Published October 27th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Kansans will get a vastly different approach to enforcing the state’s laws depending on who they choose as the state’s next attorney general.
Republican Kris Kobach is focused squarely on the Biden administration, vowing to take on federal government overreach. He also vows to defend the state’s laws against the American Civil Liberties Union.
“My opponent thinks that having political experience is a liability,” Kobach said.
Democrat Chris Mann touts his real-world experience with crime as a former police officer and later as a county-level prosecutor, vowing to address the needs of Kansans closer to home by using the office to bolster protections from consumer fraud.
“I don’t have a political agenda like my opponent,” Mann said.
The candidates outlined their differences during a debate this week at KTWU, Topeka’s PBS affiliate, on the Washburn University campus. The debate, moderated by “Week in Review” host Nick Haines, will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Thursday on KCPBS.
The candidates answered a wide range of questions including abortion rights, Second Amendment rights, transgender athletes, the selection of judges and the security of the upcoming Nov. 8 election.
To combat crime, Kobach said that he would first encourage the legislature to amend current laws to address deaths caused by fentanyl that could be traced to pills sold by drug dealers.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment describes drug overdose deaths and overdoses that aren’t fatal as a “fast-moving epidemic that does not distinguish among race, age, sex, or state or county lines.”
Kobach also said he would focus on stopping drug cartels from bringing the highly lethal drug across the southern border.
But Kobach’s previous work at the U.S.-Mexico border was a point alluded to by Mann in several of his critiques.
Kobach recently resigned as general counsel for We Build The Wall, an effort that raised private dollars to try and construct new sections of a wall on private land. The idea was to enhance what is already constructed at many points along the nearly 2,000-mile border.
We Build The Wall was hit with federal accusations of fraudulently raising and spending some of the $25 million it raised. Several defendants have pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax charges. Stephen Bannon, a former advisor to former President Donald Trump, was pardoned by the former president to stave off his prosecution in the matter.
Mann mentioned Kobach’s association with the organization’s tainted history but didn’t drill into details.
He also noted that Kansas already has enhanced laws as Kobach proposes around the rising cases of overdose by fentanyl.
There is no “one size fits all” solution for the types of crimes that concern most citizens, Mann said.
He noted that cases of domestic violence have been increasing, a problem that might call for very different interventions than other types of crime.
If elected, Mann said that he’d urge the attorney general’s office to fill gaps in both prosecutions and investigations across the state.
Both men repeatedly referred to being “the only one on stage” with experience in one thing or another.
To be sure, their pedigrees and resumes are almost polar opposites. That fact drives their differing opinions on a range of topics that voters will now weigh.
On immigration, Mann said that it is largely a federal issue. But he said that the impact on Kansas is large, particularly when the need for legal workers in agriculture and the service industry is taken into account.
Also, within law enforcement, he noted that cooperation from people who might be witnesses to crime is enhanced if they don’t fear being undocumented.
Mann charged that Kobach had “spent decades pushing anti-immigrant” messaging.
To counter that allegation, Kobach referred to some of his previous comments, saying “our fentanyl problem is an immigration problem.”
He noted October’s massive bust of the synthetic opioid in Wichita. Law enforcement officials there estimated that they had recovered enough of the drug to potentially have killed every person in the city.
Each candidate was asked for their view of election drop boxes, which are often used to gather mail-in ballots.
Kobach opposes them, charging that their use makes it easier for someone to commit fraud when those votes are delivered to election officials.
Mann countered that the current Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, has said that drop boxes are safe, as are Kansas elections.
Drop boxes have become a talking point among some conservatives who believe election fraud is rampant.
In Arizona, a lawsuit was filed this week to keep citizen patrols, some of whom are armed, from intimidating voters who approach the boxes, often filming them.
Kobach is well known to both his supporters and detractors for his lengthy political career. He served eight years as the secretary of state in Kansas. He failed in an attempt to win the governorship when Gov. Laura Kelly was elected in 2018. And he has often worked with Trump as an advisor, especially in matters concerning elections, immigration and border security.
Kobach’s multiple campaigns to win public office were noted by Mann, who portrayed his opponent as being more concerned with winning an election than actually serving Kansans.
Kobach’s educational resume includes degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale universities. He also taught constitutional law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. And he worked at the U.S. Department of Justice under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Kobach pushed back on the idea that his views are out of sync with some Kansans, saying that he would “defend every law that is on the books whether I agree with it or not.”
Mann, by comparison, is a political novice.
But Mann upheld his decidedly lower public profile as a strength, underscoring his work out of the limelight. He was severely hurt early in his career as a Lawrence police officer by a drunk driver, suffering police career-ending injuries.
That led to his attending law school at Washburn, which allowed him to serve the public from a different vantage point. Mann advocated for changes in impaired driving laws, such as ignition locks for DUI offenders. He also has volunteered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, holding positions at the state and national levels.
He later was a prosecutor for the Kansas Securities Commission, helping people battle consumer fraud, especially when seniors are targeted.
“I held the hands of victims who lost their life savings to scam artists and then prosecuted those scam artists for crimes like fraud and money laundering,” Mann said. “Kris Kobach? He served as lead attorney and board member for an organization indicted for those very same crimes.”
Kobach countered the insinuation that he has ties to unsavory characters, emphasizing that among his lengthy list of backers, he’s gained the endorsement of 35 sheriffs in Kansas.
Mann counts the Kansas Livestock Association, the Kansas State Council of Firefighters, American Federation of Teachers-Kansas and multiple other labor unions among his backers.
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. This story is part of ongoing midterm election coverage by members of the KC Media Collective. The hour-long debate is part of KCPBS’ “On The Ballot” initiative.