HUTCHINSON — Kansas governor candidates Laura Kelly, Kris Kobach and Greg Orman battled over gun control and school shootings during a raucous debate Saturday at the Kansas State Fair.
The candidates sparred before hundreds of yelling supporters in one of the most boisterous events in Kansas politics, signaling the fall campaign season is now in full swing.
Kelly, a Democratic state senator, kicked off the fight over guns with a comment in response to a question on crime control.
She said she is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, but is now calling for a policy of “comprehensive gun sense.” That would involve rolling back a current state law that allows anyone who can own a gun to carry it concealed, without a permit, in almost all public places.
Kobach, the Republican secretary of state who is a strong supporter of gun rights and that constitutional carry law, scoffed at her answer.
“If Sen. Kelly is a supporter of the Second Amendment, I’m a supporter of higher taxes,” said Kobach, whose campaign centers on proposals to cut income, sales and property taxes.
Orman, an independent candidate, pointed out that Kelly had co-sponsored the bill that established concealed carry without permit.
He said it’s absurd that “you have to have 1,000 hours of training to wax an eyebrow” as a Kansas beautician, but no training to carry a gun.
Guns are a fraught topic in the Legislature. Attempts to impose restrictions on firearms have resulted in bitter debates among lawmakers and have not advanced.
The stance of the next governor could swing the debate either way. Kobach would almost certainly veto nearly all firearm restrictions, while Kelly and Orman would be more likely to sign legislation.
The gun debate reignited when the candidates were asked whether they would support arming veteran volunteers or teachers as a hedge against school mass shootings.
Kobach was alone among the candidates in thinking that was a good idea.
He said people with guns defend the president and other government officials while “we defend our school children with a sign that says ‘gun free zone.’”
Orman, a Johnson County businessman whose wife is a teacher, said “I don’t think we make our kids safer by arming teachers.”
Kelly said she opposed “the arming of our teachers. We need fewer guns in our schools, not more..”
She also sought to deflect Orman’s charge that she had flipped on the issue of concealed carry.
She said it’s important to have a governor “who recognizes when they’ve gone too far and is willing to change course.”
Orman fired back: “You didn’t just vote for the bill, you co-sponsored the bill. That means you thought about it.”
And he said he didn’t buy Kelly’s explanation that she changed her mind on concealed carry without a permit after talking to a university professor worried about guns on campus.
“Did you really need a professor to tell you they didn’t want a kid with a loaded gun in their classroom?” he said.
Fight over utility rates
For the most part, the candidates hammered familiar campaign themes:
▪ Kobach called for decreases in income and sales taxes, along with capping property tax increases at 2 percent a year. He said former Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature had gotten that part of things right with their 2012 tax plan that chopped rates and freed certain business owners from paying income taxes on their personal profits. But he said they hadn’t cut spending, which he would do as governor.
▪ Kelly called for more money for schools and expansion of Medicaid to cover working-poor Kansans who make too much to qualify for government-paid care, but not enough to qualify for subsidized health coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
▪ Orman touted his record as a successful business owner and operator, contending that he is the best choice to revitalize the economy in a state where wages have been stagnant for years.
But departing from their standard campaign talking points, Kobach and Orman also got into a fight over electric rates.
Kobach said electric rates are an important component of business development and that Kansas rates are higher than in neighboring states, after a series of increases in recent years.
He said Orman “served as a CEO of a subsidiary of KCP&L (Kansas City Power & Light) that was part of those rate hikes. That’s not good for business.”
Orman fired back: “You’re going back 15 years for that. The rate hikes occurred more recently.”
Later, Kobach cited a statistic that electric rates went up 89 percent between 2007 and 2016.
“I stopped working for KCPL in 2003, so. . . ,” Orman replied.
The State Fair debate is a unique experience in Kansas politics.
Most forums for state office are conducted in a TV studio without an audience or in an indoor auditorium where voters are admonished to keep quiet.
The State Fair is the opposite, held in an outdoor arena seemingly designed to provoke political combat. The audience is broken up into cheering sections where partisans (or in Orman’s case, nonpartisans) are invited and encouraged to cheer, chant, boo and jeer. Kelly seemed to have a slight edge in the noise factor.
Kobach supporter Adam Grose sat near the stage wearing a blue campaign shirt. Grose admires Kobach’s tough stance on immigration and says taxes are too high.
Kobach wants to cut taxes much like Brownback did. But he has promised to reduce spending at the same time.
“I’m not a fan of Brownback, but I think he did wrong: We could have cut spending to the agencies,” Grose said.
James Taylor, who supports Kelly, said government needs to fund basic things like schools, law enforcement and highways. Those things weren’t supported under Brownback, he said, and “I don’t think Kobach would make things any better.”
Taylor didn’t appear attracted to Orman, who he said said would have no support from either party if elected.
“So I don’t know how we could ever get anything through the Legislature,” Taylor said.
But Debbie Almond, an Orman family friend, said Orman is the best candidate for Kansas. She said Kelly tries to paint Orman as a Republican while Kobach tries to say he’s a Democrat — labels that are both wrong, she contends.
“He really is not on one side or the other,” Almond said.
Much of the debate audience was already committed to a candidate. But there were a few undecided voters.
Carl and Jean Sidebottom said they didn’t know who they will vote for. Although the couple leans Republican, Jean said parties matter less than they did in the past.
“It’s more of what the candidates represent and are able to do,” she said.
Kadin Leckliter, 18, wants to vote in November. He said he didn’t know much about any of the candidates, but wanted to come to make sure he knows what’s going on.
He said he thought the debate would be fun to watch.
Marijuana or not?
Flanking the debate stage were uninvited candidates Jeff Caldwell and Rick Kloos.
Kloos, an independent, stood silently with his mouth taped shut with duct tape in protest of the debate rules that kept him off the stage.
Caldwell, the Libertarian on the ballot, stood on the edge of the stage while the candidates took their places at the podium, but was ushered off as the radio-broadcast debate began.
“I’m on the ballot, but they excluded me from the debate because you have to have $50,000 (in campaign funds) in the bank,” he said. “We’ve raised $48,000, but we don’t have $50,000 in the bank because we’re (spending it) getting our message out.”
Caldwell held a yard sign with a marijuana leaf to highlight his signature issue, full legalization for medical or recreational use.
None of the three debaters support full legalization.
Kelly and Orman support allowing medicinal use of marijuana, which has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of seizure disorders and controlling chronic pain.
Orman said he had traveled to Colorado, where marijuana is legal, and visited with a former Kansas family who moved there with their son who was experiencing as many as 200 seizures a day. After marijuana treatment, he has been seizure free, Orman said.
He said recreational use should be “a citable offense the same way you would get a speeding ticket.”
Kelly also supported medical marijuana, but said she doesn’t think the state is ready for full legalization.
Kobach is vehemently opposed to allowing any marijuana use but said he supports industrial hemp for things like rope and textiles.
He said in California, the medical allowance became a “gateway” to recreational use, and that pharmaceutical companies have distilled the health-beneficial ingredients of marijuana into pills that don’t impair the user.