TOPEKA — A newly formed political action group is using a radio ad to hammer a Sedgwick County district judge for his professional conduct, a relatively rare move by an out-of-state group in such a hyper-local race that some say could alter the nature of judicial races in Wichita for years to come.
The ad by the Georgia-based super PAC Safe Nation comes in response to an ad by Sedgwick County District Court Judge Richard Ballinger’s campaign that pointed out how Sedgwick County attorneys gave better marks to Ballinger than his opponent, Zoe Newton, who works as an attorney for oilman Wink Hartman.
Safe Nation’s ad points to a cease-and-desist order issued against Ballinger in 2006 that stemmed from his role in encouraging another judge’s relationship with an employee.
Now Ballinger’s campaign is striking back and asking why a newly formed Georgia-based super PAC is getting involved in a district court judicial race in Sedgwick County and who is paying for the ad.
“If we don’t beat back this PAC now, judicial elections in Wichita will be changed forever,” Ballinger’s campaign committee wrote in a letter to supporters seeking donations for counter attacks. “Campaigns will be run by secret PACs because they have no contribution limits and they aren’t subject to the Kansas Supreme Court’s ethics rules on judicial candidates.”
The ads come from Safe Nation, which filed its initial paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission on Sept. 20. It showed only $100 in start-up money in its first finance filing. But with radio ads running in Wichita, it appears the PAC has raised and spent significantly more since its Oct. 11 financial disclosure.
The group has not formed a political action committee in Kansas and it has not yet filed any paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office or the Governmental Ethics Commission. Super PACs don’t have to file paperwork if they do not expressly advocate for a candidate, a move which is often avoided by ads that attack a candidate and then urge voters to contact the candidate and voice their concerns. Ads that are considered to advocate for a candidate typically urge candidates to vote for or vote against someone.
But the Safe Nation ad, a copy of which Ballinger’s campaign provided to The Eagle, urges people to “vote Zoe Newton, Republican candidate for judge.” That advocacy would require the PAC to file paperwork with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission by Oct. 29.
The PAC’s treasurer, Bryan P. Tyson, and its chairman, Chip Lake, both list addresses in Georgia. They did not respond to calls from The Eagle on Wednesday afternoon.
Their ads come in response to an ad from Ballinger’s campaign that attacks Newton, based on comparisons of the two candidates in a Wichita Bar Association survey. The Eagle co-sponsors the survey.
It then rips Ballinger for smearing Newton, and then attacks Ballinger, citing two stories in The Eagle in 2006 about Ballinger’s resignation as chief administrative judge after a judicial ethics panel “admonished Ballinger for encouraging another judge’s inappropriate relationship with a subordinate and for fraternizing with courthouse employees.”
The cease-and-desist order noted that Ballinger also had fraternized with subordinate employees. But it did not provide details of the conduct.
After his resignation from the mostly administrative position, Ballinger continued work as a trial judge. He got high marks from 362 lawyers who evaluated judges and judicial candidates through the Wichita Bar Association’s website this year.
In a Facebook post, Newton asked whoever is running the negative ads against Ballinger to stop.
“I firmly believe that certain campaign practices, such as negative ads, are unseemly in the context of a judicial race,” she wrote. “Consequently, I have run a clean positive campaign and will continue to do so. My campaign is not responsible for this ad, nor do I condone or approve of it.”
Newton’s campaign treasurer, lawyer Harvey Sorensen, said he hasn’t heard the advertisement and that neither he nor Newton has had any ties or communication with the group running the radio ad.
“I think it’s sort of a tempest in a teapot,” he said.
Sorensen said their campaign has run a positive campaign and doesn’t intend to respond to attacks by Ballinger’s campaign.
It’s rare for out-of-state groups to fund negative ads in district court judicial races in Kansas, said Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
“But it’s becoming more common,” she said. “That’s just the nature of politics. Everything is becoming more contentious.”