Voters in District 98 in south Wichita have a choice in November’s general election between a pair of Kansas House incumbents seeking to hold onto their jobs in Topeka.
Geraldine Flaharty is a 76-year-old former schoolteacher and Democrat who opposes Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies. Phil Hermanson is a 47-year-old former Navy deep-sea diver and real estate agent who supports conservative Republican measures.
Neither was challenged in the August primary, and it isn’t clear whether either gained much of an advantage when a panel of federal judges lumped them together in a new District 98.
Flaharty, who has been in the Legislature since 1995, retained about 45 percent of the voters from her former District 98. Hermanson, a member of the House since 2008, retained 30 percent of his former District 96. Nearly a quarter of the residents in the new district have never been represented by either candidate.
About 40 percent of voters in the district are unaffiliated, with 32 percent registered as Republicans and 26 percent registered as Democrats, according to figures released by the Sedgwick County Election Office on Oct. 11.
Flaharty said she wants to protect funding for education, and she thinks that Brownback’s massive income tax cuts, passed last spring by the Legislature, will hurt it.
“I’m very concerned that if we don’t make some amendment to that tax bill, the state is going to be pretty much out of business two years from now,” she said. “We’ll require huge cuts to education, to our social safety nets, to our highway maintenance, to everything, because we’re going to lose about a third of our discretionary budget.”
She also expects efforts to amend the state Constitution to limit the Legislature’s mandate to fund schools or remove the court’s authority to enforce it. She would oppose both efforts.
Flaharty believes state government is speaking with only one voice under Brownback and a conservative Legislature.
“I don’t think that it’s ever good for anyone to have one line of thought dominate everything,” she said.
Hermanson said jobs are his top issue. He believes that lowering taxes will create jobs. He voted for Brownback’s tax-cut bill, which eliminated income taxes for some businesses and lowered individual rates. Although critics of the measure say it will lead to higher property taxes, Hermanson said he also wants to lower those and that he has helped sponsor efforts to do that every year he’s been in office.
He said the new tax plan “wasn’t the tax plan we wanted and needs to be amended.”
But he believes Brownback will hold to a promise not to defund critical core programs such as schools, social services and help for the disabled because of the cuts.
“The way I look at it, if the tax plan happens to work and we can still fund everything the way it’s set up right now, and we can lower taxes for business owners and for residents, I think that would be a win-win,” Hermanson said.
Flaharty said she has supported women’s reproductive health issues, arts funding and other issues Hermanson has opposed. Hermanson, she said, has voted the Brownback agenda “down the line.”
“I’m fighting to hold onto my seat because of what I believe in,” Flaharty said. “I don’t want Phil Hermanson representing the district because he thinks entirely differently on many of these issues than I do. I don’t need the seat for myself, but I need it to represent that point of view.”
Hermanson said he doesn’t automatically follow Brownback.
“I think the governor in a lot of cases has got a bad rap on a lot of things,” Hermanson said, “but I weigh the issues. He came in and asked us to be part of the tax plan. We thought the Senate was going to compromise with it, and didn’t, so we got stuck with not-as-good a tax plan as I had really wanted. But time will tell, won’t it? We’ll see where it goes.”
Asked how he would propose tweaking it, he said, “I just want to make sure that the revenues are still there, coming in. I believe that Sam Brownback is a God-fearing man. I have no question about his word.”
Hermanson calls himself a “common sense conservative” who looks at both sides of issues and talks to people on both sides.
“I don’t just blindly start pushing my button,” he said.
Hermanson said he ran for office in 2008 because his representative voted a straight party line.
“I really, really dislike when people just vote with their leadership all the time,” he said.
Flaharty serves as the ranking Democrat on the House Health and Human Services Committee. She also serves on committees on aging and long-term care, and pensions and benefits.
Before running for the Kansas Legislature, she worked for 36 years as a public elementary school teacher.
Flaharty identified herself as a team player who has worked to get people in her district involved during her years in office.
“As far as initiating any life-changing legislation, I haven’t,” she said. “I’ve supported public education, I’ve supported the arts, I’ve supported health care. But you can’t do anything by yourself in the Legislature.”
Hermanson serves on the Health and Human Services Committee, as well as committees on financial institutions, insurance, state and tribal relations, special claims against the state, and energy and utilities.
He served in the Navy from 1983 to 1988, and is manager at Keller Williams Home Town Partners.
Hermanson said he successfully completed a one-year probation after his 2010 conviction for driving under the influence of prescription drugs, a charge that arose after he was involved in an accident that injured two women.
In May, his campaign treasurer was fined $500 by the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission for failing to document $3,764.66 in campaign expenditures. Hermanson at the time said a mid-race change in treasurers had resulted in a loss of some receipts and records. He also said he reimbursed the campaign and appointed a new treasurer.
During his first year in office, Hermanson faced a foreclosure action on his home and an income tax lien. He sold his house, which he now rents, and paid his taxes, he said.
In office, Hermanson has focused on his district, he said. Although he has pushed a few bills, he prefers to make sure that he knows as much about a bill as possible before doing so.
“A lot of times we pass bills up there that we have no idea how it’s going to affect the general public,” he said.
Hermanson said his biggest achievement in office was helping pass last year’s budget, which ended up with a $500 million surplus.
“That affects everybody in Kansas,” he said. “I can’t think of anything bigger.”