The Libertarian candidate for Kansas governor transformed himself from trash collector to crusading attorney after battling for his own right to free speech before the U.S. Supreme Court, a case he won.
He’s hoping he can defy the odds again and pull off a victory in November against Gov. Sam Brownback and Democrat challenger Paul Davis.
Keen Umbehr had a trash-hauling contract with Wabaunsee County, but the county commissioners terminated his contract after Umbehr criticized them in the local newspaper. Umbehr filed suit, alleging that his First Amendment rights had been violated, and the case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1996 the court sided with Umbehr in a 7-2 decision that affirmed that private contractors working for the government are entitled to the same free speech rights as government employees.
“We had a lot of opportunities to settle,” Umbehr said. “But I’m not the settling kind of guy. And it worked out well for us because we got a great ruling.”
The experience inspired him to sell his trash-hauling business and pursue a career as an attorney, earning his law degree from Washburn University in 2005.
“When … my oldest son started going to college, I thought, ‘Man I have got to get to college.’ I went to K-State, studied political science and went onto Washburn Law to become a lawyer. And I’m a lawyer.”
His running mate is his son, Josh Umbehr, a physician who lives in Wichita. The younger Umbehr, the second of four sons, roomed with his father while they both attended K-State.
Josh Umbehr recounted that during his legal battles with the county, his dad used to take his teenage sons with him to the Washburn Law library fresh off a shift on the trash truck.
“We’d park the trash truck right there in the parking lot, we’d do our homework and dad, with the help of the librarian, taught himself how to do legal research,” he said. “It was very interesting that, ‘Hey, a trashman can be a lawyer.’
“I think we grew up with a different idea of what normal was. And in our house it was pretty normal to bust the system.”
Fair tax law
If he pulls off a long shot victory, Keen Umbehr said he would demand passage of fair tax legislation.
Umbehr said it was immoral for a wage earner to pay income tax, while sole proprietors, such as himself, do not have to pay income tax on their businesses. He would eliminate the income tax completely and replace it with a 5.7 percent consumption tax on goods and services.
“They have to equalize the tax code for everybody, A to Z, all at once. And failure to do that, I will veto every single piece of legislation they bring me until they fix this,” he said. “Because this is the most insidious. This makes 1.4 million W-2 wage earners the tax slaves of the state of Kansas.”
Umbehr accused House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, of preventing fair tax legislation from going to the House floor. Merrick responded with an e-mailed statement.
“It is easy to stand on the outside and make outlandish claims when you don't even attempt to understand the entire story,” Merrick’s statement said. “There have been hearings on the Fair Tax in the House and it has failed to receive enough support.
“However, as I have repeatedly told supporters of the Fair Tax, just like any other bill, if it is the will of at least 63 members I would not stand in the way.”
Until August 2013, Umbehr said he was registered as a Republican.
“I was so frustrated with the Republican Party,” he said. “They wanted my time. They wanted my money. But they didn’t want my opinion on anything.”
He began researching the Libertarian Party, which seemed to be a better fit and considers himself a “conservative Libertarian.”
Umbehr criticized House Republicans for supporting a bill that would have allowed public and private employees to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
“This piece of legislation is based upon the religious tenet that homosexuality is bad, bad, bad … It was used to whip up well-meaning Christian people who don't have all the facts, who say, ‘Well, we should protect our religious values.’
“Well, you don’t protect religious values by making a law. You can’t make any law that inhibits or advances a religious tenet. And that’s what this is.”
On education, Umbehr said that there should be more school choice in Kansas and that state money should travel with a student whether they attend public or private school.
He breaks from some Libertarians on the issue of marijuana. He believes it should not be legalized for recreational use, but would support legalization for medical purposes.
In addition to his Supreme Court battle, Umbehr has tangled with the Kansas Department of Corrections and won.
He represented a female inmate at the Topeka Correctional Facility who was impregnated by a guard after an alleged rape incident and was made to have an abortion, she claimed, against her will.
In 2009 Umbehr brought Tim Carpenter, a reporter with the Topeka Capital-Journal, along with him to interview clients at the prison. The resulting articles exposed sexual abuse of female prisoners by guards and prompted an investigation of the facility by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The stories also helped push the state to elevate the offense of a guard having sex with an inmate to a felony with a presumptive prison sentence.
The stories also prompted Charles Simmons, the deputy secretary of corrections, to bring a misconduct complaint against Umbehr with the state’s disciplinary review board, alleging that Umbehr had misrepresented Carpenter as a legal assistant.
“The Deputy Secretary of Corrections filed a complaint against Keen to try and ruin his legal career,” said Carpenter, who said he was interviewed multiple times by the disciplinary review board. “And they kept wanting Keen to plead to a lesser (charge), and I’d say very courageously he refused.
“He was very aggressive in pursuing justice, according to him. And in the end, he was completely exonerated. Completely.”
The Department of Corrections declined to comment on the controversy.
One of Umbehr’s key issues is greater government transparency.
“We’re all for transparency until we’ve got some bad information to get out,” Umbehr said of state officials.
He said he would like to create an ombudsman’s office that would be charged to investigate grievances against the state government. He also believes that the state should conduct its own investigation of fraud charges levied against Kansas by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission for misrepresenting the state’s pension liabilities in 2009 and 2010.
The state conceded to the charges without admitting wrongdoing and has instituted new transparency measures. But Umbehr thinks that Brownback, who took office after the incidents took place, should pursue a state investigation and bring charges against the former officials responsible.
“Why didn’t Brownback call for a top-to-bottom investigation of that? Well, because he’s still the benefactor of these bonds,” Umbehr said. “We misrepresented the strength of our state in order to sell $275 million of bonds. This is Watergate stuff!”
The Brownback campaign declined to respond to Umbehr’s criticism.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said that Umbehr’s story – a trash collector who fights all the way to the Supreme Court and wins – could appeal to some voters who are tired of Brownback but unsure about Davis.
“It’s a very compelling story,” Beatty said. “And it’s different than your average third-party candidate. I think there’s a lot of appeal here.”
The challenge, Beatty said, will be getting his message out with limited resources – the Umbehr campaign raised less than $20,000 between January and July – and less media attention than the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Umbehr said his strategy is simple: tell the truth.
“I don’t have to worry about myself because the truth is the truth,” he said.
Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University, said that Umbehr could potentially draw supporters away from both Brownback and Davis.
“If Umbehr outperforms your typical Libertarian candidate he could end up being the difference between winning and losing for the other two candidates,” Rackaway said.
“You could certainly see him brokering an election. We’re not talking about him winning. But could he play a significant role in this election? Absolutely.”
If Umbehr earns 5 percent of the vote, Libertarians will be added to the primary ballot, which Rackaway said would be a victory for Umbehr.
Umbehr thinks he can get 35 percent of the vote, with Davis and Brownback splitting the rest.