TOPEKA — Josh Svaty and Kansas Sen. Laura Kelly intensified barbs Thursday over their commitment to gun control and abortion rights, returning to familiar battlegrounds in a debate among Democrats seeking the party's nomination for governor.
Svaty implored voters in the Aug. 7 primary to pay greater attention to his actions since leaving the Legislature, where he joined an anti-abortion bloc in passing restrictions. Kelly said Svaty's pledge to veto any new restrictions is a hollow promise.
"We need to have someone who is no-nonsense, not wishy-washy, on women’s rights," Kelly said.
She said it would be like her promising not to make the state's foster care system any worse. But Svaty said it would actually be like Kelly saying she would stand up to Secretary of State Kris Kobach, even though she voted in favor of his proof of citizenship requirements for new voters.
Svaty and Kelly, who said Kobach exceeded his authority in removing voters from rolls, are searching for an edge in a field that includes former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, teenager Jack Bergeson and physician Arden Andersen.
All of the candidates took aim at Kobach, without naming him, for parading in a jeep with a replica rifle. A leading contender for the Republican nomination for governor, Kobach has been unapologetic in what he says is a display of patriotism.
Andersen said that speaking as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, "I can tell you only a fake wannabe soldier would play games with such devices."
Kelly said she realizes the state went too far in loosening gun restrictions, making it legal to carry weapons on university campuses and in mental health facilities. The discussion allowed Svaty to make Kelly a target for her role in helping "erase sensible gun laws."
"You were part and parcel in making that happen," Svaty said.
He also touted his appeal to western Kansas voters.
"The big problem Democrats have had is who can actually win a general election in November," Svaty said. "And that matters. And we were already making jokes about the .55-caliber in the back of the jeep, so we know how much it matters this year. It’s not funny.”
Kelly touted her experience opposing former Gov. Sam Brownback. As all of the candidates at the forum voiced support for expanding Medicaid, she led the charge in blasting Brownback and Gov. Jeff Colyer for their refusal to tap into federal money that would provide health care coverage to about 150,000 more low-income and disabled individuals.
"Not expanding Medicaid when we had a chance was the dumbest thing we’ve done in the state of Kansas ever," Kelly said.
The Democrats also locked step in support of labor rights, lamenting the loss of due process and civil service protections.
Brewer touted his experience in "corporate America," working to block efforts to bust unions and deprive workers of representation.
"What that says is each and every (employee) is expendable," he said, available to be used up and discarded.
Andersen said workplace safety needs more attention, particularly in terms of sexual harassment, and complained about employees who are forced to work overtime.
But it was the high schooler who received the biggest applause on the issue.
"No one should work 40 hours a week and be in poverty," Bergeson said. "That is a crime."