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Kansas Democrats pick Repass as their new chair despite campaign baggage

A woman shaking her fist while standing behind a microphone and lectern.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
Jeanna Repass went into the the Kansas Democratic Party's meeting on Saturday with backing from the governor's and others to be the new party chair.

Jeanna Repass lost the race for Kansas secretary of state and now faces criticism from her former campaign manager.

TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas Democratic Party elected Jeanna Repass on Saturday to lead it into the 2024 election cycle and an effort to break a Republican supermajority in the Kansas Legislature.

Repass overcame controversy springing from her run last year for Kansas secretary of state. In the days leading up to Saturday's vote, she also fended off questions about whether she had exaggerated her educational credentials. She beat out Lynn Rogers, a former lieutenant governor and state treasurer.

Little separated the two candidates on policy as they lobbied delegates at the state convention. Both vowed to lead the party’s fight against the Republicans who dominate state government. Instead, they focused on their bona fides as progressive politicians.

Rogers touted himself as a defender of public education who’s spent years fighting for more state money for local schools. He said he wanted to bring more Kansans into the party and present an alternative to “far-right extremists” in the Republican Party.

A man standing at a microphone wearing a suit.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
Lynn Rogers, a former lieutenant governor and state treasurer, asked fellow Kansas Democrats to elect him the party's chair.

Meanwhile, Repass leaned into one of the main duties of the party chair — raising money. She pointed to her experience working to strengthen the finances of radio stations.

She also acknowledged the recent controversy surrounding her, but she said she would rise above it.

“There has been a lot of darkness for some terrible reason,” Repass said. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can.”

Repass appeared to win over many with her fiery passion. Monica Marks, a delegate from Sedgwick County, said she voted for Repass because she is energetic and will fight to get Democrats elected statewide.

“She’s progressive. She’s honest,” Marks said. “I’m excited to have a Black woman run the Kansas Democratic Party.”

After the vote, Rogers attempted to quell any lingering effects of division among the party and called for a unanimous voice vote to elect Repass.

Rogers lost the general election race for Kansas treasurer handily to Republican Steven Johnson. Rogers was a school board member in Wichita from 2001 to 2018. He was elected to the Kansas Senate in 2016 after switching his party registration from Republican to Democrat. In 2018, he was elected lieutenant governor on a ticket with Laura Kelly. Then Kelly appointed him treasurer when Republican Jack LaTurner left the job for a seat in the U.S. House.

Repass also lost a run for statewide office by a sizeable margin after landing the Democratic nomination and challenging incumbent Scott Schwab last year.

Key players in the state Democratic Party — U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, Kelly, Kansas House Minority Leader Vic Miller and Kansas Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes — all endorsed Repass on Wednesday.

“Each of us had the opportunity to get to know Jeanna’s leadership style, and her strengths make her the right leader for this moment,” they wrote in their endorsement letter.

Then Nicole Aghaaliandastjerdi, who’d served as campaign manager for most of Repass’ run for secretary of state, reached out to reporters to bring attention to a small claims lawsuit she’s levied against her former boss seeking $4,000. Aghaaliandastjerdi said that her last paycheck from the campaign bounced.

Aghaaliandastjerdi also questioned how committed Repass was to Democrats, saying the candidate spoke with disillusionment about the way she felt the state party had failed to back her candidacy.

That drew attention to the campaign’s finances. KCUR and the Midwest Newsroom reported that her campaign finance disclosures showed an unusual amount of unitemized expenses. They revealed relatively little spending on conventional costs like yard signs, polling, mailings or advertising.

And it appeared Repass had exaggerated her credentials, such as listing a “b.s.” from Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska, on her LinkedIn page. She had attended the school but did not gain a degree from Midland.

Repass said Aghaaliandastjerdi’s claim did not have “any merit” and that she was paid for her services until she left the campaign. She said her campaign spending reflected her approach of traveling the state to meet as many voters as possible in person. Repass said her LinkedIn page only reflected her attendance at Midland without claiming a degree.

Depending on who’s doing the analysis, the Kansas Democratic Party is either on the rise or unable to overcome its minority status in statewide and local elections. Donald Trump won the Electoral College votes from Kansas by wide margins in both 2016 and 2020. Republicans in the Kansas Legislature hold a potentially veto-proof supermajority. Both of its U.S. senators and three of the four U.S. House seats are held by Republicans. And the GOP won most of the statewide races last year by no-sweat margins.

Yet Kelly’s now been elected governor twice. And even though Republicans redrew Davids’ congressional district in a way that was aimed to weaken her reelection chances, she won again by a comfortable margin.

Registration among women, and Democrats, surged ahead of a constitutional amendment vote in August that would have stripped away abortion rights. Voters rejected the change by a 3-2 margin — and yet Democrats still lost most of the statewide races in November and saw control of legislative races solidify Republican clout in the Statehouse.

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As the Kansas social services and criminal justice reporter, I want to inform our audience about how the state government wants to help its residents and keep their communities safe. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning the effectiveness of state programs and law enforcement methods. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard. You can reach me at dlysen@kcur.org, 816-235-8027 or on Threads, @DylanLysen.
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