The Libertarian candidate for Kansas governor transformed himself from trash collector to crusading attorney after battling for his own right to free speech before the U.S. Supreme Court, a case he won.
He’s hoping he can defy the odds again and pull off a victory in November against Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and Democratic challenger Paul Davis.
Keen Umbehr had a trash-hauling contract with Wabaunsee County, but the county commissioners terminated his contract after he criticized them in the local newspaper. Umbehr filed suit, eventually winning a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said private contractors working for the government are entitled to the same free speech rights as government employees.
“We had a lot of opportunities to settle,” Umbehr said. “But I’m not the settling kind of guy.”
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The experience inspired him to sell his trash-hauling business and pursue a career as an attorney, earning his law degree from Washburn University in 2005.
His running mate is his son, Josh Umbehr, a physician who lives in Wichita.
If he pulls off a long-shot victory, Keen Umbehr said he would demand passage of FairTax legislation.
Umbehr said it was immoral for a wage earner to pay income tax while sole proprietors like him do not have to pay income tax on their businesses. He would eliminate the income tax completely and replace it with a 5.7 percent consumption tax on goods and services.
“They have to equalize the tax code for everybody, A to Z, all at once. … I will veto every single piece of legislation they bring me until they fix this,” he said.
Until August 2013, Umbehr said, he was registered as a Republican.
“They wanted my time. They wanted my money,” he said. “But they didn’t want my opinion on anything.”
The Alma resident began researching the Libertarian Party, which seemed to be a better fit. He considers himself a “conservative Libertarian.”
Umbehr criticized House Republicans for supporting a bill that would have allowed public and private employees to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
“It was used to whip up well-meaning Christian people who don’t have all the facts, who say, ‘Well, we should protect our religious values,’” he said. “You can’t make any law that inhibits or advances a religious tenet. And that’s what this is.”
On education, Umbehr said that there should be more school choice in Kansas and that state money should travel with students whether they attend public or private school.
He breaks from some Libertarians on the issue of marijuana. He believes it should not be legalized for recreational use but would support legalization for medical purposes.
In addition to his Supreme Court battle, Umbehr has tangled with the Kansas Department of Corrections and won.
He represented a female inmate at the Topeka Correctional Facility who was impregnated by a guard after an alleged rape and was made to have an abortion, she claimed, against her will.
In 2009, Umbehr brought a reporter with the Topeka Capital-Journal along to interview clients at the prison. The resulting articles exposed sexual abuse of female prisoners by guards and prompted an investigation of the facility by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The stories also helped push the state to elevate the offense of a guard having sex with an inmate to a felony with a presumptive prison sentence.
And the stories prompted Charles Simmons, the deputy secretary of corrections, to bring a misconduct complaint against Umbehr with the state’s disciplinary review board, alleging that Umbehr had misrepresented the reporter as a legal assistant.
No charges were filed. The Department of Corrections declined to comment on the controversy.
One of Umbehr’s key issues is greater government transparency.
He said he would like to create an ombudsman’s office to investigate grievances against the state government.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said that Umbehr’s story — a trash collector who fights all the way to the Supreme Court and wins — could appeal to some voters tired of Brownback but unsure about Davis.
“It’s a very compelling story,” Beatty said. “And it’s different than your average third-party candidate. I think there’s a lot of appeal here.”
The challenge, Beatty said, will be limited resources and less media attention. The Umbehr campaign raised less than $20,000 between January and July.
Umbehr thinks he can get 35 percent of the vote, with Davis and Brownback splitting the rest.