TOPEKA — Gubernatorial candidate Josh Svaty is a political rarity in Kansas — a Democrat who gained traction with voters in the Republican-dominated region of the state.
Svaty, who owns a crop and livestock farm in Ellsworth County about 10 miles from the state's geographic pivot point, said that upbringing offered him an edge with rural constituents entering the Aug. 7 primary election. He announced his campaign for governor in May 2017 in front of a large grain elevator in Black Wolf, where he worked in his first off-farm job.
"When you grow up in that environment, and when you are a Democrat surrounded almost entirely by Republicans, you learn how to communicate in a way that brings people together, that gets things done," he said.
Svaty, interviewed for the Capitol Insider podcast of The Topeka Capital-Journal, is a 38-year-old former secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture. He was elected at age 22 to the Kansas House. His campaign slogan at that time: "Josh Svaty. Crazy Hair. Straight Talk."
After leaving state government, he worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Land Institute, a Salina nonprofit agricultural research organization.
He said working in state government from 2002 to 2011 left him with insights into the value of work conducted by public employees and the danger of disrespecting those workers in the manner done so by Republican governors. In addition to stripping public school teachers of due-process employment rights, he said, Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer enforced an executive order deleting job protections for lesbian and gay employees.
Younger generations of Kansans are concerned about politicians' hard-line opposition to equal rights and are taking their talents to other parts of the country, Svaty said.
He said the 2018 election cycle produced competitive primary campaigns for governor, a rarity for Democrats. He expressed apprehension Secretary of State Kris Kobach, among leading candidates for the GOP nomination, wasn't being taken seriously enough by Democrats.
The other Democratic candidates are Topeka Sen. Laura Kelly, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, Wichita resident Jack Bergeson and Arden Andersen of Olathe.
"Any Democrat who thinks he's (Kobach) an easy pushover in a general election is entirely mistaken," Svaty said. "He will roll over candidates that do not have that same level of charisma."
Svaty said the $525 million, five-year package for K-12 public schools was appropriate given other financial demands on state government.
The state should have expanded eligibility for Medicaid to about 150,000 Kansans to improve preventative health care delivery and strengthen rural hospitals serving those patients, he said.
The Kansas economy is best served by a state tax structure balanced with roughly equal parts drawn from property, sales and income taxes, he said. The decision by Brownback and GOP allies in the Legislature to aggressively reduce individual state income tax rates and to eliminate the state income tax on owners of businesses resulted in revenue shortfalls that damaged the state's ability to meet fundamental obligations, he said.
Svaty said his running mate, Manhattan-Ogden school board member Katrina Lewison, grew up in Hutchinson and Buhler. She graduated from West Point, became a Black Hawk helicopter pilot and served in Iraq. She works at CivicPlus, a training and consulting company in Manhattan.