ELLSWORTH, KANSAS — I never understood the journalistic cliché of referring to every candidate or elected official’s wife as his “secret weapon.” What sense did that ever make, when wives are the “Let’s hear it for my better half” opposite of a secret? And they’re only rarely lethal.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Svaty’s many Kansas cousins, however, probably do qualify as an unseen force. In the 36 counties where the 38-year-old farmer and former state ag secretary has family, they’ve introduced him around, steered him to the doors he ought to knock on and booked him in local parades.
Uncle Dave Svaty campaigns for his nephew every Saturday as he sells his produce and meat in Hays. Uncle Ron Svaty oversees the grow-your-own-grassroots efforts of the 126 Svatys and Diehls, the candidate’s paternal grandmother’s people, who are involved in some way in his campaign.
This is Kansas, so many are Republicans, and some of those are helping “not as overtly,” says Ron Svaty. Since retiring last October, the former circuit judge has spent time most every day reaching out to the descendents of Henry Diehl and of Frank Svaty, who was born in what’s now the Czech Republic and came to Ellsworth County after the Civil War.
One actual secret of this secret Svaty land force, according to Ron: Their Svaty forebear “was not really a Svaty” at all, seeing as how “his father died three years before he was born.” He and his two brothers came to the United States together and later brought over their mother “because she was ostracized” for having had a child as a widow.
The only downside of Svaty outreach, Ron says, is “I have to fight my enthusiasm” about Josh’s prospects vis-à-vis the perceived frontrunner, 68-year-old state Sen. Laura Kelly, who has raised a lot more money.
It’s the judge’s calls to those in his other, far larger network — the more than 6,000 Kansas lawyers in his address book — that have convinced him that anti-immigrant Kris Kobach is not going to be the next governor. “Not more than five” of the many Republicans on that list told him they were supporting the controversial secretary of state in the GOP primary race.
Some 700 of the Republicans supporting others in the primary told Ron to call them back in the unhappy event that Kobach does get the nomination.
He’s also had some people say to take them off his list because they’ve moved out of state — and that, to Ron, who went to Stanford Law and then came back here to practice, is why his nephew is running — to reverse the flow of young people leaving the state by making all kinds of people feel as welcome in Kansas as Frank Svaty was in 1881.
Josh’s campaign isn’t so much based on a rural strategy as it is informed by what growing up here taught him. In his campaign commercial, “I am from here,” which is really a love poem to farm life, he says, “I fight for water resources because our lives and communities can do nothing without it. I fight the recent trade tariffs because my principle crops, sorghum and beef, have been deeply affected.” He even seems to promise that his four young kids will do that for a living: “My children will be the sixth generation to grow food in the very center of the country.”
Josh lives in Topeka — “He’s two miles from me,” Kelly points out — but still farms land just down the road from the house where he grew up, and where his parents Don and Niki still live, and just yards from his sister Paula’s family in what had been their grandpa Garfield Svaty’s place. Garfield, named for the president, sent his six kids to college on what he grew on his 320 acres, and he advised all of them not to come back to the farm except to visit.
Don Svaty, who apologized for the nick in his nose that he’d just gotten from “walking into a baler” didn’t listen to that advice, obviously, and Josh, who his dad said had been talking about running for office since third grade, didn’t either: “You couldn’t get it out of him.” He not only didn’t run from the farm, but is running on it.