Accusations of threats, suggestions of personal enrichment and charges of a smear campaign.
Kansas Democrats are engaged in a heated battle over a top party official. The fight could come to a head next week when they gather in Wichita for Demofest.
The rift is exposing divisions among Democrats as they prepare for a gubernatorial election next year and a rematch with Republican Ron Estes for a congressional seat.
Party chairman John Gibson backs an effort to oust party secretary Casey Yingling, telling state committee members that the "time has come to stop Party officers from meddling in primaries for personal gain." Committee members may vote on the recall during Demofest.
Democratic congressional candidate James Thompson, who gained national attention for a competitive run against Estes this spring, has waded into the fight, blasting "unfounded accusations and innuendo" against Yingling. The dispute has put him in conflict with Kansas party leadership.
Yingling is part of Ad Astra Group, a political consulting firm that works for Thompson’s campaign. A recall petition circulating against her charges in part that she had a conflict of interest when she voted, as a member of the party’s executive committee, on a request to give the campaign $20,000.
Yingling says the allegations are untrue and says her supporters think the recall effort is detrimental to the party. She adds that "anyone in support of the petition is not focused on winning elections."
Gibson paints an expansive picture of behavior by Yingling that he contends warrants her removal. The Eagle obtained a letter Gibson sent to state committee members earlier this month laying out his case against her.
Party vice chair Vicki Hiatt and treasurer Bill Hutton also signed the letter.
Gibson said Wednesday that he did not want to comment beyond what he wrote, calling it an internal party matter.
Charges of threats
Gibson wrote in the letter that members of the state committee have reported receiving threats from a person "closely associated" with Yingling. He did not identify that person but wrote that multiple Democrats have expressed concerns of physical violence.
Yingling said she is only aware of one incident, on Aug. 23, when she says someone was harassing her through text messages at 1 a.m. and refused to stop despite numerous attempts to end the conversation.
At that point, Levi Henry, who created Ad Astra Group with Yingling, contacted the man and told him to stop.
According to screenshots of text messages Henry provided, he sent the man four texts at 1:07 a.m. after Yingling and the man began exchanging texts at 12:46 a.m.
"You don’t text women at 1 in the morning after they say talk to me tomorrow unless you want to get (expletive) up," Henry said in one message.
Yingling and Henry acknowledged the language was "salty” and “wasn’t great,” but Yingling said she felt strongly the man’s “actions were intended to intimidate and harass me, given the hour and tenor of the communication."
Henry said the messages weren’t meant to intimidate. Both Yingling and Henry said they were not aware of the petition at the time of the text exchange.
"That’s not something I participate in. I’m proud of the work I did in Democratic politics in the last 20 years and there’s a host of people, specifically in Wichita and all over the state, who would back up that’s just not how I’ve done business," Henry said.
Ty Dragoo, a Kansas labor leader, said he was threatened by Henry. Dragoo said Henry called him about the petition and that when he said he was considering signing it, the two got into an argument.
During the call, Henry said that signing the petition would be going against labor, according to Dragoo.
"He got more and more agitated and finally came out and said, ‘Ty if you (expletive) sign that thing, I’m going to come after you with everything I’ve got. And I lost it and I said, ‘Listen (expletive), no one talks to me that way, no one threatens me that way, I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what you’re up to but I don’t appreciate it,’” Dragoo said.
Henry called Dragoo’s account of the conversation “absolutely false.” He said he told Dragoo that a petition would be divisive and destructive not only for Democrats but also for organized labor.
“I recall my specific words as ‘this is going to cause a huge divide that will last generations and will take forever to heal,’” Henry said.
Henry said Dragoo accused Henry of threatening him. Henry said he did not make a threat.
Allegations of enrichment
The recall petition has been circulating among state party committee members since last month. It contends Yingling had a conflict of interest over her vote in March on a request from the Thompson campaign for $20,000.
The executive committee rejected the request, leading to tension between the party and the campaign in the weeks before the election.
"The attempted self-enrichment cited in the recall petition was neither the first nor the last attempt by Ms. Yingling to use KDP resources for her personal benefit," Gibson wrote.
Gibson also said Yingling has been unwilling to remain neutral in primaries and has actively recruited candidates to create primaries. Most of the candidates have little chance of winning their primaries, Gibson wrote, contending they generate income for Yingling.
"There is no evidence to substantiate these claims, and Mr. Gibson has refused every opportunity for me to provide him evidence that would otherwise disprove these claims," Yingling said.
She said Ad Astra has not solicited any new partisan clients since she became party secretary in February.
As the party’s dispute over Yingling has spilled into public view, Thompson has stood by Yingling and mentioned the controversy in fundraising.
Thompson, who lost to Estes in April by a closer-than-normal margin for a Democrat in the district, is running for the seat again.
In an email to supporters on Labor Day weekend, Thompson said his decision to run for Congress was motivated in large part by a wish to end “destructive insider games.”
“It is disappointing to see some party leaders continue to play them so recklessly," Thompson said.
Deciding Yingling’s future may dominate Demofest, if the recall petition is put to a vote.
"It doesn’t always present a good look to the voters when people in the party are fighting among themselves," said Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University.