Democratic candidates for Kansas governor differ on abortion, guns

Five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor answer questions at a forum in Topeka Thursday, July 5, 2018. They include, from right, Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka; Olathe physician and author Arden Andersen; former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer; Wichita high school student Jack Bergeson; and former Kansas Agriculture Secretary and former Rep. Joshua Svaty.

TOPEKA – Hot-button social issues like gun rights and abortion typically play out in Republican politics in Kansas, but this year they are front and center in a five-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor.

The two perceived front-runners in the race are state Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, who has been a strong advocate for abortion rights but who also supported a 2013 bill that greatly expanded the right of people to carry concealed firearms, including on college campuses; and Joshua Svaty, a former legislator and state secretary of agriculture who wants to reinstate regulations on concealed-carry firearms but who voted several times in the Kansas House to put more restrictions on abortion providers and to override then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ vetoes of abortion bills.

Kelly now says she erred in supporting the gun law and wants to see it rolled back; Svaty has said he will not support any additional restrictions on abortion.

Also running for the nomination are former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who touts his record of leading a predominantly conservative city for eight years; Olathe physician Arden Andersen; and Wichita high school student Jack Bergeson, who has impressed many observers, including the other candidates, with his grasp of political issues but who, at age 17, won’t be old enough to vote in the 2018 elections.

Brewer, 61, served two four-year terms as mayor of Wichita, from 2007 to 2015. He spent most of his career in the aviation industry, starting out as a sheet metal worker and eventually rising to become part of the management team at Spirit Aviation. He also served several years in the Kansas Army National Guard, enlisting as a private and eventually rising to company commander of infantry and artillery units.

Andersen, 60, is a doctor of osteopathy who lives in Olathe and practices in Lansing. According to his campaign website, he is the author of a number of books focusing on the links between agriculture, food and health. He also has military experience, having enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserves in 1997 and rising to his current rank of colonel.

The contrast between those candidates was on display Thursday during a forum at a downtown Topeka hotel.

Kelly, 68, is the only woman in either major party running for governor this year. She entered the race in December with the backing of the state’s last female governor, Democratic Kathleen Sebelius. She is also the only Democratic candidate currently holding an elected public office.

She was first elected to the Senate in 2004 and is now in her fourth term, serving as assistant minority leader in the Senate and the ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee. Before entering politics she served as director of the Kansas Recreation and Park Association.

Svaty, 38, was first elected to the Kansas House in 2002, at the age of 22, from a Republican-leaning district that includes his hometown of Ellsworth by beating incumbent Republican Jerry Aday. He was re-elected to the seat three times and stepped down in 2009 when then-Gov. Mark Parkinson appointed him secretary of agriculture. He later worked for the Environmental Protection Agency.

When the issue of gun policy came up at the Topeka forum, Svaty, who had supported the state’s first concealed carry law that required people to undergo training and hold a permit, challenged Kelly over her vote for the 2013 bill that removed all training and permit requirements and required most public facilities, including college and university campuses, to allow concealed carry.

“Sen. Kelly, you did that,” Svaty said. “And you talk about your experience; you have to know how impossible it is to roll this legislation back now. Once you let it pass in Kansas, it is next to impossible to roll it back. We had sensible gun laws in this state, and they were erased in the past eight years, and, Sen. Kelly, you were part and parcel of making that happen.”

“I did vote for that and immediately recognized that we had gone way too far and have since voted to repeal it,” Kelly said in response. “I think that there is a way. We are getting a much more moderate Legislature coming in. Hopefully you (the audience) will send us some more, and with a moderate Democrat in the governor’s office, we will be able to institute a number of gun-sense policies and get that passed.”

Brewer and Andersen both said they, too, support repealing the law as it relates to guns on college campuses and other public buildings. They also said they would oppose any effort to make it easier for some teachers to carry weapons in school buildings, which the Legislature considered in the 2018 session but did not act on.

“Under my administration, there will never, ever be a way that we can put guns in schools,” Brewer said.

Many of the candidates also poked fun at Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican candidate for governor, who has made headlines by riding in parades with a replica machine gun mounted on top of his vehicle.

Bergeson, however, was the only candidate who said he would support allowing some teachers to carry firearms.

“While I believe in most cases guns should not be in schools except with a security guard, there are some rural schools where it might take 20 minutes for a cop to get there. In those cases, if a teacher wants to have a gun, and with approval and with a lot of training, they should be able to have that if they feel it’s the only way to protect their children,” Bergeson said.

Moments later, the questions turned to abortion. With President Donald Trump about to appoint a new justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, many observers believe the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide, may be overturned, sending the entire question of abortion rights back to the states.

Svaty conceded that he did vote for some new restrictions on abortion but vowed that if elected he would veto any new restrictions. He also said that much has changed in his life during the nearly 10 years since he left the Legislature.

“I married a very progressive woman who has complete control over her own body,” he said, referring to his wife, lobbyist Kimberly Svaty. “I’ve also put on my ticket — and I hope you all have the chance to meet Katrina (Lewison) — a very strong and powerful woman who has complete control over her body.”

“Promising to veto any further restrictions is a very hollow promise,” Kelly said when the question came to her. “It would be like me promising to you that I won’t make the foster care system any worse than it is now. We need someone who is going to work proactively on behalf of women in the state of Kansas.”

The other candidates offered their strong support for abortion rights, but it was Brewer who drew the biggest applause when he said, “None of us have any damn business telling any woman what she can do with her body.”

Andersen said that as a doctor he has referred patients to Planned Parenthood and other facilities that provide reproductive health care.

“And I understand from a physician’s perspective the importance of allowing women their choice,” he said.

Bergeson said he would like to see fewer abortions in Kansas, and he said reforming the state’s foster care and adoption systems would give women more options for dealing with unwanted pregnancies. But he said that what few abortions are performed should be safe and legal.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a word in a quote from Joshua Svaty. Svaty described his wife as “progressive.”


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