Politics & Government

Former federal prosecutor hopes to break Kansas Dems’ losing streak in Senate races

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Sen. Pat Roberts announced that he will not seek reelection in 2020. Take a look at the potential contenders that could run to replace him.

Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom hopes to accomplish what no Kansas Democrat has done since 1932: Win a race for U.S. Senate.

The former federal prosecutor officially launched his campaign Monday after months of hinting at his interest in replacing retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. Grissom said he is undeterred as he seeks to end the state party’s eight-decades-plus drought—the country’s longest—in Senate races.

“Kansans aren’t keeping score on who’s won what. They want someone who is going to sit down and listen to them,” said Grissom, 65, when asked about his path to victory in the GOP-leaning state.

The Leawood resident served as U.S. attorney for the District of Kansas from 2010 to 2016, a position he was appointed to by President Barack Obama.

In the years since stepping down, he’s emerged as an outspoken critic of federal laws against marijuana and has served as corporate counsel for Electrum Partners, a Nevada firm that invests in the medical marijuana industry.

“My position on cannabis use, whether adult use or medical use I believe that’s something every state should have the right to decide,” Grissom said.

“When I was the United States attorney, the federal prosecutor, I had what I believe was a unique perspective. Cannabis prohibition doesn’t work. I’m very pro-law enforcement. When we spend money going after folks in the cannabis business I think it’s a waste of taxpayer money.”

Grissom’s campaign launch comes after meetings with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer earlier this year. The DSCC and Schumer have also had conversations with other potential candidates, including state Sen. Barbara Bollier, another Johnson County Democrat.

Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, the runner-up in last year’s Democratic primary for governor, has signed on to serve as Grissom’s campaign treasurer, which could be helpful as Grissom looks to shore up statewide support in a primary contest that could feature multiple candidates.

“I don’t necessarily put my name behind just any candidate, so that should say something that this guy is a good guy and that he’s demonstrated his compassion for our families and communities,” said Brewer, the first African American to be elected mayor of Wichita.

Grissom touted his record on gang violence and terrorism as the state’s top federal law enforcement official.

He pointed to the thwarted bombing plots against Wichita Mid-Continent Airport in 2013 and Fort Riley in 2016. Both cases resulted in lengthy prison sentences for the perpetrators.

But Grissom distanced himself from a scandal that has engulfed the U.S. Attorney’s Office since his departure.

Months after Grissom stepped down, a federal judge found that for-profit prison operator CoreCivic had illegally recorded phone calls between defense attorneys and pre-trial prisoners at Leavenworth Detention Center. Allegations that federal prosecutors improperly listened to these phone calls in some cases have endangered dozens of convictions.

The Federal Public Defender’s Office has alleged that the U.S. Attorney’s Office regularly obtained privileged communications from CoreCivic from 2013 to 2016, a period during which Grissom oversaw the office.

“And it did so with enough frequency that the USAO (United States Attorney’s Office) knew, or should have known, that its unregulated practice resulted in possession of privileged communications,” Federal Public Defender Melody Brannon’s office wrote in a 2019 court filing that does not directly mention Grissom.

“I was not aware of that alleged conduct,” Grissom said. “And if it’s a true and I was made aware of it those individuals would have been terminated.”

During his time as U.S. attorney, Grissom publicly sparred with then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who alleged that voter fraud was widespread and sought to become the only state election official in the country with prosecutorial power.

“It’s a complete lie,” Grissom said of Kobach’s claims. “As you recall Kris was going around saying this was a rampant problem and the irony was during my entire tenure as U.S. attorney he never referred one case to the FBI for investigation.”

Grissom said he would support a federal law to improve ballot access by allowing same-day voter registration. He pointed to Oregon, where 16-year-olds can pre-register to vote when they turn 18 and get their driver’s licenses.

Grissom’s old boss, former Attorney General Eric Holder, has emerged as one of President Donald Trump’s most outspoken critics among former Obama administration officials. Holder said last month that the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation provide grounds for impeachment.

But don’t expect the Kansas Democrat to follow Holder’s lead on Trump.

“When I go out and talk to people throughout Kansas it’s really interesting no one brings up the president,” Grissom said. “They really go back to what I would call bread and butter issues.”

Grissom pointed to health care as one of Kansans’ primary concerns and lamented the closure of rural hospitals in the state.

He stopped short of endorsing either the Medicare-for-all or more incremental steps, such as a public option or Medicare buy-in, but said he wants to focus on expanding health care access and affordability.

“I know folks like to use bumper sticker slogans like ‘Medicare-for-all,’” he said. “I’m really interested in what’s going to be the vehicle that allows all of us access to affordable health care… At this point in time, it’s really about gathering information to make informed decisions.”

Grissom cited public safety as another frequently expressed concern, saying that Kansans want to feel safe in their schools and houses of worship. However, he doesn’t want new sweeping gun control legislation.

“I think we need to enforce the law that’s on the books,” Grissom said. “Let’s make sure felons don’t have the ability to get weapons.”

The Kansas City Star’s Steve Vockrodt contributed to this report.
Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.
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