The teenagers running to become governor of Kansas were in familiar territory Thursday morning, even though the people they were making their campaign pitch to probably won’t be winning them an election anytime soon.
The gubernatorial hopefuls were the center of attention during a 2018 campaign forum in the Lawrence Free State High School gym in front of students who, if they had the urge, could also run for the state’s highest office.
But it wasn’t clear how many could, or would, vote in next year’s election.
The crowd, estimated to contain more than 200 students, questioned the candidates about everything from roads to education to their views on LGBT issues and abortion and gun control.
Marijuana was another recurring topic for the gubernatorial hopefuls.
The forum was rarely contentious, save for one exchange between two of the candidates. Free State students sometimes cheered loudly to candidates’ responses to questions that largely focused on policy views and goals.
Jack Bergeson, a 16-year-old Democrat from Wichita, was the first to bring attention to a quirk in Kansas election law earlier this year. According to the Kansas Secretary of State’s director of elections: “there is no law governing the qualifications for governor, not one.”
Since the state has no age requirement to run, that opened the door for teens like Bergeson to run. A trio of others, all 17 — Republicans Tyler Ruzich, of Prairie Village; Ethan Randleas, of Wichita; and Dominic Scavuzzo, of Leawood — soon followed.
They help fill a wide field of candidates for governor that includes Republicans Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat.
The kids weighed in on everything from drugs to healthcare and tax policy during the forum.
Bergeson said he decided to run to do something career politicians tend to avoid.
“That’s taking power from the wealthy few and handing it to the people who work 40 hours, or even more, just to put food on the table and keep the lights on,” he said.
Ruzich said his family has lived the American dream, but noted it can be difficult for others.
“I may be a Republican, but that does not mean that I’m in line with the ultra-libertarian thinking of Gov. (Sam) Brownback,” he said.
Randleas describes himself as a “conservatarian,” a mix of conservative and libertarian.
“I am for a complete repeal of the corporate and state level income tax, personal and corporate,” he said. “Because it is your money to do what you wish. It is not my money to play with.”
And Scavuzzo made a point to emphasize education in Kansas. He attends Rockhurst High School in Kansas City.
“Our schools are very high achieving, at every level, high school, junior college and university,” he said. “And that’s something that we need to be more well known for, but instead people look at our budget crisis.”
Ella Keathley, a 16-year-old who attends Free State, organized the event and hosted the forum.
“I think I’m thankful that I’m able to spread this because it’s cool that I get to be experiencing it, as well as the students of Free State,” she said. “Especially since it’s people our age that can possibly be making a huge difference in our state.”
Izabella Fletcher, a 16-year-old Free State student, said afterward that she’d never been able to sit down and ask politicians questions before.
“I appreciated all of their honesty,” Fletcher said. “Typically politicians play sort of a game. They don’t like to answer questions so directly because they’re trying to kind of please everyone.”