Kansas gubernatorial candidate Ed O'Malley stated his case Thursday in Garden City for why he feels he's the best candidate to help the state reach its potential.

O’Malley, R-Wichita, was continuing his first official campaign tour, building on an announcement that technically began in Kansas City on Tuesday and tentatively began with an exploratory candidacy that started in January.

O’Malley and his wife, Joanna, appeared at the Clarion Inn before area residents, commissioners and legislators as part of the last stop of a seven-part tour he’s been conducting across the state over the last two days. After the first official announcement of his candidacy in Kansas City, O’Malley went on to spread the news in Johnson County, Manhattan, Wichita, Beloit, Dodge City and now Garden City.

The former representative of Kansas’ 24th District and founder of the Kansas Leadership Center is centering his campaign on a three-point strategy of “big, bold” ideas: creating “literally the best” public education system in the world to fuel the Kansas economy, transforming state government to function more like a corporate business and better serve Kansans, and do all of those things with leadership that “brings people together.”

O’Malley held his position as representative from 2003 to 2006 and went on to found the KLC in 2007, serving as its first president and CEO. In the Legislature, O’Malley served on committees for economic development, financial institutions and insurance, taxation, and transportation.

Raised in Overland Park, O’Malley is a resident of Wichita and father of three children

O’Malley’s visit on Thursday was his first to Garden City since the announcement on YouTube of his exploratory candidacy. He had planned a town hall visit to Garden City on May 1, but that was cancelled due to a record-breaking snowstorm. He tried again on May 16, but that, too, was cancelled because tornadoes obstructed his route through Dodge City.

“I’ve been trying really hard to get to Garden City,” he said. “I just am glad there wasn’t a plague of locusts raining down from the sky on our way out today and Mother Nature let us get here.”

With about 40 listeners in attendance, O’Malley said the jam-packed governor’s race will be good for the state. He said Kansas needs a competitive, vigorous debate to strengthen the gubernatorial options through a sort of natural selection. Already there are 11 Republican gubernatorial candidates, two of which are high school students, and five Democratic candidates, one of which is a high school student.

“I love this state, and I feel like we’re nowhere near our potential,” O’Malley said. “The last several years we’ve had way too much chaos and way too much frustration, and not enough progress, not enough action.”

In response to a concern from local teacher Patricia Long regarding a perceived lack of leadership being instilled in Kansas graduates at all academic levels, O’Malley said education is about results.

He claimed that just 85 percent of Kansan high school students graduate, and “if we want to lead the world, we need that number to be 95 percent.”

He went on to say that only 40 percent of Kansans have educational credentials that go beyond high school, including technical degrees.

“If we want to lead the world,” he said, “we need that number to be at 70 percent.”

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said Kansas is in an “economic purgatory,” noting that the state paid $140 million in interest alone last year. In June, the state’s budget shortfall was estimated at almost $900 million over the next two years, which the Legislature hopes to fix through a tax hike projected to raise $1.2 billion over the same period.

For O’Malley, the fact that Brownback’s sweeping tax cuts ultimately tanked the state budget and resulted in tax hikes in the long run is indicative of a flawed approach.

O’Malley said nobody has the exact answer to Kansas’ dire financial situation, but he added that the toughest problems can be solved by combining different people of different perspectives at a round table setting to “pound out solutions.”

He used as an example his role in the 2005 formation of the only “constitutionally sound” school finance law in the last 15 years.

“The four of us in the House and the four of us in the Senate from different perspectives, different values sat down, worked our tail off every day, and by the end of that 15 days we had a solution,” O’Malley said.

As for escaping the state’s debt service rates and the habitual use of the transportation fund as an extra general fund coffer, O’Malley suggested that reversing those trends would be emblematic of success. He emphasized the need for better community leaders who could incentivize the decentralization of state government, suggesting the need for a “Kansas Service Corps,” similar to AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, to “keep kids here.”

O’Malley also touched on the need for better teacher recruitment and retention, but perhaps his most inflammatory statements, made in response to a question by Finney County Commissioner Bill Clifford, were directed at the candidacy of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Clifford wanted to know how voters could keep from diluting their votes and inadvertently advancing Kobach’s campaign.

“Kris Kobach has advanced his career by dividing,” O’Malley responded, adding that Kansans want a governor focused on “this state. Kansans want a governor who wants this job because of this job. My sense is Kris Kobach cares most about his national name ID.”

He added that Kobach “is bad for Kansas because he isn’t even focused on Kansas,” indicated, he said, by a quote on Kobach’s website suggesting a presidential run in 2020 or 2024. The quote in question, which exists, was taken from commentator Ann Coulter, who apparently said Kobach would be her choice for president if he were to run at those times.

“Somebody is going to win this thing perhaps with as little as 125,000 votes, unless a whole lot more Kansans step up and engage,” O’Malley said. “We need a lot more people to step up and vote. I’m confident if that happens that we’re going to elect a good person to be governor of Kansas. I believe it’s going to be me. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be Kris Kobach.”

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.