TOPEKA — Months of feuding in the Kansas Democratic Party burst into view with a rare effort to oust a top party official accused of a conflict of interest and evolved into a caustic war of words among the party’s most influential politicians and special-interest groups.
Mayhem at upper levels of Kansas’ minority political party is expected to come to a head in Wichita on Sept. 30 at Demofest, the party’s annual meeting. It typically features an out-of-state guest speaker, Kansas candidates putting their best foot forward and socializing among party leadership before diving into the nitty-gritty of upcoming elections.
This year will be different.
A faction within the state party mounted a petition drive to compel a state committee vote on whether to dismiss Casey Yingling as treasurer of the organization. She was elected to the role in February and has been accused of engaging in a conflict of interest in March for advocating the donation of $20,000 in party funds to one of her consulting clients — Wichita congressional candidate James Thompson.
Sage TeBeest, chairwoman of the First District wing of the party, lit the fuse Aug. 15 with a petition needing signatures from 35 percent of party’s state committee to call a vote on Yingling at Demofest.
TeBeest, of Wamego, said she was alarmed Yingling didn’t step aside from debate about Thompson’s funding request. Yingling is a principal in the firm Ad Astra Group. Federal Election Commission data shows Thompson’s campaign paid Ad Astra Group approximately $200,000 this year, a period that includes Thompson’s special-election campaign in the Fourth District.
“I believe she has shown a pattern of conduct unbecoming an officer,” TeBeest said. “Kansas Democrats deserve more.”
She said the struggle was a defining moment for the state party because it would set a leadership tone for the future.
In a separate interview, Yingling said allegations embodied by the petition were politically motivated and without merit. She said the circus vibe of the ouster bid was rife with “distracting and destructive dialogue.”
“When this recall effort is defeated, it should be a sign to KDP leadership that Kansas Democrats are sick of personal agendas getting in the way of our Democratic candidates winning elections,” said Yingling, of Wichita. “I view leadership as balancing different viewpoints and finding common solutions to our issues, even if you don’t like someone personally.”
The impending showdown led to distribution of three letters to select Democrats. Those documents, obtained by the Topeka Capital-Journal, demonstrated for the first time full depth of the internal conflict.
The first letter came from Working Kansas Alliance, a coalition of the state’s largest labor unions. It was addressed to Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, House Minority Leader Jim Ward and KDP chairman John Gibson. The letter didn’t take a position on Yingling’s recall, but it claimed individuals opposed to the ouster made telephone calls and sent text messages “threatening members of organized labor with their jobs, safety and livelihood if they sign the petition to remove the secretary.”
“We emphatically reject this type of behavior and completely denounce the conduct of these individuals,” the alliance’s letter said.
Ty Dragoo, a veteran labor organizer and Working Kansas Alliance ally, said he received one such call from Levi Henry, who is a consulting partner with Yingling and one of her staunch defenders. Dragoo said Henry aggressively demanded he not sign the recall petition.
“He got really upset with me,” said Dragoo, who later decided to sign the petition. “He did intimidate me. He did threaten me.”
In response to Working Kansas Alliance, Hensley and Ward said their support of unions wouldn’t waiver and behind-the-scenes intimidation tactics were undemocratic. The legislators described the conflict as a distraction from issues that mattered to Democrats and working people.
Gibson, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, placed his name atop a lengthy letter, which also was signed by party vice chair Vicki Hiatt and party treasurer Bill Hutton. It called for Yingling’s removal and used bold type to amplify the reasoning. The three also asked recipients to keep the two-page summary of the conflict out of journalists’ hands.
It was spiced with allegations Yingling on multiple occasions tried to enrich herself by influencing allocation of party money, made disparaged remarks about the state party on social media and recruited candidates to challenge incumbent Democrats.
The party’s relationship with Yingling is irreparably broken, Gibson’s letter said, and members of the state committee received threats from an individual closely associated with Yingling. That person was identified by several people as Henry, Yingling’s partner at Ad Astra Group.
“These threats have not been limited to mere political retribution. Multiple Democrats have come to me with concerns of physical violence,” Gibson’s letter said.
Yingling said there was no evidence she violated party bylaws or engaged in conflicts of interest. Her consulting firm hasn’t solicited or agreed to represent new partisan clients since she was elected secretary of the party in Kansas.
She confirmed leveling criticism at the party on social media, but not since asked to stop by the party’s chairman. She also affirmed using “salty” language in a text message with a Democratic Party operative who she believed was harassing her late at night.
“I have endured threats and harassment on a daily basis and have been afforded no support by the Kansas Democratic Party,” Yingling said. “The message from my supporters has been that this petition is detrimental to the party.”
Lee Cross, an elected trustee of Johnson County Community College, said he would vote to retain Yingling in her position as party secretary. He referred to her as a brilliant strategist and sought out her services in his JCCC campaign. Part of the Democratic Party’s drama surrounds turf battles among political consultants, he said.
“I’ve never seen this level of animosity, anger and venom,” Cross said.
Henry, the main defender of Yingling, said the state party hadn’t made clear whether the petition signatures would be officially validated through a process allowing for challenges. Nor has the party affirmed whether the vote requires a two-thirds of state committee members present at Demofest or a two-thirds majority of all 250 state committee members, he said.
Henry rejected claims he tried to intimidate people eligible to sign the recall petition. He’s convinced Yingling was the target of character attacks because she was a woman speaking her mind.
“This is not about establishment versus progressives, young versus old, or male versus female,” said TeBeest, who started the petition drive. “This is about right versus wrong.”