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Bitter feud roils Kansas Democrats on eve of fall convention

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Kansas Democrats are embroiled in a bitter feud on the eve of their annual fall "Demofest" convention in Wichita as top party officials are now trying to oust the party secretary while the secretary and her allies are fighting back with a series of blistering blog posts.

At the center of the controversy are party secretary Casey Yingling, a Wichita attorney who also operates a political consulting business, and her business partner, Levi Henry, a longtime Democratic activist and union organizer.

In addition to being party activists, Yingling and Henry operate a political consulting firm, Ad Astra Group, which ran James Thompson's unsuccessful run for the 4th District congressional seat during a special election earlier this year.

According to several sources within the party, Yingling and Henry asked the party to contribute $20,000 to help out that campaign. Party officers met by conference call to consider that request and put it to a vote. Most officers said no, arguing that the party couldn't afford such a large expenditure. But Yingling, in her position as party secretary, voted yes, despite requests that she recuse herself, since she would have been the recipient of that money.

The special election was held to fill the vacancy created when President Donald Trump named then-Congressman Mike Pompeo to be CIA director. It was one of several special elections around the country at that time where Democrats thought they had a chance to win in Republican territory because of Trump's growing unpopularity.

It didn't work out, though. Republican Ron Estes, who was then state treasurer, ended up beating Thompson, 52-46 percent, a much narrower margin than Republicans typically enjoy in the 4th District.

That loss led to back-and-forth allegations about who was to blame, and eventually to the chasm that has now engulfed the upper ranks of the party, and a motion to recall Yingling as party secretary. A vote on that motion will take place Saturday and, according to an email letter obtained by the Journal-World, it is being supported by party chairman John Gibson, vice chair Vicki Hiatt and treasurer Bill Hutton.

"I support the recall because self-enrichment can have no place in the Kansas Democratic Party," Gibson wrote in a letter that was co-signed by Hiatt and Hutton. "The reality of the attempted self-enrichment by Ms. Yingling is actually much graver than what has been alleged in the recall petition. The recall petition focuses on only a single instance of Ms. Yingling attempting to use the funds of the Kansas Democratic Party for her own benefit. The attempted self-enrichment cited in the recall petition was neither the first nor the last attempt by Ms. Yingling to use KDP resources for her personal benefit."

The letter goes on to say that the party actually did contribute tens of thousands of dollars worth of services to the Thompson campaign. But then it adds: "We cannot expect Democrats to be generous in their financial support of our Party if there is a concern that their dollars may be spent primarily to enrich the officers rather than to build the Party. In order for our Party to compete in 2018 and beyond, we must remove even the appearance of self-enrichment from our Party."

Yingling, Henry and their allies, however, have been firing back hard. In recent days, they launched a blog, SaveTheParty.org, in which they have been lashing out at those whom they think are behind the recall effort, particularly Thomas Witt and Chris Reeves.

Witt is chair of the Progressive Caucus of the state party and serves on the executive committee. He also heads Equality Kansas, an LGBT rights activist group, and runs his own political consulting firm, Smoky Hill Strategies. Reeves is a party activist and blogger for the Daily Kos who has at times worked with Witt and is now the state party's national committeeman.

In a blog posted dated Thursday, Henry accused Witt and Reeves of being behind the 2015 ouster of former party chairman Larry Meeker, referring to it as a "hatchet job." And in another blog post dated Wednesday, he argued that Witt and Reeves have also served as paid consultants to the party, as has House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, now a candidate for governor, and LGBT caucus chair Ryon Carey.

The animosity between the Ad Astra Group and others in the party escalated late this week when an attorney representing Casey and Henry, Tai J. Vokins of Olathe, wrote to Witt, accusing him of making "false and defamatory statements" about them, and directing him to preserve electronic records related to the matter as evidence in possible future litigation.

At least two party insiders told the Journal-World they would like to see a change in the bylaws that prohibits the party from contracting with its own officers, but they also conceded that may be a tough item to sell.

Meanwhile, this weekend's convention will also be the first opportunity many party members have to see the party's new platform. Several officials said there will not be a vote on the platform because it has already been approved by the platform-writing committee.

But some may be surprised by some of its contents, including a plank that reads, "Kansas Democrats support full legalization of marijuana for personal as well as medical use."

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