Candidate’s win called ‘scary’

Last-minute BOE contender unseats incumbent without campaigning

Iris M. Van Meter, a grandmother from southeast Kansas, had no experience running for public office.

And with almost no campaigning or public comment, she defeated the incumbent State Board of Education member she challenged in the Aug. 6 primary.

Welcome to the no-candidate, no-campaign era of politics.

“It’s scary,” said Val DeFever, the incumbent ousted by Van Meter. “Someone could never leave their living room, never meet the public, and win public office.”

Van Meter, a conservative Republican, filed as a candidate for State Board of Education at the last minute to face DeFever, a moderate Republican from Independence.

Van Meter did little campaigning and declined to speak to most media.

Then a week before the election, a new political action committee called Truth in Politics was formed and disseminated political material to voters in the board’s 9th District.

The material labeled DeFever as an anti-President Bush liberal supported by an atheist organization.

DeFever said it was a low blow that was difficult to overcome so late in the campaign.

On election night, Van Meter defeated DeFever 53.5 percent to 46.4 percent out of 24,500 votes cast. With the victory, Van Meter claims the 9th District seat on the board. There is no Democratic challenger in November.

‘I was dumbstruck’

Van Meter’s victory to the 10-member board that shapes education policy in Kansas left many in the moderate wing of the GOP shaking their heads.

“I was dumbstruck,” said Caroline McKnight, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, a group that advocates for moderate Republican candidates. “Has anyone met the woman?” McKnight wondered about Van Meter. “Does anyone know what kind of qualifications she brings to the job?”

But conservative Republicans say Van Meter was a legitimate and knowledgeable candidate who defeated a board member who had become too liberal for her constituents. Protests by DeFever and other moderate Republicans are just sour grapes, they say.

“The primary was democracy in action,” said Jim Mullins of Lawrence, president of the conservative Kansas Republican Assembly. “There were a lot of people working hard to beat Val DeFever.”

The victor’s qualifications and platform: Van Meter raised six children through the public school system and worked as a substitute teacher in Thayer. Her campaign theme of reducing administrative expenses in schools and putting that money into classroom instruction appealed to everyday Kansans, her supporters say.

Family business

Van Meter’s candidacy was a product of the Kansas Republican Assembly. The recent executive director of that group, Kris Van Meteren, is Van Meter’s son. He spells his last name differently, he says, to better reflect his Dutch heritage.

Van Meteren said the assembly had searched for candidates to oppose DeFever. As the deadline to file for candidacy neared, his mother agreed to run so DeFever would not get a free ride to another four-year term.

When she agreed, there were 37 days left until the Aug. 6 primary.

During that time, Van Meter declined interviews with several reporters, didn’t appear at candidate forums and made few speeches. Contacted before the election by the Journal-World, Van Meter referred the reporter to her daughter for comment.

Her son, Van Meteren, said the low-profile candidacy was part of a strategy to lull DeFever into a sense of confidence, then try to out-hustle her in the last two weeks of the campaign.

“We knew we were going against an incumbent. We had heard back that she thought she was popular, and we wanted to take advantage of that mindset,” Van Meteren said. “It worked, and now she’s crying the blues.”

Anti-evolution genesis

The Kansas Republican Assembly and its political action committees provided funding to Van Meter’s campaign, as it did to many candidates backed by the Republican Party’s conservative wing. One of those PACs is called Free Academic Inquiry and Research Committee (FAIR), and is headed by Van Meteren. Its genesis was the fight about teaching evolution in Kansas schools.

In 1999, a conservative majority on the State Board of Education de-emphasized evolution instruction in public schools. After an ensuing national uproar, voters the next year ousted two of the anti-evolution members. And in 2001, the board put evolution back in the education standards. FAIR was formed then, to support anti-evolution conservatives.

Now, evolution may be in play again because conservatives have regained some power on the board.

Anti-DeFever literature was put out by the Truth in Politics PAC, which spent an unknown amount of money. The spending figures are not available because the PAC was formed the day after political action committees were required to report their expenses. That means a glimpse into the PAC’s finances won’t be available until the next state-required campaign finance reporting period in October.

Stretching truth

The PAC lists Jacob Swisher of Lenexa as its treasurer. Swisher has been a campaign volunteer for several conservative Republicans. He did not return several phone calls from the Journal-World seeking comment.

The purpose of the PAC, according to its statement of organization filed with the state, is “ensuring that Kansas voters are informed when they vote.”

The material it produced said DeFever was supported by American Atheists Inc.

“Why does Val DeFever have their support?” the material asks. “Because she voted to force our children to be taught a one-sided unproven theory (monkey-to-man evolution) rather than allowing them to hear both sides of that issue along with the evidence for each and to choose for themselves what is right.”

DeFever said linking her to the atheists group was a smear, plain and simple. The atheists group simply supported the board’s decision in 2001 to reinstate evolution in the school standards, she said. It did not support the incumbent.

“It was real pathetic and played on people’s fears,” DeFever said of the material.

In a brief telephone interview with Van Meter after the primary, she said she had nothing to do with the literature produced by Truth in Politics, but added, “It was truth.”

More than evolution

But Mullins, the Kansas Republican Assembly president, said Van Meter’s victory had little to do with evolution politics. DeFever was just too liberal and she got out-hustled at the grassroots level, he said.

Mullins pointed to a plan that DeFever helped craft that called on the Legislature to spend an additional $1 billion on public schools. Voters didn’t like that because it would have required a tax increase, Mullins said. So far, the Legislature has ignored the proposal.

“She got beat because of her message,” Mullins said. The mood of the electorate is to rein in taxes, he said. Evidence of that was conservative Republican Tim Shallenburger’s thumping of Bob Knight and Dave Kerr in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

Conservatives said DeFever’s positions weren’t misrepresented, and that it’s ironic DeFever is alleging underhanded tactics when she benefited from a 1998 campaign mailing by the Kansas National Education Assn. that brought up her then-opponent’s bankruptcy.

Clifdel Wehmeier, the target of that KNEA ad, said last week she was still smarting from it. The bankruptcy in question had been 10 years in the past and was the product of her trying to free herself from legal entanglements with her former husband, she said.

DeFever said she had nothing to do with the ad, and that she had tried to stop it after she found out about it.

Now, DeFever is considering a rematch with Van Meter as a write-in candidate in the November election.

“You never quit,” DeFever said. “Because if you do, then they really do win the war.”

Van Meter said DeFever was welcome to try a write-in campaign, but she added, “I won.”