The Kansas Republican Party paid for mailers that attack a Democratic candidate because his aviation company is certified to repair parts for the Chinese market.
The mailer, sent to The Eagle by a reader, shows the face of Democrat Keith Humphrey on a red plane with the stars of the Chinese flag in the background and warn that he is “DOING BUSINESS WITH CHINA’S COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT.”
Humphrey, a Navy veteran who is running for a seat in Senate District 28 in southeast Sedgwick County, owns a company that repairs jet parts. His company recently obtained a certification to make and repair parts for the Chinese market, which Humphrey said allowed his business to save 10 jobs and add five.
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The mailer shows an “obvious lack of understanding of the aviation industry in Wichita,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey doesn’t do any direct trading with China, but his company repairs parts for larger aviation companies, which sell those parts to China. The certification is necessary to maintain their business.
“It’s a big feather in our cap,” he said, noting that China is an increasingly important market for Wichita’s aviation industry.
The mailers cast the certification as something sinister, saying Humphrey’s business was “approved by the Chinese Government to maintain luxury and commercial aircraft for Chinese oligarchs with Communist Party ties.”
Asked why the party was sending out the mailers, Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said he was not directly involved in designing them.
“I don’t know who specifically came up with that message. It’d either be the candidate or the vendor, or both working together,” Barker said. “My role is generally … they send me a draft, I look it over, make sure it’s legally correct, the disclaimers. And then I sign off on it and then brought a check to the vendor and it goes out. I don’t really question the messaging.”
Barker said in a follow-up e-mail that he does not see any false statements in the mailers, which were done by Axiom Strategies, a Kansas City-based firm.
Democrats had previously alleged that a phone campaign had said Humphrey had communist ties.
His opponent, Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, told The Eagle he had no knowledge of the calls. Petersen did not return phone calls Monday about the mail campaign.
Axiom previously would not say whether it was behind the phone calls. Asked again after the mailers came to light, Travis Smith, a consultant with the firm, said he could not comment on the work his firm was doing for Senate Republicans and deferred questions to Senate President Susan Wagle’s office.
Wagle’s office earlier had said it was not involved in the phone campaign against Humphrey.
Harrison Hems, Wagle’s chief of staff, said Monday that Senate Republicans did hire Axiom to do research and polling in Petersen’s race and several others.
“Unlike the absolutely false attacks from Democrats against Senator Petersen, it is a proven fact that Keith Humphrey does business with China and has even boasted about it in the past,” Hems said in an e-mail.
China bought $986 million worth of Kansas goods in 2015, making it the state’s third-largest international trading partner behind Canada and Mexico, according to the federal International Trade Administration.
Gov. Sam Brownback visited China in 2013 and 2014 to promote Kansas products. In September, the governor touted the Chinese government’s decision to lift a ban on U.S. beef as “tremendous news for Kansas farmers and ranchers.”
The city of Wichita also operates an office in Beijing to promote the city’s aviation products.
Barker could not explain why the mailer criticized a candidate for making products for one of the state’s biggest trading partners.
“I don’t want to be evasive. I just don’t have a straight answer for you on it, one way or another. I’d have to go ask them what they were thinking on it,” Barker said.
“I don’t want to pass the buck completely,” he continued. “You know, I could kill any mailer if I thought it went over the line. And once or twice, I’ve done that over the years. But usually these are thought through and the candidate gives their input, and the vendor does poll-testing and creates the message. Even when candidates criticize Brownback – Republican candidates – I don’t drop those. If that’s the message they want, we pay for it.”
Other mailers, ads
The state GOP also paid for mailers and newspaper ads that refer to a Democratic House candidate in Topeka, Renae Hansen, as a “SOCIALIST INSIDER” and refer to incumbent Ken Corbet, R-Topeka, as an “OUTSIDER.”
Hansen spent 13 years working as a legislative aide at the Capitol, most recently serving as a committee assistant to House Health Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican. Hansen, a Democrat, said she has worked for only Republican lawmakers.
The socialist claim is based on Hansen’s support of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Kansas Democratic caucus. Sanders, who lost the primary race to Hillary Clinton, describes himself as a democratic socialist, a political orientation common in Europe.
“I felt like he was the best candidate. There were too many Republicans to choose from, and I just felt like Bernie had a lot of good ideas, but not because I’m a socialist,” she said.
The Kansas Democratic Party has sent out its own mailers attacking Petersen and linking him to Brownback. A Halloween-themed mailer portrays Brownback and Petersen as zombies. Another portrays Brownback as a tornado and says he and Petersen are making the state’s economy an “unnatural disaster.”
In addition to alleging communist ties, the GOP mailers say Humphrey “joined forces with Chinese filmmakers to write and produce a film about the Chinese mob.”
In 1999, Humphrey wrote a screenplay for “Miles Apart,” a film about a Hong Kong cop who goes up against the Triad. He said that opportunity arose out of his friendship with actor Michael Wong, whom he met on a visit to Hong Kong while he was living in the Philippines during the 1990s while working for an aviation company.
Humphrey visited the home of Hayley Hutchinson, a teacher who lives in the district, after she posted a photo of the mailers on Twitter on Saturday. Hutchinson said in an e-mail that it is clear Humphrey “cares a great deal about the community and has pride in his past and current work” based on the visit.
“I look at it as a positive now. I get two new voters out of it,” Humphrey said, referring to Hutchinson and her husband.