HAYS — "This is the place to be on a Saturday morning," Joshua Svaty said, looking over the Downtown Pavilion from his aunt and uncle's produce stand.
As customers mingled in the Downtown Market at mid-morning, a few stopped by Svaty's Produce to check out what was left of the tomatoes (not much) while Svaty tried to sell them on an Armenian cucumber.
A fifth-generation Ellsworth County farmer, Svaty was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 22, serving three terms from 2003 to 2009. During his third term, he was appointed secretary of the Department of Agriculture by Gov. Mark Parkinson and served in that role until 2011. He then became vice president of The Land Institute, a nonprofit ag research center near Salina.
At Saturday's market, several people stopped by to visit with the hopeful for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, including Ellis County Commission Chairman Dean Haselhorst and the son of a former area state representative. At least one woman asked him about his stance on abortion and his voting record.
In between, Svaty discussed that and other issues with The Hays Daily News. His answers appear here edited for clarity.
What can the state do to help local markets like this one grow?
When I was at the Department of Agriculture, we tried hard to do several things. One thing, I'm not sure if they have it here in Hays, but others do it, are to make your farmers markets WIC or food stamp eligible so people can come here and take advantage of the locally raised produce.
The other thing that we did was try to get more farmers markets with card swipes and things like this so people can use their credit cards. We're just generally shifting to a world where more people are just using plastic
It's one more step that makes it more accessible.
President Donald Trump has imposed tariffs on Chinese goods, and China responded with tariffs on U.S. goods including soybeans, a major crop in Kansas. What could you, as governor, do to help alleviate the trade war for Kansas farmers?
We cannot ever let down our guard in defending what free trade does for the commodities that we produce in Kansas. Some people say, "Maybe it's time we push a little harder on these trade deals," but in general commodities that we produce here are low-priced, high-volume commodities that have benefitted from those free-trade deals. We are competing globally and they will just go find those crops somewhere else.
What avenues should the state take? Could the governor step forward and help find new markets for Kansas farmers?
They can do some of that, but really, this a self-inflicted wound at the federal level. It requires all of the Midwestern governors basically banging on the door of the White House saying, "What are you doing? What are you doing?" And I think they're starting to realize it's going to affect the vote in traditionally Republican areas because this is such a huge bottom line.
Let's talk about current events. The University of Kansas this week flew a U.S. flag from an art exhibit that some believe was a desecration of the flag. Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach were vocal about their opinion the flag should just not be flown, but removed from the exhibit. What is your take on it?
I'm pretty vocal about my opinion on the First Amendment, particularly surrounding art. I can't quite figure out why ... I think most of that was electioneering during a campaign cycle.
In your opinion, should have the flag have been taken down?
In my opinion, the governor should not be inserting himself or herself into a First Amendment art situation on a college campus. That's a call for the chancellor. In the meantime, we get rid of our arts commission. We continue to make moves like this where the state inserts itself .... You're sending a message to people around the country that the state is not open to the arts, and businesses and families that are looking to make investments weigh that when it comes time to make those considerations.
KWCH-TV in Wichita televised gubernatorial debates for each party this week. How are you feeling you did?
Good. Debate forums tend to be a strong area for me. I also like it because I think a lot of people are paying attention to the race, which is good. The more people watching this, the better we are. We feel like we have the most compelling ticket and the most compelling message. For a long time people just haven't been that engaged.
Does the fact there are so many Democratic candidates and are actually having a primary effect that?
I think more than anything, Democrats have been used to not having a primary, so they're not used to watching. Republicans are conditioned to pay attention to politics in July. Democrats aren't because we usually don't have primaries, and that makes a difference.
The abortion issue has been something that has dogged you a little bit. As a representative you made 11 votes on bills restricting choice.
As I've told people, I'd veto any new restrictions. People raise that its 11 votes, but just so we understand the process, most of those are procedural votes. Any time a bill goes through the process, it's voted on in the House and Senate multiple times. We're really talking about two pieces of legislation.
I'm not denying I voted for it, but people are like "you voted 11 times." It's two bills. It just ends up being 11 times. If you were to look at Sen. (Laura) Kelly's gun votes, if we racked them all up, she's probably made 30 recorded votes on guns, and it's maybe eight or nine bills. You can quote me on that but those numbers are estimations. (Editor's note: VoteSmart.org indicates Kelly voted nine times on six gun-related bills from 2006 to 2018). But that's just because the procedural ... you pass it once in the House, it goes to the Senate and it changes, so it comes back to pass again and so you vote on it again ...
Those two pieces of legislation, one was a clinic licensure bill and the other was what they called the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and that's like if a woman is eight months pregnant and she's killed by a drunk driver, can you charge that drunk driver with a double homicide? I think when most people find out what I was voting for, (they think) he's being unfairly maligned here.
The abortion issue might be getting more attention because President Donald Trump's appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court could result in Roe v Wade being overturned, turning that issue back to the states. But you would not be in favor of more restrictions on abortion in Kansas if that happened?
Even in the U.S. Supremes shifted it and kicked it back to the states, I'd still be against additional restrictions. I think everybody in the state recognizes that we can't go back to back-alley abortions.
Anything else you'd like to discuss?
I think the trade issue, in particular, continues to be a message that has to be carried hard in western Kansas. If the agriculture economy wasn't hurting bad enough already, this is a kick. It's a kick at a hard time. It's tough. My principal crop now is sorghum and beef. And both of those are hurting hard.