Lenexa — Republican activists picked Attorney General Phill Kline as Johnson County's new district attorney Monday night to replace the Democrat who ousted him from statewide office last month.
The tally among Republican precinct committee members who gathered at a Lenexa church was 316 for Kline to 291 for Steve Howe, who is an assistant district attorney in the state's most populous county.
In the attorney general's race last month, Kline received just 35 percent of the vote in Johnson County against five-term District Attorney Paul Morrison, a former Republican who became a Democrat to challenge Kline for the statewide office.
Despite serving four years as attorney general, Kline has almost no experience prosecuting criminal cases in district court. But he retained support of many of his fellow conservatives and abortion opponents.
"I'm not new to the cause," Kline said in a speech Monday night before the vote. "I have been tested in leadership, and you know I will stay the course."
Republicans had speculated about Kline's plans for weeks, but he didn't publicly commit to the race until he was nominated Monday night. He is a former resident of the Johnson County community of Shawnee, however, and last week he registered to vote at a Stilwell address, after living outside Topeka while serving as attorney general.
Kline isn't likely to take over as district attorney until his term as attorney general ends on Jan. 8, spokeswoman Sherriene Jones said.
Morrison had two years left on his term as district attorney. Moderate Republicans who opposed Kline's appointment worry that he won't be able to retain the district attorney's office in 2008, should he seek a full four-year term.
Andy Wollen, chairman of the moderate Kansas Traditional Republican Majority, said GOP conservatives had "stuck a finger in the eye of Johnson County voters."
"The voters sent a clear message to Phill Kline - 'you're fired,'" Wollen said after Monday night's balloting.
Morrison said he was "deeply disappointed" by the vote. But he pledged a smooth transition for Kline into the county office, saying, "public safety should be above politics."
But Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group, said the "abortion industry" was unable to influence the district attorney's race. And Tim Golba, an anti-abortion activist from Lenexa who voted Monday night, said Kline "has proven he will uphold all the laws, no matter what the cost."
As attorney general, Kline has waged a two-year legal battle to obtain the records of 90 patients at two Kansas abortion clinics - which became a political liability when Morrison suggested it was an invasion of the patients' privacy.
One clinic is operated in Overland Park by Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri and the other in Wichita by Dr. George Tiller. Kline has said he is investigating whether the clinics performed illegal late-term abortions or failed to report sexual abuse of children.
But Kline's critics suggested he was on a fishing expedition, and Morrison said Kline's pursuit of the records represented an invasion of patients' privacy - a charge that appeared to resonate with many voters.
Before Monday night's meeting began, Howe handed out fliers describing himself as an abortion opponent and a good Republican.
"If there is evidence that there are violations of law at the abortion providers, then it is my duty to enforce that law," Howe said during a speech before the vote.
The clinics have repeatedly said they committed no wrongdoing. Peter Brownlie, Planned Parenthood's president and chief executive officer, said Monday night's vote showed many of Kline's fellow Republicans are "pursuing a radical agenda."
"Whatever the hell Kline's after, we are confident it's not going to result in anything in terms of prosecution," Brownlie said in an interview.
Though abortion was on many of the GOP activists' minds, Kline didn't mention it during any of his remarks. Afterward, he issued a statement promising to "passionately focus on the protection of our children and the vulnerable to ensure the safety of our neighborhoods and communities."
Initially, there were five potential candidates for the district attorney's job, including Kline and Howe. The others were Rick Guinn, Morrison's chief deputy; Chris McMullen, another assistant district attorney, and Olathe attorney Scott Hattrup.
But McMullen didn't put his name forward. Guinn and Hattrup were nominated but dropped out before voting started.
Guinn said in a speech before the vote that the new district attorney needed to be an experienced prosecutor who could maintain the respect the office enjoys with judges and the public.
"The office has a very solid reputation with the voting public," Guinn said. "Ask yourself: When was the last time the D.A.'s office lost a big case? I would contend it hasn't happened for a long time."
But Golba said Kline has talented staff at the attorney general's office who are likely to follow him to Johnson County.
"If they come with him, he'll have the best staff available," Golba said.
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