A Kansas state representative sparked outrage, made national headlines and ultimately had to give up his legislative committee leadership positions after making a racially-charged comment in January during a town hall meeting in Garden City.

During the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Coffee session on Jan. 6, Rep. Steve Alford, R-Ulysses, cited domestic Jim Crow-era drug policies when arguing against the legalization of marijuana.

When Zach Worf, president of the Finney County Democrats, argued that legalizing marijuana could benefit Kansas financially, Alford harkened back to the 1930s, saying that a reason for prohibition was to shield Americans from the consequences of drug abuse by “African Americans.”

“What was the reason why they did that? One of the reasons why, I hate to say it, was that the African Americans, they were basically users and they basically responded the worst off to those drugs just because of their character makeup, their genetics and that. …”

Coverage of Alford’s comment, and the subsequent backlash he received, is The Telegram’s No. 4 local news story of 2018.

After the town hall meeting that day, Worf said he told Alford his comment was “the most racist thing [he had] ever heard.”

State Sen. John Doll, I-Garden City, who was also in attendance at the town hall, initially said, “We believe what we want to believe. I don’t agree with the comment.”

Later, Doll said, “I wish those statements weren’t made. I wish it wasn’t what it is. But the reality is that it is what it is. There are consequences for what he said. He’s a good man.”

Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, who also attended the town hall, said Alford’s comments were regrettable, but also defended his fellow lawmaker.

“… As to the racial component, I don’t agree with it,” he said, adding, “I know Rep. Alford quite well. He’s not a racist man.”

Alford initially tried to clarify his remarks, then later issued an apology.

“I apologize, I regret my comments and I sincerely apologize to anyone whom I have hurt,” Alford said.”

Alford, in an interview with the Topeka Capital-Journal, refuted the racist label.

“He came up and told me I’m a racist,” Alford said about Worf. “I’m about as far from being a racist as I could get.”

Alford’s remarks received swift condemnation from Democrats around the state.

“I think that is outrageous,” Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, told the Capital-Journal. “For a sitting state representative to say that, I just can’t believe it. You can’t put everybody into one category. He should be more of a statesman and get facts.”

Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Kansas City Democrat and history professor, told the Capital-Journal that Alford’s comments were “bizarre,” inaccurate and racist.

Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and Democratic candidate for governor at the time, said, “It is hard to believe that in 2018, anyone would support the discredited and racist policies of the Jim Crow era. No matter one’s feelings on medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, we can all agree that views like those of Kansas Rep. Alford have no place in our Statehouse, in our state or in our country.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, condemned Alford’s remarks to the Capital-Journal and expressed dismay.

“Obviously, we were really taken aback by the comments, and in no way that represents the view of Kansans or the House and no way those comments reflect the policies that we come up with this session.”

Alford’s comments ultimately cost him chairmanships on the House Committee on Children and Seniors and the Legislature’s Child Welfare System Task Force.

“His remarks were unfortunate. We disagreed with them,” Ryckman said. “We understood the importance of the committee he was chairing. We didn’t want it to be subject to scrutiny based on remarks of the chair or have any of the product from that committee looked at in a different lens.”

Wheeler said the response in Topeka surprised him.

“I know that a lot of people are quite surprised by the comment, but also know his character and reputation, and that’s the reason I’m so surprised,” Wheeler said at the time. “It’s sad that he just wandered out of context, and I feel bad for him, but I understand that those are hurtful remarks and he understands that, as well.”

Not only did news of Alford’s comments spread quickly through media outlets in the Sunflower State, but the story also went viral and made national headlines, with media outlets such as The Washington Post, CNN and the Huffington Post picking up the story.

Alford chose not to seek re-election to his House seat in the November general election, with Republican Marty Long of Ulysses ultimately winning that seat over Jeffrey Locke of Satanta.

 

Contact Brett Riggs at briggs@gctelegram.com.