Editor's note: Charles Koch refers to himself as a classical liberal. A previous version of the article incorrectly characterized his political stance.
A liberal-leaning news channel put Wichita on the map Tuesday, lured by Charles Koch, who is sometimes known for supporting conservative political candidates but who calls himself a “classic liberal,” to promote several of his centrist policy proposals.
MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” took over Shocker Hall at Wichita State University to air a long interview with Koch and talk to local figures such as WSU president John Bardo and men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall.
“The Kochs are central figures in the 2016 presidential race,” said Joe Scarborough, a co-host of “Morning Joe.” The Koch interview did not include any endorsements of candidates and, at times, Koch rebuked both Republicans and Democrats.
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Several other Wichitans from Koch Industries, McConnell Air Force Base and Wichita State highlighted their contributions to issues as disparate as prison reform, military preparedness and Shocker basketball recruitment.
Mark Holden, the chief counsel for Koch Industries, said that in the past year he has been working harder than ever to push criminal justice reform in Washington. He hopes that Republican leadership will get behind the issue now that newly elected House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he won’t pursue immigration reform until after the 2016 elections.
“Speaker Ryan is very committed to poverty issues at the end of the day,” Holden said. “Criminal justice reform is a poverty issue, because it’s a two-tiered system that we’ve created: The wealthy have one experience, and if you’re poor, you’re going to get run over.”
Holden appeared with David Gilkey, a gang prevention coordinator with Rise up for Youth who has been advocating to “ban the box” on employment forms that requires former convicts such as himself to highlight their status as former convicts.
“I know what it’s like to put in an application and then when you leave, you know it goes into the trash,” Gilkey said just before his appearance. “I’m being judged by something that I did, but I always tell people you know what I did is not who I am; that is just something I’ve done.”
‘Can’t run away’
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, expressed skepticism about Ryan’s plan to delay immigration reform until after the election.
“If you’re talking about families that are impacted by an immigration system that is designed to separate as opposed to unite, that’s designed to keep out as opposed to assimilate, that becomes a real issue for (Republicans),” Steele said.
“Part of governing and leadership is you can’t run away from issues that are staring you right in the face,” Steele said. “You can’t just put that on the back burner and wait until after the election to deal with it.”
Before his appearance, Wichita State’s Bardo said that the three-hour show was a free commercial for WSU. He joked with Marshall the night before the show about switching roles. “I told him last night that I’ll do the team and he can do the innovation,” Bardo said.
The line to enter Shocker Hall at 4:30 a.m. was long. Some students said they stayed up all night to come watch the show, lured by the promise of donations to their favorite charities, free doughnuts and Shocker basketball tickets. The set was filled with WSU banners, and mascot WuShock ran around as students held signs and cheered in the background.
Alexi Brewer had a criminal justice textbook in tow and a new cellphone that she had cracked that morning in the excitement of waiting for the show.
Scarborough was impressed. “You come here at 3:30 or 4 in the morning, and there are kids that should be sleeping. I don’t know why they got up that early, but they came out and were excited,” he said.
Col. Albert Miller spoke on the show about how the Air Force is smaller but more capable than it’s ever been and about the role McConnell plays as a refueling hub that can reach any point on the globe.
Several national participants came away impressed. After Steele’s plane landed in Kansas, he joked, “Yep, it’s still flat. But what you find out when you get on the ground ... you’ve got great leadership here, you’ve got innovation, you’ve got companies that are looking to bring industries here.”
Scarborough said he has a new appreciation for how multidimensional the Kochs are.
“I think some of the concerns that some people might have can be very legitimate,” Scarborough said. “But what they don’t take into consideration is that they would love to fairly, legitimately debate it.”