Democratic candidates for Kansas governor squared off in Johnson County on Thursday night as the party searches for a candidate who can prevail in a three-way race next year.
The candidate forum, which was hosted by The Kansas City Star, came a day after Johnson County businessman Greg Orman officially formed a campaign committee for a possible independent bid for governor, which has sparked fears that he could siphon votes from Democrats in 2018.
“A Democrat can win regardless of whether Greg Orman runs or not,” House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, replied to a question on the independent’s impact on the race.
“Greg Orman’s just a lot of smoke,” Ward told the crowd of 170 at the Johnson County Central Resource Library in Overland Park.
Democrats have failed to win a statewide race since 2010, but Ward contended that the candidate who will win in 2018 is the one who can articulate a vision about how to bring more jobs to the state, make college more affordable and increase access to health care regardless of party. Kansas Democrats have not had a primary fight in two decades and Thursday’s event gave voters an early look at where five of the party’s candidates stand on a wide range of issues.
All of the candidates called for action to make the state more transparent in the wake of The Star’s series about a culture of secrecy in state governor. Josh Svaty, a former lawmaker and state secretary of agriculture, repeatedly called for the appointment of a state auditor.
“It’s absolutely imperative for the state of Kansas to regain the trust of the people that we are operating in an open fashion,” said Svaty, emphasizing the role the governor’s cabinet appointments play in determining whether state agencies are transparent.
The Star had offered to put on a similar forum for Republican candidates, but that fell through when the state Republican Party intervened in order to dictate what debate questions can be asked of GOP candidates.
Another topic prominently featured in the Democratic debate was the importance of education after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the Legislature had once again failed to meet the state’s constitutional requirement for adequate education funding.
Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said that as a mayor he saw firsthand how heavily companies weigh the quality of schools when deciding whether to relocate to a city.
“If they’re (schools) bad … they’re (the companies) not coming to your communities,” Brewer said. “Those good jobs you’re looking for are not going to come there, no matter what you offer them.”
Brewer, who would make history as the state’s first African American governor, spoke about the importance of diversity when fielding a question about the lack of female candidates in race, which currently includes 21 men.
“People are people. And they all have sensitive needs,” he said.
Joining the three veteran politicians on the stage were two political newcomers, Arden Anderson, a physician from Olathe, and Robert Klingenberg, a salesman and truck driver from Salina.
“I’m here as a working-class candidate,” Klingenberg said during the opening minutes of the debate. He said the state’s current governor, Sam Brownback, had willfully ignored facts and data during his tenure.
Anderson repeatedly pointed to his medical experience and called for a complete overhaul of both the state and national healthcare systems.
“I know health care. I know it inside and out. And I know how to fix it,” Anderson said.
Anderson said that he has patients who “literally have to make a choice between food and medicine” when discussing the state’s sales tax on food, which is one of the highest in the nation.
A sixth Democratic candidate, Wichita high school student Jack Bergeson, was not invited to participate in the debate. He will be invited to join a future event The Star will host for the multiple high school students who have joined the race since Bergerson announced his candidacy in August.
The Democratic candidates spoke passionately throughout the 90-minute forum, but often found agreement on policy. All five men supported legalizing medical marijuana, reducing the state’s sales tax on food and taking steps to reform the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
Svaty spoke of the need to reverse the national "perception that the state is sliding backward," which he said has hampered economic growth.
“Part of why I’m in the race now is because the state has gotten far worse far faster than I ever thought possible,” Svaty said.
Republican frontrunner Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach was mentioned several times throughout the debate. Ward centered his closing arguments on the expectation that Kobach, a close ally of President Donald Trump, will win the GOP nomination.
“Who can stand up toe to toe to Kris Kobach and not give an inch on our values and what we care about?” said Ward, who has been one of Kobach’s fiercest critics in the Legislature.