While many contested Republican races in the Aug. 7 primary pit conservatives against moderates, that’s not the case in the 54th Kansas House District.
Three candidates, Debra Childers, Ken Corbet and Dana Webber, are vying for the right to face Democrat Ann Mah, the incumbent in the 53rd District who found herself a resident of the 54th District when new district maps were redrawn in June. The largely rural 54th District covers the southern third of Shawnee County, the northern half of Osage County and southwest Douglas County. Among the communities in the district are Auburn, Carbondale, Overbrook and Scranton.
The Republican candidates are all self-identified conservatives, believe life begins at conception and support the tax-cut package the Kansas Legislature passed this session. The tax cuts reduce the top individual state income-tax rate to 4.9 percent from 6.45 percent and also will eliminate income taxes on nonwage income on many small businesses.
Debra “Debbi” Childers
Married: husband, Howard
Children: Four adult children
Occupation: Office assistant for Shawnee County Sheriff’s Department
Religious affiliation: Member of the non-denominational Morning Star Bible Church of Topeka
Education: Rossville High School, class from Allen Community College
Experience: Six years as treasurer of Auburn Township, vice chairman of the Shawnee County Fire District No. 2 Board of Directors, 16 years with the Shawnee County Clerk’s Office, four years with the Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office.
Quote: “I’m very much behind education. But I want to make sure (funding’s) going to the students and not administrators and not having a half a dozen administrators and vice principals.”
Married: wife, Bev
Occupation: Owner of Ravenwood Lodge
Religious affiliation: Lutheran
Education: Attended Baker University and Washburn University
Experience: Member of Governor’s Council on Tourism, Dean’s Advisory Council, Kansas State University School of Agriculture, founder and president of Kansas Sport Hunting Association.
Quote: “If this state is going to survive, it is going to have to be more tax friendly than the states businesses are moving to.”
Occupation: Retired from AT&T, Mary Kay Cosmetics saleswoman
Religious affiliation: Grace Community Church of Overbrook
Education: Attended Fort Hays State, associates degree in information systems from Washburn University, bachelor of science degree in human resource management from Friends University
Experience: Thirty-nine years of experience with Southwestern Bell and AT&T, starting as an operator and retiring as project management consultant. Appointed as a Republican Party committeewoman for Scranton Township in Osage County in 2007 and re-elected in 2008 and 2010, secretary for three Kansas House members during the legislative session.
Quote: “I’m for less government and less taxes.”
Childers lives in Shawnee County’s Auburn Township, where she said the working-class, rural lifestyle of her and her husband, Howard, fits the 54th District. She has worked for Shawnee County for 20 years, first in the county clerk’s office and now in the sheriff’s office, and was elected treasurer of Auburn Township after first being appointed to the position.
Childers said cleaning up the mess she inherited as township treasurer and her common sense approach to problem-solving will allow her to work with others to advance Gov. Sam Brownback’s goals.
“The governor is trying to make positive changes,” she said. “I support the big picture of what the governor is working toward. He’s working toward doing away with state income taxes. That scares people. We need more people to come in and say, ‘that’s not a bad thing, but we don’t need to throw everything out either.’”
Corbet said his roots in the district and the state extend on his mother’s side back to Irish immigrants who settled near Dover in the 1860s and on his father’s side to Scottish settlers who homesteaded near Valley Falls in the 1850s.
He is running because, as a small businessman — he owns the sportsmen retreat and bed and breakfast Ravenwood Lodge near Dover — he supports the tax cuts of the last session and wants to see more.
“If this state is going to survive, it is going to have to be more tax friendly than the states businesses are moving to,” he said. “It’s the key to population growth. Population is shifting toward tax-friendly states. It’s not the weather. People are moving to those states because somebody was smart enough to put together a tax package that allows business to thrive.”
Corbet would take aim at another tax, one that he says is on the minds of many he has talked to during his campaign.
“People are scared to death,” he said. “Retirees would like to see some kind of freeze of property taxes so they can stay in Kansas. We don’t want to get in the proposition that someone works 40 years, and then in retirement has to make a decision to pay property taxes or buy groceries.”
Webber describes herself as a “country girl,” having been raised in Norton. She started working at 16 for Southwestern Bell in that northwestern Kansas town and retired from AT&T as a project management consultant.
Webber said she was running to give Osage County a voice in the Legislature.
“When they redrew the maps, it looked like Osage County wouldn’t have any representation,” the Scranton resident said. “I’m concerned about rural communities having a voice.”
Webber said the tax cuts approved last session were needed.
“I’m for less government and less taxes,” she said. “I support them because it’s more money in the consumer’s pocket.”
Webber said she would support ending duplication of services in state offices and would look to the private sector to fill some functions now performed by the state.
“Printers. We have our own state printers,” she said. “Why can’t we contract with our local printers to do the job? There are things we could utilize our existing businesses to do. They could probably do it even better than we do.”
The candidates said they have heard concerns about K-12 education funding on the campaign trail. To address that, they all support greater emphasis on getting money into the classroom.
Childers said she knows the value of facilities and helped lead a successful bond issue referendum in the Dover, Eskridge and Harveyville school districts. But she said teachers were what made the difference, noting that she graduated high school from an older building in Rossville.
“I’m very much behind education,” she said. “But I want to make sure it’s going to the students and not administrators and not having half a dozen administrators and vice principals.”
Webber also questioned K-12 spending priorities.
“I think we need more accountability based on where the funds are applied,” she said. “I’ve talked to teachers. They aren’t getting raises but are getting new computers.”
Corbet questioned whether the state’s education system was producing young people ready for the job market.
“I think kids are getting out of school without enough skills to hold a job,” he said. “It seems like there is a shortage of people who know how to fix things. I’d like to see students at least have the opportunity to take shop. Not everybody is going to be a CEO.”