Topeka A black legislator is publicly rebuking Atty. Gen. Phill Kline for comments comparing a top staffer's past participation in anti-abortion protests to activities of civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Kline defended his remarks Thursday, saying he was only pointing out that Bryan Brown, who leads his consumer protection division, had engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Brown has acknowledged being arrested a dozen times during the 1980s and 1990s, and Kline noted the charges were misdemeanors, meaning Brown didn't jeopardize his law license.
Kline, a Republican, faces Democrat Paul Morrison, the Johnson County district attorney, in the Nov. 7 general election. Morrison has repeatedly questioned Brown's hiring, saying he would not hire anyone with a criminal record.
During a debate Sunday in Overland Park, Morrison asked Kline whether he would pledge to not hire anyone with a criminal record.
"Our nation has a long heritage of civil disobedience," Kline replied. "Those who engage in peaceful protest are willing to pay the consequences for misdemeanor crimes."
Then, referring to Brown, the attorney general added: "He expressed his faith and his opposition to abortion. There are a lot of people in our nation's history, from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, to many others who engaged in similar actions to make a statement."
Some audience members groaned at his comments, loudly enough that the moderator admonished them over their interruption.
Sen. Donald Betts, D-Wichita, then issued a statement Wednesday calling it "offensive and disrespectful" to compare Brown to King and Parks.
"Bryan Brown is no Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King," Betts said. "I believe Mr. Kline's statement demonstrates a disturbing lack of understanding, and perhaps an even more troubling respect for the historical struggle endured by African Americans in the cause for civil rights - a cause for which many, including Dr. King, gave their lives."
Betts added: "In the future, I strongly urge Attorney General Kline to refrain from using the titans of the civil-rights movement to advance his personal political agenda. This outrageous comparison is wrong, hurtful and demeaning to the legacy left by those who literally changed the world."
During the debate, Kline said Brown is doing an outstanding job.
On Thursday, he said: "What I've stated is that this nation has a long history of respecting civil disobedience and peaceful protest. And what I mentioned was that Rosa Parks was engaged in such, and I respect her for that expression."
It's not the first time this year that the civil-rights movement has been discussed in Kansas politics.
In August, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius raised eyebrows with a television ad showing her as the driver of a school bus. Children touted her accomplishments as governor.
But none of the speaking parts went to minority youngsters, prompting some critics to allude to the segregated schools that led to the U.S. Supreme Court's historic 1954 decision declaring such schools unconstitutional.
Sebelius later released a photo showing a large cast including minority students, and a later TV spot on education featured minorities more prominently.