If I were directing a documentary on the competing visions of governments in Kansas, I would start the film with a split screen showing two recent events.
On one side would be a panorama of 4,500 residents visiting the grand opening of the $20 million Arts & Heritage Center, with Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert welcoming the guests. On the other side would be a shot of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who came to the Thompson Barn in Lenexa to announce his candidacy for governor in 2018. I would capture a brief but significant clip from his speech: “Kansas does not have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem.”
Consider how these two men, Eilert and Kobach, have approached public life and government and how they have represented the citizens who elected them.
Eilert, who unfortunately is not running for governor, has spent his three decades in politics wisely investing tax dollars in an effort to make his community a crown jewel. Whether it’s the Arts & Heritage Center or the Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead or the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens or the launch of hiking trails in Overland Park that now stretch throughout the county or the new courthouse now underway, Eilert has envisioned what could be done to improve the quality of life and then has led the way to achieve those goals.
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In sharp contrast, Kobach, in nearly two decades in public life — harkening back to his days as an Overland Park City Council member — has focused his energy on what has become an obsession with illegal immigration, searching largely in vain for so-called voter fraud (which barely exists) and impeding voting in Kansas, rather than encouraging more voter participation in his role as secretary of state.
Because Kobach’s priority has been fear-mongering, it was not entirely clear until his announcement for governor that he also stands for the same fiscal agenda as Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Kobach has now pledged to follow Brownback’s lead, seeking a reversal of recent tax increases, cutting taxes and slashing services to allow hard-working Kansans to keep more of their money.
That agenda might help Kobach win the typical low-turnout, ultra-conservative Republican primary next August. But one has to wonder: Why would he choose to embrace that failed vision in Johnson County, where voters elected enough moderate legislators to obliterate the Brownback agenda?
Johnson County, which has the largest population of any county in the state, is a community that buys into the Eilert vision of good public policy more than Brownback’s or Kobach’s. Cutting spending and skimping on services are not the strategies that have fueled progress in Johnson County. Kobach will discover that this is a community more enamored with the Renaissance and not so fond of the Dark Ages.
It’s not just Eilert who appreciates quality of life and who is willing to invest the resources needed to make Johnson County a world-class community. There are many local mayors and other government officials, as well as superintendents, who all support these priorities. Johnson County citizens are spoiled. They have come to expect a very high quality of life, even if it costs more to obtain, and they elect local officials who will make those aspirations a reality.
If Kobach hopes to win a majority of Johnson County voters in a general election, he will have to do a complete reversal. He will need to appeal to citizens who want to know what he is for, where he wants to take the state and how his vision will strengthen the community.
More of Brownback, immigration fanaticism and voter fraud do not add up to a winning message, at least not in Johnson County.