Even though Eber Phelps received the questions in advance for a scheduled public forum/debate on Tuesday, he says he won’t need to rehearse his answers.
Phelps is the Democrat incumbent for the 111th District. A Hays resident, he served eight consecutive terms in the office until 2013, and then was re-elected again in 2016. Running against him on the November ballot is Republican Barb Wasinger, Hays, who serves now on the Ellis County Commission.
“I’m not going to have a prepared statement,” Phelps said, “I’ve been doing this a long time.” As the ranking Democrat, during the 2017 and 2018 session Phelps served on the Appropriations and Local Government committees, and on the Health Care Stabilization Fund Oversight Committee.
The debate/forum will be in the Black and Gold Room of the Memorial Union on the campus of Fort Hays State University. Admission is free, and no RSVP or tickets are required.
At 6 p.m., candidates for the Ellis County Commission will answer questions. So far, Butch Schlyer and Chris Rorabaugh have confirmed they will attend.
At 7 p.m., Phelps and Wasinger will answer questions.
Moderators will be Jay Steinmetz, an FHSU assistant professor teaching American politics and political theory, and Wendy Rohleder-Sook, an FHSU assistant professor over the prelaw/legal studies program.
The moderators will ask each candidate five questions, giving each one two minutes per question to respond. They’ll have a second chance with a one-minute rebuttal if their opponent mentions them by name in their answer, said Connor Mountford, legislative affairs director for the FHSU Student Government Association.
The audience will also have a chance to ask questions the night of the debate/forum, Mountford said. The event will be live-streamed on Tiger Media Network and on Facebook, he said.
“We’re hoping it will be a big crowd,” Mountford said. “The Black and Gold ballroom holds 180 people. And we’re hoping to have a big crowd on Tiger Media and Facebook.”
The event is a joint program of the FHSU Student Government Association, Hays Area Chamber of Commerce, American Democracy Project, Department of Political Science, Docking Institute of Public Affairs, Tiger Media Network and Midwest Energy.
The purpose is to give students and the public a tool to better understand the issues and the candidates, said Larry Gould, FHSU professor of political science, and founder and former director of the FHSU Docking Institute, where he is a Senior Policy Fellow.
“We’re helping put it together again with the idea of enhancing civic literacy and enhancing democratic engagement,” Gould said.
The questions were decided by representatives from the collaborating organizations, Gould said. Candidates will be asked about economic development, Medicaid expansion and work requirements, balancing the Ellis County budget with tax increases or budget cuts, the ideal size of the Ellis County Commission, why they want to be elected, and the most pressing issue facing Ellis County and Kansas.
Traditionally, the mid-term elections don’t draw a lot of voters, Gould said.
“We haven’t had high voter turnout in mid-term elections in Kansas,” he said, which is typical for other states as well. About 25 percent to 30 percent of registered voters show up on election day. And the traditional voter is 55 and older.
“The older population has been turned off to a great deal by the current political culture,” he said, citing partisan, divisive politics.
It’s one thing to get folks registered, but getting them to vote is another, he said.
Some people might be motivated to vote out of either anger or satisfaction, in relation to the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Ellis County has more Republicans than Democrats, he noted. But special interest groups are also typically at work, like the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the wealthy Koch brothers.
Gould said some special interest groups may copy the tactics and bad habits of fake news and outrageous accusations that the U.S. intelligence community concluded were used by the Russian government in 2016 to interfere in U.S. elections.
TV ads and mailed marketing materials Also at work is money from inside the state and outside the state, which increased when the U.S. Supreme Court gave the OK for unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions.
“Ever since the Citizens United decision in 2011, the money has exploded,” Gould said.
Refreshments of coffee, cookies and water will be served free at the debate/forum, Mountford said.