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Gwyn Mellinger: Kobach casting long shadow on state politics

  • Published Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, at 12 a.m.

If Gov. Sam Brownback is contemplating another run for president, he must avoid being eclipsed by his secretary of state, a nationally controversial figure who now defines Kansas politics in the post-Ike, post-Dole era.

Kris Kobach, the legal brains behind the anti-immigration movement, seems to generate a headline just by reporting to work in the morning. Indeed, his ability to capture national attention from a state bureaucratic post is uncanny.

News that Topeka activist Sonny Scroggins is heading an effort to recall Kobach received passing mention in the state’s media this month. Most Kansans probably assume Scroggins won’t be able to meet the state’s high threshold for a recall petition: 83,000 signatures, followed by court review, followed by 330,000 more signatures, according to some reports.

Outside Kansas, however, the story has received widespread play. News outlets from the Huffington Post to the Sacramento Bee have reported the recall effort as the latest development in the career of Kobach, whose mission is passage of voter-ID laws for cities and states across the country.

How Americans perceive Kobach’s anti-immigration work and his obvious ambition for higher office depends entirely on their political orientation.

Kobach’s widely publicized effort to circumscribe political power for those who can’t produce a government-issued photo ID has thrilled tea party conservatives and other far-right constituencies. That some of these laws have not fully withstood legal scrutiny is no matter. In scratching a nativist itch and stoking fear, Kobach’s anti-immigration efforts play to a mobilized political base.

At the same time, Kobach is such a controversial figure that the question of whether he had in fact advised the Romney campaign, as he claimed, made national news last month because it might have clarified Romney’s views on immigration reform. Divided political reaction to Kobach’s immigration agenda explains why the Romney campaign waffled in acknowledging help from Kobach, and why the story warranted mention by news outlets as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and Univision.

In the view of many moderates and liberals, Kobach’s crusade to make sure that noncitizens don’t vote, despite evidence that few (if any) do, is a dangerous parallel to Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests. Perhaps the most damning criticism of Kobach’s voter-ID work came last year, when the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report on Kobach’s affiliation with the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which the center deems a racist organization.

Without Kobach’s notoriety in the mix, it’s unlikely the State Objections Board proceedings last month would have made national news. All eyes were on Kansas when the board, chaired by Kobach, docketed a citizen complaint that Obama was not native-born and shouldn’t be listed on the ballot. Many in the national media devoted plenty of coverage to the action before the man who filed the complaint withdrew it.

Kobach’s public image certainly has consequences for Kansas’ reputation, but it also complicates the state’s political hierarchy.

One can’t help but wonder how a governor whose ambition to be president is unfulfilled views the conservative star power of this younger upstart, a relative neophyte who has quickly developed national name recognition, even among those with only a passing interest in politics.

Like it or not, Kobach now casts the longest shadow of any Kansas politician.

Gwyn Mellinger is a professor at Baker University in Baldwin City.

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