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Wednesday, Jun. 04, 2014

Candidacies for Kansas Legislature may hinge on education, religious issues

Eagle Topeka bureau

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The August primary election will revive debate over job protection for teachers and religious freedom as well as focus on how lawmakers should serve their constituents.

The deadline to file as a candidate was noon Monday. Several south-central Kansas lawmakers will face primary challengers who say they are frustrated with Topeka.

“My wife tells me to stop yelling at the TV is really what it came down to,” said John Whitmer, a Republican candidate in House District 93 who is running against Rep. Joe Edwards, R-Haysville.

“You know, I watch ‘This Week in Kansas,’ and I yell. And she finally just said, ‘Shut up and do something about it,’ ” Whitmer said.

Andrew Lawson, the managing editor of the Arkansas City Traveler, said he has been frustrated for several years by decisions made in Topeka. He called a vote to strip public school teachers of state-mandated hearings before termination the last straw.

“I don’t agree with what they did or how they did it,” he said a few hours after filing. “I felt like I couldn’t sit on the sidelines.” His mother and sister are both teachers.

He will run against Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, in the Republican primary in District 80.

Eric Henderson, a Park City resident, said he decided to run against Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, in District 91 based less on disagreement about a specific policy and more on frustration with what he considers a communication gap.

“I don’t feel like I actually have representation in my district,” Henderson said. “I’ve had other state reps and other senators call me back, but my state rep’s never called me back in four years. Never responded to any of my e-mails, none of the certified letters even that I sent in.

“The governor responded. The lieutenant governor responded. The attorney general responded …but my state rep never did,” said Henderson, who worked for a decade as a real estate broker before returning to Wichita State University this year to finish his bachelor’s degree.

Suellentrop, who was made chairman of the Appropriations Committee late in the session and shepherded the education and budget bills, said that while he is focused on lawmaking, it is not always possible to answer every inquiry from constituents.

“I got 800 e-mails on the education bill. So just to give you an idea, the multitude of inquiries, information, requests for reply is overwhelming. And if he was effective, he would find the same thing. So it’s not impossible to attempt to answer everybody’s inquiry, but it’s nearly so,” Suellentrop said. “If he felt left out, then sorry to hear that.”

Suellentrop said voters should judge him by his voting record and the bills he helped push through. But he said he welcomes the primary challenge.

“Discussions and debates on issues is good. Competition is good. I thrive in a competitive environment every day in the free market,” said Suellentrop, who owns a variety of businesses.

On local level now

Kelley, who chairs the House Education Committee, said the controversy over eliminating state-mandated hearings for teachers is over.

“Tenure in the state of Kansas, due process in the state of Kansas, is now a local-level decision,” Kelley said.

She said some school boards will choose to keep the hearings, while others might lose them. “But whatever they adopt is now between the school board and the local voters. And, frankly, I struggle to see where that’s bad policy.”

Kelley said she would be excited to have the primary focus on education policy. She will tout another piece in the education bill that created a tax credit for corporations that donate to private school scholarship funds to benefit low-income and special-needs students. She also plans to call for additional education reform measures.

Lawson said he would need to discuss with his publisher whether his decision to enter politics would necessitate a leave of absence from the newspaper while he runs for office.

Leadership cited

Whitmer, who works for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, accused Edwards of a failure of leadership.

“I think I can do a better job. I think he’s made some questionable decisions in judgment, both on the job and off,” Whitmer said in a phone call, referring to questions surrounding an incident involving Edwards at the Ramada Hotel in Topeka in 2013.

Edwards said he was assaulted and robbed when he entered his hotel room, but security cameras did not show an attack.

“He thinks I’m an easy mark,” Edwards said in a phone call in which he brought up the incident first. “I got robbed last year up at the Capitol. And there were a lot of stories to come out. Nothing proved. And of course nothing can be proved, and he thinks I’m easy mark because of that.”

Whitmer said he wanted to focus on Edwards’ record as a legislator. He criticized Edwards for voting against an amendment to provide funding to keep the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch.

“I’m a fiscal conservative. … I’m a common-sense kind of guy. But I got to think if we fund that and we help turn those kids around at that age, we’re not going to incarcerate them for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Edwards said he stood by his vote and the speech he delivered in opposition to the amendment.

“It was the wrong way to fund JRBR. They were trying to take the money out of Corrections’ general budget, which, after talking to (Secretary) Ray Roberts, there would have been anywhere from 20 to 30 employees that would have to be terminated if that amendment passed,” he said.

Sedgwick County has since decided to close the ranch, which Edwards blames on the County Commission.

Whitmer said that the Legislature had skewed priorities at times during 2014. He questioned why there was not more work on water sustainability, while other bills, including a religious freedom bill, moved forward instead.

Edwards, a pastor, said he still stands strongly behind House Bill 2453, which would have allowed businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples based on religious views if federal courts overturn the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The bill would have been extended to private and public sector employees.

Edwards has filed a challenge to Whitmer’s candidacy, saying Whitmer does not live in the district. “I don’t have a problem with someone running against me if they want to do it legitimately,” he said.

“He cannot live in a house that is not finished,” Edwards said, saying that his opponent cannot legally reside in the home he put on his filing forms.

Whitmer disputes Edwards’ assertions. The house is still being worked on, but Whitmer says he is living there.

“Yes, we’re building a house. We’ve been building a house for over a year. He’s known about it. Sure, he’s driven by the house three times now. He came by Friday and spoke to one of the contractors, and the guy told him that I live there. He came by Saturday as me and six volunteers were leaving to go to an event. He came by Sunday as we were having a barbecue,” Whitmer said. “I guess he thinks that I don’t have a right to live there because I don’t have a lawn yet. It’s silly.”

The state objections board will review the challenge soon.

‘Leftist image’

The controversy over HB2453 also could be at the center of the House race in District 102 in Hutchinson.

Rep. Jan Pauls was one of the Democrats to vote for the bill and faced two primary challengers.

Last week, Pauls announced she was switching parties to run as a Republican.

“By giving priority to those who advocate for abortion, the homosexual agenda, and even gun control, the Democrats have lost much public support and lost elected representatives because of their ever more leftist image,” Pauls said in a statement.

She will run unopposed in the Republican primary but will face one of two Democrats in the general election: Brian Davis, owner of Cow Creek Investments, or Chris Givan, a recent graduate of Westminster College.

Both support equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trangender community. But the candidates plan to focus on other issues in the primary. Davis said he would push for tax fairness. Givan said he would like to be a moderate voice.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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