TOPEKA — Seven Democratic candidates for Kansas governor delivered a melodic message Saturday dedicated to merits of government investment in health care, education, transportation and social safety nets.
The resulting applause demonstrated their policy perspective, expressed in the seventh year of conservative Republican control at the Capitol, warmed hearts of about 400 Democratic Party loyalists in the Topeka crowd.
There was no Democrat-on-Democrat fingerpointing. The candidates were keen to display preoccupation, not with their own August primary, but with the November general election and prospects of fielding a candidate capable of competing with Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer or independent Greg Orman.
“We must unite and win in November,” said Laura Kelly, a Topeka state senator endorsed by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. “If we unite, we can beat Kris Kobach or Jeff Colyer or Greg Orman, and get Kansas back on track.”
Olathe physician Arden Andersen asked the crowd whether they would vote in November for a Democrat. Many clapped or cheered in the affirmative.
“That’s nice. We still lose the race,” said Anderson, who believes the Democratic nominee's appeal must be broad. “You have to bring in independents and moderate Republicans in order to win the state.”
State Rep. Jim Ward said the campaigns of Colyer and Kobach ought to make Democrats squirm. Kobach is promising full-throttled conservatism that steps beyond Brownback and Colyer.
As governor, Colyer championed a constitutional amendment limiting abortion, declined to issue an order protecting state workers from discrimination and welcomed arming of school teachers, Ward said.
“Those are the stakes of our election,” said Ward, a Wichita attorney. “Do we go backwards or do we build a better Kansas?”
Democrat Josh Svaty, an Ellsworth farmer who worked in state and federal government, said Democrats wouldn’t succeed in November if content to compete only in the most populous counties. The quest is to build a statewide party that can win in 2018 and beyond, he said.
“I don’t care who wins the Republican primary. I don’t care if Greg Orman runs or doesn’t run,” said Svaty, who campaigned in Topeka with former Gov. John Carlin. “We can demonstrate that when Democrats are energized, and when they’re excited, and when we have the messaging to show people that what’s happening at the federal level and what’s happening at the state level cannot go on, we can win no matter who else is running.”
Others at the forum were former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, Salina businessman Robert Klingenberg and Wichita high school student Jack Bergeson.
The Democrats advocated for reliable funding of highway projects as a public-safety and job-creating imperative. The Brownback-Colyer administration’s handling of welfare, foster care and Medicaid privatization undermines the safety net for children, the disabled and elderly, Democrats said.
The potential nominees shared a conviction the state must improve health care, with a majority endorsing broadening of eligibility for Medicaid health insurance to about 150,000 Kansans under the Affordable Care Act.
Candidates agreed it was essential to constitutionally finance K-12 public school districts, but also to reform education to serve needs of all children from pre-school through college.
“Education is as important as infrastructure and public safety,” said Brewer, who promised experienced leadership rather than rhetoric as governor. “Our children are our prized possession, and we treat it as if it’s not.”
Bergeson, among the half-dozen teenagers running for governor, said his goal was to appeal to the large swath of the population, including many of his generation, who routinely ignore political life.
“They were like, you know, ‘It’s just a bunch of, you know, rich, wealthy men in Topeka and Washington, D.C. They don’t care about me. They don’t know what my life is like,’” he said. “We have to show that all types of people can run for office and win.”
He said a central issue of his campaign was legalization of marijuana. If properly regulated and taxed, he said, the state would have new resources to invest in education and infrastructure.
“They’re putting people in jail for using medicine. What is up with that? It’s insane,” he said.
Klingenberg said he was running to elevate the voice of working-class Kansans. He said time had come to boost the $7.25 minimum wage to $10 an hour and to provide annual increases in the rate. He pressed for paid maternity leave and a single-payer health insurance system.
“The working class is often under-represented in state government,” he said. “Somewhere in the state of Kansas someone is working two or three jobs just to get by.”