Kris Kobach holds what should be one of the quietest jobs in government: Kansas secretary of state.
Yet it’s hard to find anyone who stays very quiet when asked about Kobach: He’s either loved or loathed.
He is “one of the most talented people I’ve ever encountered,” said former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a fellow Republican and close friend. “It’s in the interest of our country to have people of his integrity and quality.”
Mark Potok, senior fellow for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors conservative groups, views Kobach much differently: “Wherever Kris Kobach goes, sorrows and trouble follow.”
Kobach, who turned 46 last week, is accustomed to such intense and divergent verdicts on his work — he is the very definition of a political lightning rod.
But the general public may soon hear a much louder argument about the former law professor and current legal consultant. The whispers in some Republican and media circles are growing: Kobach for Senate. Kobach for U.S. attorney general. Or maybe something even higher.
“He is the next wave, the future of the leadership in Kansas, and is a rising star nationally,” said Jeff Roe, a GOP political consultant based in Kansas City.
Kobach chuckles about the lofty speculation. “I have no current plans to run for president of the United States,” he insisted in an interview with the Kansas City Star.
How did Kobach move from a failed Kansas congressional candidacy in 2004 to a spot on the long list of possible 2016 GOP presidential candidates?
A focus on immigration and voter fraud, supporters and opponents agreed. And enthusiasm for both issues among conservative media.
Kobach is now considered the GOP’s top strategist in the campaign against illegal immigration. He’s become a key adviser to presidential front-runner Mitt Romney on the issue and has filed numerous court papers on immigration law around the country.
His push for voter ID requirements has taken him to Wichita and Roeland Park this year, where he has watched election officials implement one of the nation’s newest picture ID initiatives.
He’s talked at length about these and related issues on conservative media. The O’Reilly Factor. Lou Dobbs. He hasn’t made the cover of Rolling Stone, but he has been on the cover of Governing Magazine.
Critics have attacked Kobach’s publicity-friendly work habits, claiming he’s more interested in image building and media face time than the state’s numerous political challenges.
But Kobach makes no apologies for ranging beyond the job description of secretary of state, which is usually focused on such mundane government functions as business registration and the publication of state regulations.
“If you want a secretary of state who’s going to play five rounds of golf a week, don’t elect me,” said Kobach, whose office shelves are lined with books about the American court system, and the walls are decorated with the heads of two deer he killed with a bow and arrow.
Kobach began his focus on immigration following a stint as a White House Fellow at the U.S. Justice Department about the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He made opposition to illegal immigrants a centerpiece of his congressional campaign against U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, and then expanded his critique as a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Perhaps his most controversial effort was helping draft the tough Arizona immigration law that was later partially struck down by a federal appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case next month.
For those working to halt illegal immigration, Kobach’s leadership role is unmistakable and irreplaceable.
“God forbid he ever gets hit by a Mack truck or something. From our point of view, it would change the course of history,” said Mike Hethmon, general counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which employs Kobach on the side and sees its job as protecting Americans from uncontrolled illegal immigration.
“He’s at the forefront of leading our nation on immigration reform,” agreed U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., the former mayor of Hazleton, Pa., who worked with Kobach on drafting tougher laws controlling illegal immigration.
As an immigration lawyer, Kobach gets high praise from the officials who have worked with him in other states, including former state Sen. Russell Pearce of Arizona.
“He’s national hero in my book for helping us to get this stuff passed and introduced in states all over America,” said Pearce, who co-wrote the law but was recalled by voters last year in part because of his work for the measure.
To be sure, Kobach has plenty of detractors who believe his efforts to defend immigration laws stir racial unrest at taxpayer expense. He’s been derisively portrayed in headlines as “America’s Deporter-in-Chief,” an “anti-immigration hawk,” and a “nativist” lawyer.
“He definitely is very focused on putting forth at the local and state level anti-immigrant proposals that seem to be progressively more punitive and more and more repressive,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration at the National Council of La Raza.
“From our perspective, it just seems he is more interested in pursuing the scorched-Earth, anti-immigrant tactics that he believes in than in the well-being — economic or otherwise — of the jurisdictions that follow his misguided lead on these issues,” Martinez added.
Kobach strenuously rebuts charges that he’s driven by racism, calling them absurd.
“Our immigration laws are designed to protect people of all races so that everybody comes to this country under the same rules regardless of what skin color you have,” Kobach said. “It’s a superficial argument that people are making and they are doing it because they don’t have anything left to say.”
Kobach has been involved with at least six cities and states that have drafted new laws intended to combat illegal immigration. So far, he’s had mixed results in court.
He’s lost cases in Kansas and California seeking to strike down laws that offer in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. But he helped the St. Louis suburb of Valley Park successfully defend a law banning employers from hiring illegal immigrants.
And he was on the winning side when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law that punished employers for hiring illegal immigrants, which opened the door for other cities and states to enact similar laws.
During this year’s Kansas legislative session, Kobach faced critics at home, especially as he has pushed to move up the date when the state begins requiring those registering to vote to show proof of citizenship.
Even as he testified in favor of tougher controls on illegal immigration in front of a House committee earlier this year in Topeka, hundreds outside the Capitol could be heard chanting and banging on drums in protest of some of the very policies he was advocating inside.
Just last week, about 40 people, many carrying brightly colored signs, staged a rally in front of the Capitol protesting Kobach’s voter ID measures.
Within the past year, Kobach — now the state’s chief elections supervisor — has extended his portfolio to include voter oversight and reform.
“Photo ID laws are good for our country,” he said. “Proof of citizenship laws to register are good for our country.”
Kobach is well aware that people who dislike his policies “are squealing and complaining, but that’s OK. They’re entitled to disagree. But the bottom line is, I’m right.”
Campaign finance records show that Kobach is getting increased support from other ballot access activists.
He’s received contributions from Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department lawyer in the Bush administration who advocated for voter ID laws and was criticized for pursuing election strategies that had the effect of suppressing the minority vote.
Von Spakovsky, now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, praises Kobach’s voter ID efforts in Kansas, including requiring proof of citizenship to vote.
“I could see he had great ideas about how to improve our election process,” von Spakovsky said. “I think he’s a very smart guy and I think he’s a very principled person.”
Some Democrats, however, argue that Kobach’s work may be more focused on depressing voter turnout.
“There should be no question that the secretary of state is going to administer fair and impartial elections. When you’re working for clients that aren’t interested in the election process to a certain degree … it leads to questions about the person’s ability to really do the job in a completely impartial manner,” said House minority leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence.
Smart and political
Being viewed as such a polarizing figure is nothing new for Kobach.
Born in Wisconsin, the future secretary of state moved to Topeka with his family in the mid-1970s. He quickly gained a reputation as smart and political. He graduated from Washburn Rural High School in 1984 as co-valedictorian and class president.
As an undergrad at Harvard in the 1980s, he opposed the university divesting from companies that did business in racially segregated South Africa. He said divestiture was a bad idea because many businesses were actually taking steps in South Africa to undermine apartheid.
And while serving on the Overland Park City Council, he butted heads with the longtime mayor. During his 2004 congressional campaign, he fended off charges of racism after joining the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform to challenge a Kansas law giving children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.
Republicans think Kobach will be able to overcome many of those criticisms if he seeks higher office. But they worry his work outside the office may create a bigger political target for an opponent.
Kobach, who is married with four daughters ranging in age from 5 months to 8 years, said the amount of time he spends on immigration work ebbs and flows, depending on when legal briefs are due. Sometimes he’ll work until after 2 a.m.
“It may cut down on my total amount of sleep. But I bring a lot of energy to this job,” he said.
Kobach won’t discuss how much he makes “moonlighting” with his outside immigration legal work while holding down his $86,000-a-year-job as secretary of state. He said he doesn’t do it for the money.
But he’s been paid at least $424,000 in legal fees and expenses during the past five or six years for work he’s done in various jurisdictions, according to figures obtained by the Star.
During 2010, Kobach reported income from 10 groups, including the Immigration Law Reform Institute, which lists him as senior counsel but pays him on a fee-for-service basis.
He also reported income of $2,000 or more from the Federalist Society, the Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund, and Maricopa County, Ariz., home of well-known Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose office has been accused by the federal government of enforcing immigration laws based on racially driven complaints.
Kansas law allows elected officials wide discretion in how they allocate their time. No state law directly prohibits outside employment for the secretary of state, although four Democratic senators introduced a bill last year that would have blocked more than two dozen state officials from working outside the office for more than 10 hours a week.
The bill failed.
Yet, Kobach’s outside work riles liberal activists and Democratic state legislators. They mock Kobach’s far-ranging travels, and each week distribute a news release titled: “Where’s Kris Kobach?”
Kobach takes it all in stride. He said he maintains a separate cellphone for immigration calls. He said he does a lot of his immigration work on his personal computer.
Almost a year ago, conservative columnist Ann Coulter mentioned Kobach as a potential presidential candidate in 2016 — an opinion that spread like wildfire across the blogosphere.
Recently, he formed a political action committee, one of the must-take steps for any ambitious national politician. The PAC, he said, will help candidates fighting voter fraud. After the move drew flak from opponents, he defended it by noting that past secretaries of state have made political donations to candidates, too.
“When a conservative secretary of state sets up a PAC, (critics say) ‘oh, we can’t have that.’ Their hypocrisy is so obvious that it’s laughable,” Kobach said.
Asked if he has plans to seek higher office, Kobach demurs.
But when pressed on whether he wants to be president someday, Kobach said: “If someone handed it to me on a silver platter, I’d probably take it.”