They argued about abortion rights. They debated taxes. They even tackled water policy.
Four teens running for Kansas governor appeared together at a forum at Lawrence Free State High School on Thursday, possibly months before the adult candidates will do the same. The candidates sought to persuade dozens of students, some of whom can vote.
“This needs to be a government that represents everyone, not just 30 years old up,” said candidate Dominic Scavuzzo.
The sight of four candidates, all under 18, competing for the state’s highest office is made possible by a quirk of Kansas law, which sets no age restrictions for governor. Some other states set minimum ages; it’s 30 in Missouri, for example.
The teens are part of a large field of candidates: At last count, 18 candidates – all men – had jumped in.
Ella Keathley, a 16-year-old junior at Free State High School who organized the forum, said having students hear from candidates their age would help them relate to political issues.
“In past political events, I was like ‘I can’t say anything about this, there’s nothing I can do.’ So I felt it was important to teenagers to see other teenagers doing this and not being told by some 30-year-old male that this is our future when obviously it can be taken into our own hands,” Keathley said.
The discussion focused largely on policy proposals, with only a few questions about how the candidates would handle high school if elected (one would get a GED).
Ethan Randleas, a 17-year-old Wichita Heights High School student running as a Republican, championed a strict version of libertarianism: Repeal the corporate income tax and deregulate the healthcare industry. Private roads are OK.
Jack Bergeson, a 16-year-old Democrat attending the Independent School in Wichita, wants a $12 minimum wage. He proposes a $1,000 cap on donations to candidates. And Kansas needs a comprehensive high-speed rail system connecting major cities in the region.
Tyler Ruzich, a 17-year-old Republican from Johnson County, assailed budget cuts under Gov. Sam Brownback. He wants to strengthen Medicaid and supports criminal amnesty for drug users who seek medical attention.
Scavuzzo, 17, also a Johnson County Republican, doesn’t want high taxes. But he says the state needs to better distribute aid to school districts: some get too much, others not enough.
Despite clashes over some issues, the teens agree to some extent on the need to decriminalize marijuana.
“I think we all share the common belief, especially on drug policy, that it’s time to change our dialogue on medical marijuana and recreational marijuana,” Ruzich said.
The forum, in the school’s gym, was civil and students spent about an hour asking questions. Still, moments of tension surfaced.
Ruzich had finished answering a question about paying for roads. “Laissez faire” economics failed in Kansas, he said.
Randleas, who is open to private roads, responded by asking if “you use the road as much as I do? You don’t drive yet, so you don’t.”
That prompted a stream of “ooohs” and murmurs from the audience.
Other questions also exposed splits between the candidates – including on abortion.
“I’m Catholic. I go to a Catholic high school. I’m pro-life. I truly believe every life should be protected from conception,” Scavuzzo said.
Bergeson said he supported abortion rights, but wanted to make changes to make abortion a less frequent choice.
“I am for streamlining the adoption process and making it easier to get contraception,” Bergeson said.
One student asked about the future of the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to much of western Kansas. The long-term viability of the aquifer is in question, and Brownback has promoted policies intended to rebuild it.
Randleas suggested allowing irrigation and the water supply to become a private industry.
“The supply and demand will never allow the good to run out of supply. It will raise the price to allow the people who really need to use it, use it,” Randleas said.
Jake Zenger, 16, said he enjoyed the event and hearing the candidates’ opinions. He acknowledged the candidates probably didn’t have much support among Kansans but he still found the forum valuable.
“It’s good to just see what the younger age groups of people are thinking,” Zenger said.
Izabella Fletcher, 16, wants to get into politics and plans to attend the University of Kansas as a pre-law student.
She said she appreciated the honesty of the teen candidates.
“Typically, politicians play sort of a game,” Fletcher said. “They don’t like to answer questions so directly because they’re trying to kind of please everyone.”