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Politics, Elections and Government

In Johnson County, Conservative Republican Incumbents Are Often No-Shows At Forums

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Elle Moxley
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KCUR 89.3
Democrats Mike Czerniewski, left, and Logan Heley, as well as Republican Dinah Sykes, participate in a Senate District 21 forum sponsored by the Lenexa Chamber of Commerce. The incumbent, Sen. Greg Smith, R-Lenexa, did not attend.

More often than not, Republican incumbents in Johnson County are skipping what was once a mainstay of campaign season – the candidate forum.

I’m not talking about one or two no-shows. I’m saying the League of Women Voters invited every candidate in a contested primary to participate in a political meet and greet in June, but not one of 14 Republican incumbents showed up.

Their challengers did, but they didn’t.

Which begs the question: where are current lawmakers campaigning?

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Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Sen. Greg Smith, R-Lenexa, marches in the 2016 Lenexa Community Days parade.

“I mean, if you’re in Northeast Johnson County, this is the place to be,” Sen. Greg Smith, R-Lenexa, tells me at the Lenexa Community Days Parade on July 4. “We do this every year, not just election years.”

But when I asked Smith if he had any forums, debates or town halls planned for the month of July, he shrugged.

“Not right now that I’m aware of,” he said.

Smith mentions some upcoming travel, so I’m not surprised when the moderator at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum a week later says the senator is in D.C. I figure Smith, whose daughter was murdered in 2007, is lobbying on behalf of her foundation. I want to give him a chance to talk about it, so I give him a call.

Except Smith doesn’t respond to my message or any of the others I leave.

I end up following his primary challenger, a more moderate Republican, as she canvasses in Lenexa’s Park Hurst neighborhood.

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Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Dinah Sykes, right, and Leesa Gabel, canvass in Lenexa's Park Hurst neighborhood in mid-July. Sykes is hoping to unseat Sen. Greg Smith, R-Lenexa. Gabel is challenging Rep. Keith Esau, R-Olathe.

“Hi, good evening! My name is Dinah Sykes, and I’m running for Kansas Senate to restore common sense to Topeka.”

The homeowner laughs. “Good luck with that.”

“I wouldn’t be out here walking if I didn’t think I had something to offer,” Sykes replies.

Ask politicians how they spent their summer vacations in an election year, and they’re pretty much obligated to say, “I knocked on a lot of doors.”

Sykes estimates she’s knocked on more than 7,000 in her quest to unseat Smith.

“I just say, ‘I notice you have my opponent’s sign in your yard. I just want to introduce myself, I’m Dinah,’” she says.

If no one’s home, Sykes leaves her cell number so people can call her with questions, which she says they do.

But if you miss your representative on your front stoop, good luck catching them out in the community. I grab Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, after his chamber forum and ask if he’s planning to hold any coffees or town hall meetings before the primary.

“When you host a coffee or something like that, you either get all your fans or all your enemies. When you go to door-to-door, you’re talking to everybody ... people aren’t there to give you gotcha questions at the door,” Melcher says.

In other words, Melcher doesn’t think the crowd at the chamber forum is representative of his constituency.

“You’ve got a lot of fans of my opponent,” Melcher says. “You really had very few chamber members here, and this was supposed to be a chamber forum.”

Two days later, incumbent Rep. Rob Bruchman, R-Overland Park, skips his chamber forum. So does Rep. Craig McPherson, R-Overland Park, much to the dismay of his challenger.

“Not only did he not show up, he didn’t even respond to their invitation to show up,” says Patty Markley, a former Prairie Village councilwoman, “and that’s been a pattern.”

Markley’s no stranger to politics. In addition to her time in local government, she worked in constituent services for former U.S. Senator John Danforth R-Missouri, and served on the Kansas Council for Travel and Tourism.

“I would think – and I think most people would agree – the Chamber of Commerce for Olathe and Lenexa are not partisan organizations,” Markley says. “They care about business and their communities.”

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Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Rep. Linda Gallagher, wearing peach, is one of the few Republican incumbents who consistently attends candidate forums. She was the only incumbent legislator to attend a July 16 PTA forum at Shawnee Mission Northwest.

And while you could argue some of the other groups organizing candidate forums are partisan – the Kansas PTA, for instance, has been outspoken on school funding – one incumbent Republican says that’s no excuse.

“I just can’t believe three incumbents serving the Shawnee Mission Northwest area chose not to show up at an education forum in their district,” Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, says after a forum at the high school July 16.

Gallagher says it’s her job to show up. She even went to the League of Women Voters forums a month ago, though she has no primary challenger and wasn’t slated to speak.

She came anyway, to support her fellow moderate Republicans, many of whom hope to unseat conservatives who’ve been hard to find.

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas this year. You can reach Elle on Twitter @ellemoxley.