Views from Kansas: Can voters trust Steve Watkins?
Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.
The season for padding credentials on the campaign trail has arrived.
A candidate for the Oregon Legislature just bailed out of the race after falsely claiming she had earned a bachelor’s degree. In August, a Florida state House contender dropped out after she was caught lying about her college degree.
Now we have the troubling case of Steve Watkins, the Republican candidate in Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District, who inflated his role with a Middle East security contracting company. He told voters repeatedly that he owned a company and built it from scratch. Turns out, that’s nowhere near the truth.
“I got out of the military, started a small business and grew it from three people to 470 people,” Watkins told an audience in March. “So I know what it’s like to have to sweat it and work to make payroll, to not take any salary so you can make ends meet.”
Of course, the building-a-company-from-scratch tale is prime grist for Republican audiences, and Watkins fed it to them as he fought through a crowded Republican primary. He won, setting up a November showdown with Democrat Paul Davis.
Problem is, the small business that Watkins supposedly grew was VIAP Inc., a subsidiary of Versar Inc., a global project management firm. VIAP existed for years before Watkins came on as a consultant, The Star uncovered in an investigation. The person credited with growing the company is a man named Bill Johnson.
Theodore Prociv, a former CEO of Versar, said he had never heard of Watkins. Several board members also had no memory of him.
What an embarrassment. This gives voters ample reason to question Watkins’ credibility on anything he says. One Kansan who had been in contact with Watkins wrote The Star to say that Watkins “clearly told me he owned the business. He needs to know his words matter. If he would lie about this, is he trustworthy?”
The sad thing is Watkins did dangerous work for Versar/VIAP in war-ravaged Iraq and Afghanistan. This came after he served in Afghanistan as a general engineer with the Army Reserve. Watkins had a story to tell, but he still felt the need to embellish.
Watkins now admits that he didn’t own VIAP but said he helped launch “products and services that we provided clients.” He’s also falling back on the already tired cliche of referring to the report as “fake news” and “horrible journalism.” He insisted to U.S. News that most of the times he talked about the company, he made it clear that he had helped it grow — not that he had owned it from the start.
“What I said was poorly worded, and that’s what they capitalized on,” he said.
C’mon. Watkins is a candidate for Congress. His words do matter. Poor wording has rightly sunk any number of campaigns over the years with Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” line from 2012 probably rating as the standard-setter.
Until now, Watkins was thought to be in a nip-and-tuck race with Davis. Even before this story surfaced, we were troubled by reports that Watkins’ father spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help his son win in August.
Now at least Watkins is modifying his remarks by saying he “helped” grow the company.
That’s a start. But Watkins just learned a tough lesson, and it may cost him a congressional seat.
— Originally published in The Kansas City Star