The headline of a recent editorial in The Star asked a fair question: “Why won’t Gov. Jeff Colyer commit to protecting LGBT workers from discrimination?”
The answer seems very clear, but it may not be popular with some. If the governor made such a commitment today — to issue an executive order to protect LGBT state workers from discrimination — he might as well withdraw from the Republican primary race for Kansas governor. That’s because with a promise like that, he would virtually be handing over the nomination to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whose overall appeal to conservatives makes him the frontrunner. Kobach has stated unequivocally he will do nothing to protect the rights of LGBT workers and said it is up to the Legislature to pass laws if needed.
Kobach’s answer is wildly popular with the Republican right, but also with those not so far right.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal law does prohibit discrimination against same-sex partners and does not allow for sexual harassment, the current administration’s Justice Department says federal civil rights law doesn’t apply to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That void becomes a state issue.
Kansas has no such protections now but did for a while with the 2007 executive order issued by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius that prohibited discrimination and harassment of state workers on the basis of sexual origin and gender identity.
This became a hot-button issue when former Gov. Sam Brownback, for no good reason other than spite and pandering, issued his executive order in 2015 repealing Sebelius’. It is now OK to discriminate against LGBT state workers in Kansas.
Colyer understandably has gone out of his way to duck this very thorny issue. He has adhered to this bit of wisdom: Don’t unnecessarily alienate any Republicans, especially conservatives, if you want to win the primary. Instead, he has repeatedly said his administration will not tolerate discrimination or sexual harassment of any kind. That’s very vague, but it’s as far as he can go and still have any hopes of winning.
There is every indication Republicans intend to use the LGBT wedge issue actively in their November general election campaign against whomever the Democrats nominate for governor, as well as the independent candidate. It is commonly believed, and polling bears this out, that LGBT special treatment is controversial — not only among conservative Republicans, but also among a sizable number of other voters. It is an issue that many Republicans hope is so emotional, it will overshadow the crisis of the state’s botched budget, which was created by conservative Republicans over most of the past six years.
So, the question ought to be why would anyone in favor of more LGBT rights want to box Colyer in right now, when he is fighting for his life to win the Republican primary?
Conservative Republicans will almost certainly determine, by their numbers, their passion and their turnout, who their nominee will be. A promise by any Republican candidate to issue an executive order to protect LGBT workers would be the kiss of death in the primary.
There is no guarantee Colyer will reinstate the kind of executive order Sebelius issued if he prevails and remains governor. But there is a 100 percent guarantee that Kobach would never do such a thing. In fact, Kobach would clear the way for even more discrimination, if there is a way to do that.
Those who actively promote the rights of LGBT Kansans should give Colyer a pass on this issue for now. They can pound on him later if he wins the primary, either during the general election campaign or later when Colyer is governor if he happens to win. Hopefully, he’ll relent and agree to issue a new anti-discriminatory executive order.
The Kansas Republican Party, at its recent state convention, adopted a resolution to “oppose all efforts to validate transgender identification.” You can’t expect Colyer to buck his own party’s official position in the midst of its primary, unless you like the sound of “Kansas Gov. Kris Kobach.”