TOPEKA — The nonpartisan Kansas gubernatorial candidate forum Friday offered evidence of youthful exuberance, frustration among the disaffected, seasoned perspectives of political veterans and the glaring absence of the GOP’s heavyweight candidates.
Thirteen candidates — a group that included high school students, a truck driver, Statehouse politicians, a farmer and one doctor — took part in the question-and-answer format sponsored by the Kansas Press Association.Tyler Ruzich, a teenage Prairie Villiage Republican, said the next governor must draw Kansas youth into the state’s political conversation, convince people compromise isn't a dirty word and wipe away the stain former Gov. Sam Brownback and Gov. Jeff Colyer left on public education.
“Of course, there’s an obvious difference between me and some of these candidates — whether that be height or age,” said Ruzich, a short guy who bags groceries at Hy-Vee. “I may be 17 years old, but that still doesn’t mean I’m out of touch with the rest of the state.”
Former state Sen. Jim Barnett, who won the GOP nomination for governor in 2006 and lost to incumbent Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, complained about the Kansas Republican Party’s hardball tactic to protect certain candidates in 2018.
Barnett declined to sign an agreement to stiff-arm all but Kansas GOP-sanctioned debates. That deal was signed by Gov. Jeff Colyer, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and Wichita businessmen Wink Hartman and Mark Hutton.
The forum sponsored by the Kansas Press Association wasn’t endorsed by the state Republican Party, which limited attendance by Republicans.
“This may be one of my few debates I will be able to attend,” Barnett said. “It means so much to have this opportunity, to have you look me in the eye. I was asked to sign an agreement that would prohibit that. It’s a rigged system.”
He said the debate Feb. 17 debate in Wichita sponsored by the state Republican Party was “rigged to protect just a few.”
“That’s not what our democracy should be about,” Barnett said.
Salina salesman and Frito-Lay truck driver Robert Klingenberg, a political novice seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, said one of his top priorities would be to raise the state’s minimum wage.
He said Kansans thrust into the position of choosing between putting food on the table and paying a basic bill deserved better.
“I’m here because I want to give a voice to all the working-class families that don’t feel like they have one. I’m here because somewhere in Kansas there are people working two, three, maybe, four jobs and barely making ends meet,” Klingenberg said.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said the state needed a governor who put Kansas families first in terms of educational, economic and quality of life opportunities.
“The Brownback-Colyer administration for seven years put their own political ideology ahead of those things that were good for Kansas families. We need that to change," she said.
Independent candidate Greg Orman didn’t attend the forum, but the nonpartisan portion of the electorate was represented by Richard Kloos, of Berryton.
Democratic candidate Josh Svaty, a former state legislator and state agriculture secretary, said the state must turn the page on the Brownback era. Svaty, with a farm background and pro-life voting record, said candidates at the forum must ask themselves a fundamental question: Can you win in 2018? Svaty’s answer: Yes.
“To represent and govern the state in the future, we have to have someone who represents the future but also does it in a way that connects all the different corners of the state of Kansas. I feel I can do that better than any other candidate,” he said.