MANHATTAN — U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback promised Wednesday to ramp up efforts to attract new jobs to rural Kansas if he's elected governor, but the Republican nominee quickly faced criticism from Democrats that he's out of touch with the state after a long career in Congress.
Brownback began a four-day, 32-city campaign bus tour Wednesday. The first day included a stop at a renovated railroad depot in Manhattan, where Brownback, a former Kansas agriculture secretary, picked up the endorsement of the Kansas Farm Bureau.
He outlined a proposal to create rural "free enterprise zones" and use incentives to attract jobs to rural communities, and he promised to push for greater broadband Internet access for them. His tour started a day after he told Wichita business leaders he wants to reform Kansas' tax system, though he's not offered specifics and said Wednesday that fixing the state's finances and its education funding formula are higher priorities.
About 70 supporters watched Wednesday morning as Brownback boarded his bus outside his Topeka campaign headquarters, and as many people were on hand in Manhattan. He's promoting a "Road Map for Kansas," goals he'd pursue as governor that include creating new private sector jobs.
"We have got to do a lot better on creating jobs in rural Kansas," Brownback said. "Over 80 percent of our counties have lost population over the last two decades."
Brownback didn't provide many details about how his "enterprise zones" would work but said they'd allow communities to seek job-luring incentives from the state now available for urban and suburban areas. He said he'd make sure efforts to expand broadband access are targeted to the state's most Internet-isolated areas.
Brownback has said his proposed initiatives would be "budget neutral," but he declined to say how they would be funded.
Democratic nominee and state Sen. Tom Holland's campaign has derided Brownback's platform as a vague "road to ruin" designed to hide a far-right agenda for Brownback, who's been known as a U.S. senator with conservative stances on social issues such as abortion. Holland has promised to improve the economy by investing in education and worker training.
On Wednesday, Holland's campaign suggested Brownback's proposal for rural development borrowed from efforts by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. At her urging, the state established an Office of Rural Opportunity three years ago.
Holland spokesman Seth Bundy also noted that the federal economic stimulus effort — which Brownback opposed — is financing an expansion of rural broadband access.
"Sam Brownback has gone from refusing to give details on what he would do as governor to copying programs that already exist," Bundy said. "Sam Brownback has no plan of his own and no idea what's been happening in Kansas."
Brownback, from Topeka, and Holland, from Baldwin City, are seeking to succeed Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson, who decided against running this year so that he can return to private business in January. Parkinson was elevated from lieutenant governor to governor in April 2009 when Sebelius, who was term-limited, resigned to become U.S. secretary of health and human services.
Brownback is using the bus tour to discuss his goals and to outline policy initiatives. Kenny Johnston, the Kansas Democratic Party's executive director, said Wednesday that Brownback is taking a "detour" from congressional votes against programs helping Kansas communities. Brownback has served in Congress since 1995, all but two years in the Senate.
"He's a career politician," Johnston said. "We know he's an expert at avoiding tough questions, especially when it comes to explaining why he made it tougher for Kansans to live, work and raise a family."
Brownback laughed at Democrats' suggestion that he's out of touch, noting that he's maintained his home in Topeka throughout his congressional career. He defended his vote against the stimulus and other initiatives that he viewed as increasing the federal debt.
"We're laying out ideas here," he said. "You're not going to be able to grow Kansas if you're going to load the federal government with trillions more of debt, because that's going to be a lug on the overall economy."