Six teenagers’ entrance into the race for Kansas governor has spurred action from lawmakers who would like to see only adults run for executive office.
Current Kansas law doesn't impose a minimum age requirement on candidates for statewide office. This past summer, Jack Bergeson, 16, of Wichita, discovered the lack of an age requirement. He decided to run for office — and he set a trend.
Six teens are seeking the state’s top office, and another — Lucy Steyer, of Lenexa — is running for secretary of state.
Consternation about the number of teens in already crowded 2018 races inspired a bill discussed Wednesday by the House Elections Committee that would set a minimum age of 18 for candidates running for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer and state commissioner of insurance. Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor would also have to live in Kansas for four years before seeking office, but the bill wouldn't take effect until after this fall’s election.
The committee could vote Monday.
Rep. Blake Carpenter, a Derby Republican, said he introduced the bill following discussions with Ethan Randleas, an 18-year-old candidate from Wichita.
“I wanted to get him involved in the process, so when I got him involved in the process, I wanted him to help me draft a bill,” Carpenter said.
Proponents of the bill argued that most states require candidates to be older and that the U.S. Constitution sets minimum ages to run for Congress or the presidency. Rep. Keith Esau, an Olathe Republican running for secretary of state, said he thought the proposal was appropriate.
"We have age requirements on voters, and I really think that anybody who's running should be able to vote for themselves," Esau said.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office supported the bill, but his director of elections, Bryan Caskey, said it was “imperative” the bill take effect after the November election. Kobach is also running for governor.
“The secretary of state does not want there to be any appearance of a conflict of interest concerning persons who are currently candidates and do not meet these proposed requirements,” Caskey said.
Opponents argued the age requirement wouldn't be necessary. Bergeson, who attends The Independent School in Wichita, submitted written testimony against the bill. He said he cares about Kansas’ future and wants to see qualified people elected.
“That’s why I am here today in spirit to testify against this bill being brought forth in the Kansas House,” Bergeson wrote. “Allow me to clear up a misconception, I am not running for governor as a stunt, or a gag.”
Bergeson set out a list of mostly progressive agenda items when he began his campaign.
“I am running for governor because of the minimum wage worker that has to work three jobs just to get by,” Bergeson said. “I am running because our education system has been lagging behind other states. I am running to get money out of politics, but most importantly, I am running to get as many people involved in politics as possible.”
Bergeson said it is “imperative” to tear down barriers to political participation.
“I know the chances are slim that I end up winning the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor this August, but since I started running, I have encouraged other people my age in this state as well as in the state of Vermont to run their own campaigns for governor and other statewide offices to share their policy viewpoints,” Bergeson said.
Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, argued voters likely wouldn’t select a teen candidate and questioned Carpenter in the committee hearing about the need for the bill.
"Rep. Carpenter, what scares you about the voters of Kansas?" Miller said.
Carpenter said nothing about the voters scared him.
"Then why are you fearful they'll elect someone that's not qualified unless we put legal restrictions on it?" Miller said.
Carpenter said he thought the proposal was appropriate because the Constitution imposes age requirements.
In an interview, Miller said he especially took issue with the four-year residency requirement.
"I'm not afraid of the voters," he said. "The voters will decide who is qualified to serve, and I don't have a problem with that. And if they don't want someone who hasn't lived here for four years, that's real easy to do. You check the other guy."