ABILENE — The last Democratic candidate for Kansas governor carried only seven of 105 counties — and that was against the unpopular Sam Brownback, then running for a second term.

That can't happen again if a Democrat has any hope of taking back the governor's office in November, said Josh Svaty, one of seven Democratic candidates vying for the office.

"We can't win unless we expand the counties we take," he said. "That's why I've visited all 105 counties. It's about going there, and it's having 20 cousins in each county."

Svaty was joking, but he and four of the other candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Kansas governor were serious about the issues raised during a candidate forum Saturday evening at the Abilene Recreation Center, 1020 N.W. Eighth. The forum also served as a fundraiser for the Dickinson County Democratic Party.

Attending were Svaty, a farmer and former state representative and secretary of agriculture; Arden Andersen, an Olathe physician; Jack Bergeson, a 16-year-old high school student who attends The Independent School in Wichita; Robert Klingenberg, a Salina salesman and route truck driver for Frito-Lay; and Jim Ward, current House Democratic leader.

Unable to attend were candidates Carl Brewer, former Wichita mayor, and Kansas Sen. Laura Kelly.

Questions posed to the candidates by those in attendance included their plan for funding Kansas schools, water conservation issues, earthquakes and the fracking problem, strategies for beating perceived Republican front-runner Kris Kobach and working with Republicans in state government, paying back the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and abortion and women's reproductive rights.

The primary election will be Aug. 7.

Funding difficult

Andersen said raising property taxes or increasing taxes on goods and services to fund education and balance the state budget would put an unneeded burden on low- and middle-income citizens, small businesses and retirees. But raising taxes may be the only viable solution not only for education funding, but in other vital areas.

"People don't want to hear about raising taxes, but it's a reality," he said.

Svaty said a large tax package was passed during the last legislative session, but he doesn't know if the "political will" is there to further increase taxes.

"We're going to lose some of the legislators who passed the higher tax package," he said. "We can pass another tax package, or we hold on to what we got and hope the economy improves in the next two years."

Bergeson believes legalizing marijuana, and then taxing it, can help finance education and prevent "burdening people or working families with more income tax," while Klingenberg believes more progressive tax structures should be a top priority.

Use efficiently

When it comes to water conservation, Ward said farmers are getting a bad rap for the water they use, but their livelihoods depend on water usage.

"They understand the conservation of water, and farmers are being more creative with water usage," he said.

Andersen said through carbon sequestration, Kansas can be carbon neutral in five years and increase the water-holding capacities in the soil.

"It's not just about saving water, it's about using water effectively," he said. "Every gallon pumped has to be effectively used. I've been an agricultural consultant all over the world, and I know how to do this."

Build coalitions

As to beating Kobach in the general election, Klingenberg said Kobach was doing a good job of beating himself. But Ward cautioned against "demonizing" a political opponent, because it could backfire.

"I don't think that's how you win elections," he said. "I think you have to have an aspirational message and have better ideas. You have to put out the message, this is the future I want to live in."

As far as working with Republicans if elected governor, all candidates agreed that they must look at what the other side needs and finds important and find common ground to work together.

"Families are important to both sides, and so are schools and education," Andersen said. "We may have different philosophies, but we have to engage in those issues important to everyone."

"Believe it or not, all Democrats don't think alike, and all Republicans don't think alike," Ward said. "We have to build coalitions, and that takes time."

Support KPERS

Svaty said it's an absolute necessity to pay back KPERS, since it has been a victim of poor management for more than seven years.

"It was almost a payday loan scenario to help pay for Brownback's experiment," he said. "We have to make sure we fulfill our obligation to KPERS; thousands of Kansans depend on it. There's a lot of things we have to balance, and it's not going to be easy."

Balance interests

As far as supporting Planned Parenthood or passing laws further restricting abortions and a woman's right to choose, Ward said it was one of the morally important issues today and a decision that shouldn't be made in Topeka.

"I will leave that in the hands of women and their families," he said.

Svaty, who has been criticized by members of his own party for his pro-life stance, said that when he was a state representative, he made a promise to his district to vote pro-life and he kept that promise. But as governor, he thinks it's important to balance the broader interests of all people of Kansas, both pro-life and pro-choice.

"I don't believe in passing legislation to restrict women's right to choose," he said. "But we've got to find a way to have a conversation between both sides that leads somewhere, so we have a better understanding of how each side feels."