A group of predominately black Wichita-area pastors say an assistant Kansas secretary of state was rude and disrespectful during a presentation on voting issues at a recent meeting.
But Eric Rucker likened his visit to the Greater Wichita Ministerial League meeting on July 10 to a talk show with everyone trying to talk at once.
“We were having a sharp political disagreement with one another,” he said.
Wade Moore, the group’s president, said, “We thought it would be a good time to dialogue about voter rights issues. But it was a terrible meeting.
“His opening statement was that Kansas was supposed to be a slave state. It was like, ‘You’re all black, you’re going to accept whatever I tell you.’ It was done in such a disrespectful manner.”
Rucker, who has worked under Secretary of State Kris Kobach since Kobach took office in 2011, said that was not his intent.
He said he was laying the foundation for today’s voter registration and voter ID laws, which were part of the SAFE Act — Secure and Fair Elections Act — passed by the Legislature in 2011. Among the requirements are proof of U.S. citizenship to register to vote and presenting approved photo ID at the polls.
During the 1850s, pro-slavery supporters from Missouri came into Kansas territory to cast votes fraudulently, Rucker said.
For seven years, there was a tug-of-war between the state’s abolitionists and pro-slavery supporters over whether Kansas would enter the union as a free state.
To help stop illegal voting, the authors of the 1859 Wyandotte Constitution – which became Kansas’ state constitution – made sure there were provisions to establish U.S. citizenship and voter qualifications while also guaranteeing that future lawmakers could pass laws dealing with citizenship, Rucker said he told the group.
“We were very sensitive to voter fraud from the beginning,” he said.
Herman Hicks, an African-American pastor at the Greater Pentecostal Church, said he found Rucker’s opening an odd way to address a predominately black group. The Wyandotte Constitution also denied the right to vote to everyone except white men who were at least 21 years old.
“When you’re trying to have a discussion,” he said, “the first thing you should do is know your audience.”
Rucker said, “I was trying to make a point – and perhaps I’m more effective at some presentations than others – that Kansas from the beginning was very sensitive to whether people were citizens of the U.S. and whether they were residents of areas where they planned to vote.”
He said he frequently uses the Wyandotte Constitution as an example while giving talks about the SAFE Act.
David Griffis, who is white, attended the meeting. He belongs to the Ministerial League and is director of the Heartland Transformation Ministry Network, a predominately white group.
After the Ministerial League meeting, Rucker agreed to Griffis’ request to speak at a Heartland meeting later in the day.
“He was better at the second meeting,” Griffis said. “He meant the part (about the Wyandotte Constitution) as a positive, but he didn’t explain it well.”
“That’s always a possibility,” Rucker said.
Last month, a group of pastors led by the African Methodist Episcopal denomination spoke up about its concerns that the state’s voting requirements – enacted at Kobach’s urging – placed a hardship on minority, poor and first-time voters.
About 19,000 applications to register to vote are pending for various reasons, including additional citizenship documentation, according to Kobach’s office.
Those were some of the issues that the Ministerial League members said they hoped they could discuss with Rucker.
“But he was very rude, very defensive,” said Reuben Eckels, pastor at New Day Christian Church. “If you asked questions, he’d break in and cut you off.”
Kobach, who faces opposition from Scott Morgan in the Republican primary on Aug. 5, said he has talked to Rucker about the meeting.
“He said he felt they were disrespectful to him,” Kobach said.
Rucker said, “No one used expletives or any rude language. It was just that they were attempting to talk, and I was trying to talk at the same time.
“It was like a talk show where you have four guests and everyone was trying to talk at the same time.”
As for cutting others off, he said, “Where they were factually incorrect and expressed it in very pointed terms toward me, I reacted by saying, ‘That’s just not so,’ and said it strongly.”
Hicks said, “One time I asked him, ‘Cannot I speak and give my opinion?’ He said, ‘Not if it’s untruth.’ I told him, ‘Untruth? We have a right to speak up in our meeting.’ ”
Invitation to speak?
Some of that disagreement was related to how voter registration should be run in the state. But one of the more heated exchanges came between Hicks and Rucker over how President Obama was treated by Kobach’s office when he sought re-election in 2012.
“I’m sure we were saying some things (Rucker) didn’t want to hear,” said Hicks, who also is a retired Air Force colonel. “All these voting decisions in all these states originally started when Barack Obama became president.
“We felt like they wanted Obama to prove he was a citizen, and now they wanted everyone to prove they were a citizen.”
The issue revolved around whether Obama should be allowed on the Kansas ballot in 2012 after a Manhattan resident challenged the president’s U.S. citizenship.
“They were making statements about us giving Obama a hard time,” Rucker said. “Far from it.”
He said the State Objections Board – made up of Kobach, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer – had a legal obligation to respond to the complaint by the Manhattan resident.
Rucker said he told the group that was he was the one who contacted Hawaii officials to get the necessary documents to verify Obama’s citizenship.
Exactly how Rucker wound up at the meeting isn’t clear.
Moore, who is pastor at Christian Faith Centre, said Rucker wasn’t invited but “asked to talk to us.”
Rucker disagreed. He said the invitation came through Kobach’s office.
“Someone from the Ministerial League invited me,” he said. “I was on their agenda. I’m often asked to talk to groups about voter registration, and I routinely say yes.
“I didn’t invite myself.”
An online form normally must be completed before a person is even considered to speak at a Ministerial League meeting, Moore said. Rucker didn’t fill one out, he added.
“But out of respect for the secretary of state’s office,” he said, “Mr. Rucker was allowed to speak.”