Most GOP candidates for governor shun Kansas Press Association forum, citing pledge

? A dozen candidates for Kansas governor in the 2018 election turned out for a forum Friday sponsored by the Kansas Press Association.

But the forum may have been more noteworthy for the candidates who refused to show up, not the ones who did.

With the exception of former state Sen. Jim Barnett, all of the major Republican candidates in the race declined to take part in the forum.

According to KPA executive director Doug Anstaett, those candidates cited a pledge they signed with the Kansas Republican Party in which they agreed not to take part in debates that don’t meet the GOP’s guidelines for the format and the types of questions allowed.

“As a journalist, and all of us as journalists, I’m appalled that party trumps allowing people to hear a message in an open forum such as we have today,” Anstaett said at the start of the forum.

Those not attending included current Gov. Jeff Colyer, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, businessman Wink Hartman and former state Rep. Mark Hutton.

That still left 12 other candidates who did show up to answer questions, creating a slate so crowded that each candidate was given only a moment or two to respond to each question — including just 30 seconds to state how, if they were governor, they would ensure that Kansas maintains a school funding system that meets constitutional muster.

But it was the noticeable absence of the major GOP candidates that drew some of the sharpest comments during the event.

“It’s a rigged system,” Barnett said. “The GOP debate coming up next week is rigged to protect just a few. It is not what our democracy should be about.”

That was a reference to a debate scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, in conjunction with the state party’s annual convention in Wichita. Colyer, Kobach, Selzer, Hartman and Hutton are the only candidates currently listed as participating.

Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, however, praised her former Senate colleague for agreeing to take part in the KPA event.

“I think it takes courage to break with your party and to participate in a forum which they have banned, essentially,” said Kelly, the only female candidate for governor.

Another Republican who did participate was Tyler Ruzich, of Prairie Village, who, at age 17, is not yet old enough to vote for himself in the election. He’s one of several teenagers in this year’s race who are taking advantage of state laws that set no minimum age requirement to serve as governor.

Still, he drew praise from other candidates after identifying himself as the only candidate on the stage who has attended public schools in Kansas throughout the Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer administrations.

“The Brownback and Colyer administration has created a national embarrassment for the public education system in this state,” he said. “If we don’t do something about it and make sure we have adequate spending for public education, then we’re going to be going nowhere.”

That even brought praise from Democrat Josh Svaty, of Ellsworth, a former lawmaker and state agriculture secretary.

“I’ve got to say, you don’t sound terribly like a Republican,” Svaty said. “I respect your right to be one. If the Republican Party lets you get up on the big stage with the rest of the candidates, I will be there because that will be awesome to watch.”

Because of time constraints, candidate were given only a couple of minutes to introduce themselves, and they were only allowed to offer a few bullet points in response to questions.

When asked what actions they would take as governor that would have the biggest impact on the state, for example, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, mentioned that he would reinstate workplace protections for LGBT employees in the executive branch.

Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said he would work to improve the transparency of state government, while Barnett said his top priority would be to present a balanced budget with adequate revenues to restore many of the public services that have been cut in recent years.

Kelly said she would seek out “the best and the brightest” to serve in her cabinet while working to restore highway funding, K-12 education funding and economic development programs that were cut or eliminated in the Brownback administration.

Svaty also said he wants to restore LGBT protections in the state workforce and to secure more funding for programs to protect the state’s water resources.