It will be a one-sided debate at a Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce election forum today, with three incumbent Republican senators planning to skip it after the chamber’s political action committee sent out a mass mailing supporting their opponents.
Sens. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, and Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, held a joint news conference Wednesday to criticize the chamber over the mailer. It urges voters to support the candidates challenging for their seats: Rep. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell and businessman Gary Mason.
The mailer decries Boeing Co.’s decision to move jobs out of Wichita and urges voters to take a “new direction” and vote for the challengers in the Aug. 7 Republican primary.
Kelsey said the chamber’s PAC had decided to support the challengers with direct donations and the separate mass mailer without interviewing any of the incumbents, all of whom had received chamber support in the past.
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“They did not provide one of us with the opportunity to come in and sit down and discuss their concerns, our viewpoints and so forth,” Kelsey said. “And then they want us to come to a forum tomorrow where they can ask some gotcha questions and try to embarrass us, and we’re just not going to be a part of that.”
McGinn had already informed the chamber that she wouldn’t attend the forum because of a conflicting commitment, but she participated in the news conference to support Kelsey’s and Schodorf’s decision to boycott the event.
During the news conference, Schodorf held up a poster outlining projects and priorities that the three senators had supported in Topeka at the chamber’s request.
They included airfare subsidies for Mid-Continent Airport, the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, the National Center for Aviation Training at Jabara Airport and expansions of engineering, nursing and technical training.
“It seems like the focus to get jobs, good jobs to Wichita, has been lost by the chamber, at least the chamber PAC,” Schodorf said.
Jason Watkins, the chamber’s lobbyist and director of its PAC, said the three challengers support all the initiatives the senators named “and everything else on the chamber agenda.”
The challengers would do more to cut taxes, reduce regulation on business and reduce the size of government, Watkins said.
Of the incumbents and the forum, Watkins said, “We’d love to have them.”
As a candidate, “why wouldn’t you want to come and answer questions and get feedback from the people who are creating jobs?” Watkins said.
The chamber PAC and the chamber are affiliated groups, but ruled by different boards and bylaws.
The chamber board membership is a matter of public record; the PAC does not publicly disclose the names of the board members who guide its political decisions.
However, state disclosure records show that Mason, who moved from Wichita to Park City last month to run against McGinn, served as treasurer of the chamber PAC until late last year.
“My opponent was … the head of the governmental relations (for the Chamber PAC),” McGinn said. “I believe he gave that up at the end of this last year, but you would have to confirm that with him.”
“He did sign the check for her (from the chamber PAC) that was given four years ago,” Kelsey said.
“That’s true,” McGinn said.
Mason acknowledged that he served as PAC treasurer until about September, when he stepped down to run for the Senate.
He said he remains on the board but leaves the room when the panel discusses his race. He said he did participate in discussions on the other candidates.
Kerschen, O’Donnell and Mason are associated with an effort by Gov. Sam Brownback and other conservatives to target senators who resisted the governor’s efforts this year to make deep cuts in taxes and spending.
The House is already aligned with Brownback’s priorities, and unseating a few moderate Senate Republicans would shift the Statehouse balance of power and give Brownback and his allies nearly full control of the Legislative process.
Until this year, Kelsey had been strongly allied with the conservative wing of his party. But he fell out with some conservatives when he proposed his own tax-cut plan to compete with Brownback’s and clashed with the governor over privatizing home-care services for people with developmental disabilities.
Schodorf identifies herself with the moderate Republicans, and McGinn falls between Schodorf and Kelsey on the political spectrum.
Those who do want to see a clash between the senators and their challengers won’t have too long to wait.
All six candidates are scheduled to face off at 11:45 a.m. Friday at the Wichita Pachyderm Club in the Petroleum Club on the ninth floor of the Bank of America Building, 100 N. Broadway, Wichita.
Pachyderm meetings are open to the public with the purchase of a $10 buffet lunch.