Schwab balks at League of Women Voters debate in race for secretary of state

photo by: AP and Journal-World File Photos

These file photos show the 2018 candidates for Kansas secretary of state — at left, Republican Scott Schwab, and at right, Democrat Brian McClendon.

TOPEKA – An upcoming televised debate between the two major candidates for secretary of state had to be reorganized this week after Republican candidate Scott Schwab said he would not take part in any debate co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Kansas, which is currently suing the secretary of state’s office over the state’s proof of citizenship requirement for voter registration.

Eugene Williams, general manager of KTWU-TV, a PBS affiliate in Topeka, said Friday that the debate will be co-sponsored by the Washburn University Political Science Department instead. The station has not announced an official date when the debate will air.

The League of Women Voters will, however, continue to serve as co-sponsor of upcoming debates on KTWU involving candidates in the gubernatorial and 2nd District congressional races.

Schwab said in an interview Friday that he thought the League’s sponsorship of the debate had the potential of interfering with the ongoing appeal of the lawsuit.

“No offense to the League of Women Voters,” Schwab said. “I just don’t want to hinder (Attorney General) Derek Schmidt’s case.”

But Scott Allegrucci, the campaign manager for Democratic candidate Brian McClendon, said he does not believe the League of Women Voters’ sponsorship of the debate created any conflict.

“If Schwab is independent of Kobach as he claims to be, it’s not clear why a lawsuit already ruled upon by a federal judge and involving Kobach should preclude Schwab from participating in a public forum as a candidate for Secretary of State,” Allegrucci said in an email.

Schwab said the debate could complicate the litigation if the candidates had to respond to questions from a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which is currently on appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I think it’s kind of petty,” Cille King, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said in an interview. “We weren’t going to be asking the questions, although we did submit some ideas for questions.”

Libertarian candidate Rob Hodgkinson, of Stilwell, is also on the ballot for secretary of state, but he said in an interview that he had not been invited to take part in the debate.

King said she first learned about Schwab’s reluctance to take part in the debate from an email she received Wednesday from KTWU programming director Valerie VanDerSluis.

The lawsuit, initially filed in 2016, is known as Fish v. Kobach, and it names Kobach as the defendant, in his official capacity as secretary of state.

Kobach, who is now the GOP nominee for governor, championed passage of the law when he first came into office in 2011. It has been a hotly contested issue ever since, both in the Statehouse and federal courts, and it has been an issue in this year’s race for secretary of state.

Schwab supports the requirement; McClendon opposes it.

A federal judge in Kansas City, Kan., struck down the law earlier this year as unconstitutional and over conflict with federal law. The case is now on appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Kobach represented himself as an attorney during the trial phase of the case, but Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office is now handling the appeal.

The League of Women Voters was founded as a national organization in 1920 to support passage of the 19th Amendment, which guarantees women the right to vote. It has continued since then as a group that promotes voting rights and voter education, which includes sponsoring candidate forums and debates.

Although the group has always been seen as staunchly nonpartisan, Kobach once referred to it in a 2016 speech at a Kansas Republican Party convention as a “communist” organization.

King said she did not think the lawsuit against Kobach conflicted with the group’s core mission, even though it apparently has interfered with its attempt to sponsor a debate in the secretary of state’s office.

“It’s part of what we do,” she said. “The League has had several lawsuits against voting rights suppression across the country. I don’t know that we can separate what we do from asking courts to clarify those issues.”

Related stories:

Federal judge strikes down Kansas law requiring proof of citizenship for new voters, June 18, 2018

Kansas Republicans hold to hard-right stance; ACLU and League of Women Voters ‘communists,’ Kobach says, Feb. 20, 2016


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