Kris Kobach promised a largely business-oriented crowd that he won’t "change my tune" after the Republican primary election for governor, a signal to general election voters that they shouldn’t expect the controversy-courting Kansas secretary of state to moderate his positions if he wins his party's nomination.
Kobach delivered his take-it-or-leave-it message at a dinner organized by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce on Monday night at the luxury Oread Hotel in Lawrence. The event, with tickets running $50 to $100, brought together nearly all the major Republican and Democratic candidates for governor as well as independent Greg Orman.
“I’m not going to change my tune after the primary. And if people don’t want to vote for me, then don’t vote for me. But I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do, and I’m going to push very hard for that,” Kobach told the gathering of about 150. “And if people want a governor who just kind of makes everybody happy and says what you want to hear, then don’t vote for me. Because that won’t be me.”
The exclusive event revolved around question-and-answer sessions with the candidates conducted by Alan Cobb, the president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber. The rapid-fire sessions, lasting about 10 minutes each, amounted to political speed dating.
Or Bible characters, if you’re Democrat Josh Svaty, who spoke just before the last speaker of the night, Gov. Jeff Colyer.
“They said this was a random lineup, but if you think of the way they put it together, if you think of it in a biblical spectrum, you’ve been listening to a lot of the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament. I’m now John the Baptist … and I’m just preparing the way for Kansas Chamber Jesus, Gov. Jeff Colyer,” Svaty said.
That had the crowd laughing.
But amid the jokes, the largely friendly questions to the candidates still highlighted some stark differences.
Svaty said he opposes a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature final authority over total spending on public schools. Such an amendment would potentially limit lawsuits over funding, but Svaty disputed that idea.
“I don’t think it stops the litigation. I think that continues whether we change the constitution or not,” he said.
Insurance Commissioner and Republican Ken Selzer said he supports an amendment and that leadership is needed to pass it through the Legislature and send it to a statewide vote. Lawmakers considered an amendment this spring, but ultimately neither the House nor the Senate took a vote on it.
“If the people vote on it, they will pass it,” Selzer predicted.
Talk of an amendment percolated this spring as lawmakers debated how to respond to a Kansas Supreme Court decision that found schools are not adequately funded. Ultimately, lawmakers passed — and Colyer signed — an annual funding increase of more than $500 million that will be phased in over five years.
“The investments that we are making in K-12 education mean more teachers, better pay for teachers. It means better instructional opportunities,” Colyer said.
Several candidates were asked about immigration policy — a question that also spurred different approaches.
Orman called for a “tough, practical and fair” immigration policy. The answer echoed his position on the issue in 2014, when he ran for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Pat Roberts.
“We’re not going to find and deport 11 million people, nor would that be humane or advisable. Western Kansas would go away if we did that,” Orman said.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said it is difficult for states to deal with immigration on their own. She said she would put pressure on the Kansas congressional delegation to act on immigration policy at the federal level.
Immigrant labor is important and needed in Kansas, she said.
“We don’t want folks here illegally, but we have to provide a path for folks to come to this state to provide the labor” that businesses need, Kelly said.
Kobach said undocumented immigrants are keeping American citizens from jobs and driving down wages. He also repeated his call for Kansas to stop offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who live in Kansas.
“I didn’t pay him to ask that question,” Kobach joked when Cobb asked him about immigration. “It was totally random.”
Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman