Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Barnett said Thursday that he would be committed to a nondiscrimination policy to protect gay and lesbian state workers, a policy that current Gov. Sam Brownback rescinded in 2015.
"On the social issues, it’s been a huge black eye for our state, and I will make it very clear here today that if I am governor of Kansas, there will not be discrimination," Barnett said during a news conference Thursday.
When asked specifically about an executive order that was in place during Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' administration barring discrimination in executive branch agencies on the basis of sexual orientation or identity, an executive order that Brownback rescinded, Barnett said, "I would support that."
Thursday's news conference was intended to highlight Barnett's agenda for public education, which he referred to as "the driver of the Kansas economy in the 21st century." He said his agenda would be focused on investing in early-childhood education, increasing funding in order to stop the cycle of school finance litigation, and focusing on career preparation for Kansas students.
Answering questions from reporters, Barnett said that during his recent statewide tour of Kansans, he had heard from businesses all across the state that their biggest need is access to a highly trained workforce.
He was then asked about the number of young people who leave Kansas after high school or college for larger metropolitan areas elsewhere in the country that are perceived as more tolerant than Kansas, where lawmakers in recent years have proposed a series of "religious freedom" bills that critics say would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Barnett, who is known as a social conservative on many issues, said he recognized that as a problem in Kansas.
Since announcing his candidacy earlier this year, Barnett said, he has tried to identify six major issues that he wants to focus on, spending one month talking about each. Earlier, he has gone on tours to focus on agricultural policy, health care, economic development and tourism.
"This month we're talking about education, and our last tour is going to be a young professionals tour," he said. "How do we change the image of this state in the fashion that you just described? And it's hugely important because a lot of us are going to retire, or are retired already, and if we don't replace ourselves we're going to be in trouble."
Barnett is vying in a crowded Republican field for the gubernatorial nomination in 2018. The perceived front-runner in the race is Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is known nationally for his crusades against illegal immigration, and who earlier this week received the endorsement of the nationally syndicated talk show host Sean Hannity.
Also running for the GOP nomination are Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer; Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer; former Rep. Mark Hutton, of Wichita; former Rep. Ed O'Malley, who now lives in Wichita; Wichita businessman Willis "Wink" Hartman; and a number of other lesser-known candidates, including several teenagers.