TOPEKA — Gary Mason remembers rooting for Richard Nixon when he was young, but he said politics never really seemed that interesting until he saw how it could lead to policies that hinder business.
That happened when he was working as an environmental supervisor at Vulcan Chemicals in the mid-1980s and the state was considering a law to shut down one of the companys disposal wells that store polluted liquids deep underground.
Mason became the companys point person and represented the Kansas Chamber of Commerce in meetings in Topeka aimed at negotiating new rules that would allow the company to continue operating the wells.
That relationship blossomed. Mason has since held key roles in government relations and political action with the state chamber and the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, both of which are now backing him with money and campaign ads as he tries to oust incumbent Republican Sen. Carolyn McGinn. The winner faces no opposition in November.
Mason said limiting regulations environment and otherwise would be one of his top priorities as a state senator.
Weve come a long way in protecting the environment in the last 30 to 40 years, he said. Were a lot healthier now in our communities than in the 50s and 60s.
Now, he said, regulations have gone too far, protecting too little at too much of a cost for businesses.
You cant just keep pushing that envelope, he said.
Mason, who owns a company that helps other companies comply with environmental regulations, said he also would like to see the state explore outsourcing more of its operations to the private sector. Among his outsourcing targets are the Kansas Department of Health and Environments permitting, monitoring and inspection operations, and functions of the Department of Labor.
The private sector does better with integrating new ideas and bringing them to the market, he said. Those dynamics just arent present in state government.
Mason said state and federal government already outsource similar functions. And he said that his company, iSi Environmental, would have too many conflicts of interest because of its private sector clients to consider bidding for any state contracts related to environmental compliance.
Limited regulations and smaller government form the cornerstone of Masons political positions. Those views have made him one of at least eight candidates who are trying to oust incumbent Republican senators in a statewide move to make the Senate more conservative and more likely to support Gov. Sam Brownbacks proposals.
Mason announced his challenge to McGinn in January. But his home near Rock Road and 45th Street North was close to District 31s southern border during an election year when lawmakers were tasked with drawing new district boundaries.
After a months-long feud over the maps, lawmakers gave up and federal judges drew new maps, leaving Mason out of District 31. So Mason moved. He and his wife now rent a smaller house in Park City that is in District 31 while they try to sell their Wichita home.
Mason, 56, said it would be a lot easier to stick with his business than to pursue the Senate seat. But he said he has campaigned hard, invested a lot of energy in the race and is committed to changing the state.
Mason said he supports the income tax cuts for individuals and elimination of nonwage income taxes for farms and a wide variety of businesses that the Legislature approved earlier this year. He said hed like to drive down individual rates more and then look to cut corporate income taxes as a way to encourage businesses to move to Kansas.
He also sees lower taxes as a way to phase out incentive packages that are now commonly given to companies coming into the state. But he said that phase-out will take a while because Kansas has to compete with other states that offer incentives.
You cant turn that off overnight, he said.
Although many people have advocated for reducing property tax rates, Mason said cutting income taxes is superior because it is more likely to create jobs and new residents.
It would be very popular and easy to just step forward and lower property tax, he said. But, unfortunately, you dont get more bang for your buck.
Mason, whose father worked in strip mines and whose mother worked in cotton fields, grew up in St. Louis in a modest home where he said hard work was viewed as the path to a better life.
After graduating from high school, Mason attended Meramec Community College before transferring to the University of Missouri, where he got a degree in chemical engineering.
After about four years of environmental inspection work with the EPA and Missouri state government, Mason took a job at the Vulcan Chemical plant in Wichita in 1982.
At Vulcan, he said, he represented the company at neighborhood meetings where residents aired concerns about hazardous chemical practices, and he presented the companys facts and responses to questions.
He said the experience helped him find his public speaking voice and learn how to deal with peoples concerns in an honest and straight forward way.
Mason said he had the option to take a new position at Vulcans headquarters. But, instead, he and his wife, Karma, who he met working at Vulcan, decided to start an environmental compliance consulting businesses in Wichita.
He said his business experience gives him the necessary experience to shrink government and push back against the federal governments mandates for the state.
Mason said incumbent senators strategies havent worked for the state and that calls for change.
Its ironic that liberal thinkers are protecting the status quo, he said. And its the conservatives who are thinking progressively.