Politics & Government

Kansas Democrats escalate fight over guns, abortion in governor's race

Sen. Laura Kelly gives her closing statement in a debate Thursday night between the Kansas Democrats running for governor.
Sen. Laura Kelly gives her closing statement in a debate Thursday night between the Kansas Democrats running for governor. The Wichita Eagle

Two major Democratic candidates for Kansas governor are sharpening their attacks over guns and abortion with a month left before the party’s first contested primary for governor in 20 years.

A debate on Thursday evening in Topeka produced the sharpest exchanges yet between former state representative Josh Svaty and state Sen. Laura Kelly. Their conflict centers on Kelly’s past record of voting against restrictions on firearms and Svaty’s past record of anti-abortion votes.

Kansas lawmakers, including Kelly, voted in 2015 to allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Previously, people needed a permit that required training.

“We had sensible gun laws in this state and they were erased in the past eight years. And Sen. Kelly, you were part and parcel in making that happen,” Svaty said.

As the drumbeat of mass shootings has continued, pressure has risen on states to take action amid inaction in Congress. In Kansas, the rare Democratic primary is also forcing Kelly to respond to her past record.

“I did vote for that and immediately recognized that we had gone way too far and have since voted to repeal it,” Kelly said.

Kelly said that with a more-moderate Legislature and a moderate Democratic governor, Kansas can put new laws in place. She said that over the past couple years, she has voted in favor of tightening restrictions, including once again banning guns on state college campuses.

Former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer didn’t engage in the fight between Kelly and Svaty. He said guns don’t belong in schools. He said he is not against the Second Amendment, and enjoys hunting.

“It’s about common sense, not stupidity,” Brewer said.

Jack Bergeson, who entered the race as a Wichita high school student, said he would support allowing armed teachers with training in some rural schools, where law enforcement may take a long time responding.

He also said anyone wanting to have a concealed weapon should go through “rigorous training.”

Just as Svaty went after Kelly over guns, Kelly later went after Svaty over his anti-abortion voting record while in the Kansas House more than a decade ago.

When the candidates were asked about abortion, Svaty answered before Kelly and offered an early rebuttal, telling the audience that he would veto any new restrictions on abortion rights. He also noted that his running mate, Katrina Lewison, supports abortion rights.

Kelly said the retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy makes the task of electing a governor with a “strong, consistent record” of supporting abortion rights even more important.

Supporters of abortion rights fear the landmark Roe v. Wade court decision that legalized abortion nationwide may be at risk because President Donald Trump is expected to nominate a more conservative justice to replace Kennedy.

“Promising to veto any further restrictions is a very hollow promise,” Kelly said. “It would be like me promising you that I won’t make the foster care system any worse than it is now.”

Svaty shot back at Kelly that “it would kind of be like you saying we have to stand up to Kris Kobach, even though you voted for his voter registration SAFE Act.” The SAFE Act put in place Kansas’s requirement that people registering to vote provide proof of citizenship.

A federal judge recently found the law unconstitutional after a civil trial where Kobach represented himself. The state attorney general’s office is appealing.

Kelly told reporters after the debate that most lawmakers had voted for the SAFE Act. She also said she voted against allowing the secretary of state’s office to prosecute voter fraud.

Brewer indicated he viewed women’s health care as a civil rights issue. He said each person should have access to care. He said he will always be in favor of abortion rights.

“None of us having any damn business telling any woman she ought to do with her body,” Brewer said.

Arden Andersen, an Olathe physician, said he refers women to Planned Parenthood. He said he understands from a doctor’s perspective the importance of allowing women’s choice.

“It’s really a human rights issue,” Andersen said