Prosecutor sets sights on unseating Phill Kline

Johnson County D.A. switches political parties for attorney general race

? Johnson County Dist. Atty. Paul Morrison on Tuesday shook the Kansas political landscape by announcing he would switch to the Democratic Party to run against Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, a conservative Republican.

Morrison, a 25-year criminal prosecutor from the most populous county in Kansas, said he wanted to return the attorney general’s office to “core missions” of safety and security.

He said he was concerned that Kline, an ardent opponent of abortion, was using the office to pursue a social-conservative agenda.

“I will uphold the law for everybody in this state, rather than pursuing a narrow agenda that serves the interest of only a few,” Morrison said.

Political observers said Morrison’s move spotlighted the division between moderate and conservative Republicans. The GOP remains philosophically split over issues such as abortion and school funding.

“This reflects the moderate Republican frustration with social conservatives and Phill Kline is emblematic of that,” Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said.

If Morrison remained a Republican, he couldn’t have defeated Kline in the GOP primary because the primary draws more conservative voters than moderates, said former state Sen. David Adkins, a Republican who lost to Kline in the 2002 primary.

Johnson County Dist. Atty. Paul Morrison announces his plan to run for Kansas state attorney general as a Democrat. He made his announcement Tuesday outside the Johnson County Courthouse in Olathe with his family behind him.

So, Morrison joined the Democrats. Of Kansas’ 1.6 million registered voters, 46 percent are registered Republican, 26.8 percent Democrat and 26.3 percent unaffiliated. The remainder is made up of various minor parties.

Adkins predicted Morrison would still face the political fight of his life if he ends up meeting Kline in the November 2006 general election.

“No one should underestimate Phill Kline in a general election. He is the most articulate elected official in Kansas today. He appeals to his base with a passion and fervor only reserved for him,” Adkins said.

Kline has said he will seek a second term; no other Democrats have announced their intention to run.

Republican offensive

In 2004, Morrison was named the state’s “Prosecutor of the Year” by the Kansas County and District Attorney’s Assn. He said he has tried more than 100 jury trials, including the successful prosecutions of serial killers John Robinson and Richard Grissom.

Morrison said he was concerned over Kline’s pursuit of medical records from abortion clinics in what Kline has said is an investigation into allegations of child rape and illegal late-term abortions. The clinics have denied any wrongdoing and have accused Kline of trying to frighten women seeking abortions.

Morrison said he supports abortion rights.

Phill Kline
Age: 45
Family: Married, Deborah, one child
Education: Undergraduate degree in public relations and political science, Central Missouri State University; law degree from Kansas University.
Experience: Kansas House of Representatives, 1992-2000. Failed candidate for U.S. House in 2000.

Paul Morrison
Age: 51
Family: Married, Joyce, three children
Education: Undergraduate degree in criminal justice at Washburn University; law degree from Washburn.
Experience: Assistant district attorney, 1980-88; district attorney, 1989 to present.

“As attorney general, I’ll insist we get that office back to the basics: safety, security and the kind of independent approach Kansans ought to be able to expect from the state’s chief law enforcement officer,” Morrison said.

Republicans responded quickly to Morrison’s announcement.

GOP Party Chairman Tim Shallenburger said Morrison “pulled a Benedict Arnold” and he tried to link Morrison’s support in 2000 of a criminal justice bill to the release of Reginald and Jonathan Carr, two brothers who later were convicted of a killing rampage in Wichita that left five dead.

Kline also issued a statement referring to Morrison’s “efforts to let violent criminals back on the streets early” and a conservative state legislator, Rep. Peggy Long Mast of Emporia, quizzed Morrison about the legislation during a news conference.

But Morrison and Democrats countered that the bill had nothing to do with the release of inmates.

“For Phill Kline and Tim Shallenburger to spread outrageous lies about him is pathetic,” Mike Gaughan, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said.

Adkins, who had been a sponsor of the bill when he was in the Legislature, said Shallenburger and Kline should back off that contention.

“They came out swinging,” Adkins said. “It’s just a smear. It probably runs Kline the risk of alienating prosecutors when you bad-mouth one of the best prosecutors in the state,” he said.

Worked for Moore

Meanwhile, Kansas Democratic Party Chairman Larry Gates welcomed Morrison to the fold.

“As Democrats, we admire Paul’s independent approach to leadership, his dedication to public safety and public service, and his clear vision of what an effective attorney general ought to be,” Gates said in a written statement.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, a Democrat whose district includes eastern Lawrence, said Morrison “will make an outstanding attorney general.”

Morrison worked as an assistant prosecutor under then-Johnson County Dist. Atty. Moore in the 1980s.

In 2002, Kline defeated then-Geary County Atty. Chris Biggs, a relative unknown in statewide politics, by fewer than 4,300 votes out of more than 821,000 cast. In Douglas County, Biggs bested Kline 18,937 votes to 11,664.