Archive for Sunday, June 1, 2003

Wichita senator not afraid of controversy

June 1, 2003


— As lawmakers gathered for the ceremonial end of the 2003 legislative session, state Sen. Ed Pugh, R-Wamego, made a beeline toward his colleague Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

"Congratulations on your victory," Pugh said to Wagle. "You won. People in my district are asking 'Who is that nice lady?'"

Days earlier, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had signed into law a Wagle-drafted budget proviso directing the state's public universities to draft policies on the use of explicit sexual materials and teaching of pedophilia.

The "victory" was one result of a campaign by Wagle from the Senate floor -- and that jumped to a national stage -- based on her allegations that KU professor Dennis Dailey showed to his human sexuality class pornographic videos, made inappropriate comments, harassed female students and even condoned pedophilia.

Dailey repeatedly denied the allegations, and an internal probe by KU concluded Wagle's charges were baseless.

But that didn't stop Wagle. News of the controversy made headlines, and Wagle became a star of conservative talk shows and a target of criticism from many fronts.

She is used to the attention.

A key conservative

The 49-year-old lawmaker was elected to the House in 1990 as part of the conservative Republican takeover of the state GOP. She quickly became a key lieutenant to former House Speaker Tim Shallenburger and rose to become the first female speaker pro tem in Kansas history.

Wagle, an energetic mother of four, didn't even let cancer slow her down. In 1996, she said she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Shortly afterward, she said it was in remission and credited that to a change in diet and the power of prayer. Her 12-year-old son has leukemia.

When Shallenburger left the Legislature to run for treasurer, Wagle in 1998 sought to become the first female House speaker.

She lost to western Kansan Robin Jennison, and said her stand for tougher restrictions on corporate hog farms cost her the support of several rural Republicans.

But Wagle didn't retire quietly to a back seat.

A year later, she led an investigation into Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall's awarding what turned out to be a $27 million prize to her former law firm to handle Kansas' portion of the national tobacco litigation.

The probe sliced open wounds within the Republican Party with moderates such as Gov. Bill Graves calling on Wagle to stop bothering the moderate Stovall. But Wagle didn't -- and while nothing was done about the legal fees, Stovall was politically damaged.

The tables were turned on Wagle briefly when moderate Republicans accused her of trying to shepherd bingo legislation to the benefit of her own involvement in the game, a charge she denied.

Senate opening

In 2000, Wagle ran for the Senate seat left vacant by the retiring Barbara Lawrence. Moderate Republicans put up a primary opponent but Wagle cruised to victory, then defeated popular Democrat Henry Helgerson, a longtime state representative, to take a seat in the Senate.

Wagle was appointed to chair the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee and last year helped push through legislation that set up a process for qualified naturopaths to be state-registered. Efforts to provide some kind of state licensure or recognition of naturopaths, who practice alternative treatments, had been long opposed by medical doctors.

Mehdi Khosh, a naturopathic physician who practices in Lawrence with his brother Farhang, lobbied for the bill and said he was impressed with Wagle.

"She is very genuine. I think she really wants to do what she thinks is right," Khosh said.

He said he had been following the current controversy between Wagle and KU and realized that many in Lawrence were upset with the senator. But, he added, "Basically she follows the principles she believes in. They may seem aggressive to some people. She is very fair."

Wagle puts it this way: "I don't shy away from a tough issue. Never have. I don't put my finger in the wind and see which way the wind is blowing."

Quiet until March

This session, with much of the legislative attention focused on the worsening state budget situation, Wagle stunned colleagues in March with a speech from the floor of the Senate during debate of a budget bill.

She accused Dailey of using obscene materials in his course "Human Sexuality in Everyday Life" and of making vulgar comments to female students.

Wagle successfully pushed through the Legislature an amendment that would have cut $3.1 million from the KU School of Social Welfare if it was determined Dailey used obscene materials in the class.

But on April 21, Sebelius applied a line-item veto to the measure, saying the Legislature should not get involved in course curriculum, leaving that instead to the Kansas Board of Regents.

When lawmakers returned for their wrap-up session in early May, Wagle leveled new charges against Dailey.

Dailey denounced the accusations as lies, but Wagle got the Legislature to agree to an alternative proviso attached to the final budget bill that would require KU and other state funded, post-secondary schools to develop policies in human sexuality courses on the use of sexually explicit materials, teaching about the issue of pedophilia, and sexual harassment.

The proviso is now law. Sebelius signed the final budget bill and said she didn't veto the second Wagle proviso because it would have little effect.


Wagle's critics have accused her of McCarthyism -- making allegations with little or no evidence -- holding up Kansas to scorn in the national media and of outright lying.

Wagle, however, stands by her accusations.

"People have resorted to name-calling," she said. "I'm not surprised. It's easier to call me a name than it is to defend the professor."

Helgerson, the former state representative from Wichita whom Wagle defeated for the Senate seat, said Wagle's attack on Dailey was a natural for her. "Rather than dealing with significant issues of the state, she picked her own special issues and ran with them," Helgerson said.

Helgerson said Wagle "bushwhacked" the Senate by bringing up the issue on the floor of the chamber, rather than introducing a bill and having public hearings on the issue. Neither had she made any attempt to contact KU officials before amending the budget bill.

"The problem with the far right and with Susan is they think they know it all," Helgerson said. "They think they know what's best, not only for themselves and family, but for the rest of the state."

But Wagle defends her criticism of Dailey, saying the controversy started when her intern, Jessica Zahn, came from her first day in Dailey's class upset about what she called the professor's use of foul language and obscene gestures.

'A good cause'

"What the professor is doing is not allowed in the public workplace," Wagle said.

Some have accused her of attacking Dailey and taking his course content out of context for political reasons, as part of a larger social conservative agenda against the teaching of human sexuality and to gain stature in the conservative community.

She denies the charges.

"I didn't anticipate this," she said of the publicity, adding that she doesn't shrink from a fight. "My personality is probably bolder than most legislators. I'm not afraid of conflict and disagreement."

But she added that politically, "I have no aspirations."

Her life is becoming less political, she said, and she is becoming more involved in private boards and groups, such as a cancer support group.

And while academics and others have criticized her, Wagle said most people have been supportive.

She said that on one occasion, when she was at a local TV station to tape a segment for "The O'Reilly Factor," she went to the bathroom and several women followed her inside to tell her they appreciated her bringing up the allegations against Dailey.

"I think by raising people's awareness, I've served a good cause," she said.

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