Local House candidates introduce themselves at forum in Lawrence

photo by: Peter Hancock/Journal-World Photos

Candidates for Lawrence area district House seats spoke at a forum sponsored by the Voter Education Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Lawrence and Douglas County on Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018. In the top row are candidates for the 42nd District House seat, Democrat Thea Perry, left, and Republican Jim Karleskint. In the bottom row are candidates for the 45th District House seat, Democrat Mike Amyx, left, and Republican Cynthia Smith.

About 100 people enjoyed a picnic meal outdoors Sunday evening while candidates for local legislative seats and statewide offices campaigned for their votes.

The forum, sponsored by the Voter Education Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Lawrence and Douglas County, featured all of the major party candidates for two hotly contested races for local House seats, as well as candidates or their representatives for various statewide offices.

During the event, the candidates gave brief introductory remarks, after which they moved from one picnic table to another to speak one-on-one with individuals or small groups of voters.

One of the most closely watched races this year is the 45th District House race, where longtime incumbent Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, is stepping down after 12 terms. It’s a seat that moderate Republicans hope to hold, but one Democrats believe they can take for their own.

The district includes portions of northwest Lawrence, the city of Lecompton, and most of rural northern and western Douglas County.

“Most important, I want Lawrence and Douglas County to matter in the Statehouse,” Republican candidate Cynthia Smith, of Lawrence, said during the forum. “We can’t send another Democrat to the Statehouse and expect to have any voice in what’s done in the Statehouse, what’s on the agenda, what’s happening, because the Republicans have the majority party there and they make all those decisions.”

Smith is a retired attorney and former lobbyist at the Statehouse who represented hospitals and safety net clinics.

She described herself as a moderate on social issues, saying, “I believe that we can’t practice restraint and then also judge who’s a family.”

But she also staked out conservative views on taxes and spending, saying she thinks the state needs to reduce the tax burden on individuals, particularly the sales tax on food, and that she wants to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses.

Smith faces former Lawrence Mayor and City Commissioner Mike Amyx in the Nov. 6 general election. Amyx said his top priority if he’s elected would be funding for both K-12 education and technical education.

“I was very fortunate that I was able to go to tech ed school,” he told the audience. “I went to barber school, and I was able to take over my business from my dad and my grandparents. That’s something that I’ve been very proud of.”

In addition to education, Amyx said he supports investing in infrastructure, and especially completion of Kansas Highway 10 on the west and southwest sides of the city into a four-lane roadway.

Amyx said he also supports investing in protection of the state’s water resources and deployment of broadband internet services into more rural areas.

“We’ve got to make sure that as we look at expanding broadband, we probably have to be looking at incentive programs to make sure that it’s available,” Amyx said.

Another closely watched race is the 42nd District, which includes the city of Eudora and much of eastern Douglas County, as well as the city of Tonganoxie and much of unincorporated Leavenworth County.

Republican Jim Karleskint, of Tonganoxie, is defending that seat after his first term in office. He serves on the House K-12 Education Budget Committee that crafted school finance bills in 2017 and 2018 that will phase in more than $500 million in new annual school funding over the next three years, although details of that plan are still being litigated before the Kansas Supreme Court.

“We’re still working on it, tweaking it, but I think when the Legislature convenes in January, we’ll be able to fix it and get it right and help our kids in Kansas,” Karleskint said.

During his first session in 2017, Karleskint was part of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that voted in 2017 to override then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill that reversed course on many of the tax cuts Brownback had championed five years earlier.

But on certain social issues, such as gun rights and abortion, Karleskint tends to line up with conservatives.

“I’m a Vietnam veteran,” he said. “I was awarded the Bronze Star while I was in Vietnam, so I do believe in the Second Amendment. I’m pro-life.”

Karleskint is being challenged this year by Democrat Thea Perry, of rural Lawrence.

Perry said that earlier this year, she wasn’t even thinking about running, but she decide to get into the race just before the filing deadline after experiencing a serious health issue.

“I was diagnosed with cancer, and I’m happy to report that I’m well now,” she said. “But we know that that’s not true for all of us. And so I spent this spring hobbling around the Statehouse and doing what I always do, trying to teach people how to be better self-advocates and how to lobby for themselves, and I finally decided that the next thing, the next progression in that journey to teach people how to be empowered might just be to be the person in Topeka myself.”

Since getting into the race, Perry said she has had some interesting experiences, especially while campaigning in rural parts of the district, including one instance when she was nearly attacked by emus.

“Sorry, I wasn’t attacked. They didn’t catch me. I got in my car in time,” she said. “But some days I meet more chickens than I do people in our district, so it’s pretty fun.”

The audience at the forum also heard from Democratic Reps. Boog Highberger and Eileen Horn, both of Lawrence, who are running unopposed this year. People also heard from Democrat Sarah Coats, of Auburn, who is challenging Republican Rep. Ken Corbet, of Topeka, in the 54th District, which includes a small portion of southwestern Douglas County.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the profession of Cynthia Smith.

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