win just as I do."

Mr. Waltner, 50, was first elected mayor of the town 12 years ago, around the same time Mr. Friesen entered the 1st grade.

Since then, he has never had a challenger for the office.

"I encourage students to get involved in all kinds of ways, but no one has yet to file for office, let alone against me," Mr. Waltner said.

"I would like to serve for another four years," he added. "But I also feel positively about Christopher taking things and acting on it and getting involved."

Mr. Friesen says he can handle the job, which pays $75 a month.

"I honestly thought about the responsibility and then I thought, I'm going to be in town for the next few years and I can do the job," he said.

Both candidates agree on just about everything, although Mr. Friesen admits to being a bit more conservative than his opponent.

And the incumbent mayor believes Mr. Friesen's youth could be a drawback, but one that his youthful opponent could easily overcome.

''The things required of the mayor can be learned," Mr. Waltner explained. "[As mayor] people need to take me seriously. The age issue might effect his ability to do that at the outset, but he's a very bright young man."

--ADRIENNE D. COLES acoles@epe.org

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