The four teenagers running to be the next governor of Kansas were tested Thursday at a forum organized by their peers at Lawrence Free State High School.
Standing at the center of the Free State gym, they fielded questions on gun control, race, drugs, abortion and a host of other divisive issues.
They answered forthrightly. Honestly. Not by pivoting to talking points like more practiced politicians.
“There’s the art of not answering questions, but what good does that do for voters and our democracy?” asked Tyler Ruzich, a 17-year-old Shawnee Mission North student from Prairie Village who is determined to be on the Republican primary ballot.
Candidates have a “moral and ethical” responsibility to share their true beliefs so that voters can make informed choices, Ruzich said.
“That’s something I think is pretty important,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re here for change. Younger people want answers.”
The Free State students certainly did.
They pushed the high-school hopefuls for their positions on issues that many politicians are reluctant to discuss.
In addition to Ruzich, Jack Bergeson and his lieutenant governor running mate, Alexander Cline, both students at The Independent School in Wichita, participated in the forum along with Ethan Randleas, a student at Wichita Heights High School, and Dominic Scavuzzo, who lives in Leawood but attends Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo.
A question about gun control touched off a lengthy debate.
Randleas, a Libertarian, said he was opposed to stricter gun control laws. Instead, he said decriminalizing drugs would reduce gun and gang violence “exponentially.”
Bergeson, the first of the four teen candidates to announce, said he differed with most other Democrats on the issue.
“I am very much for Governor (Sam) Brownback’s conceal-carry law,” Bergeson said. “But I am for banning automatic weapons and semi-automatic weapons.”
Cheers erupted when Ruzich, a self-described moderate Republican whose parents are Bernie Sanders Democrats, said he favored “getting guns off of campuses and universal background checks.”
That’s what Free State senior Paul Jesse wanted to hear. He’s strongly opposed to recent changes in state law that allow students, faculty and visitors to carry concealed handguns on university campuses.
“I’ve lived in Lawrence my whole life, and one of the reasons I’m not going to KU is because of that,” Jesse said. “It has definitely changed my point of view on the state itself.”
Varied policy priorities
As he did throughout the forum, Randleas held fast to his Libertarian views.
“There’s a lot of trigger words here like guns off of campuses,” he said, arguing that it’s “asinine” to suggest that someone’s Second Amendment rights are suspended when they step onto a college campus.
The role of government also proved to be a point of contention, with Randleas arguing for smaller government and the elimination of individual income and corporate taxes and the others calling for increased investment in education, health care and infrastructure.
“I understand the idea of hands-off, laissez-faire economics, but it’s just not realistic,” Ruzich said. “We tried it in this state and it has miserably failed.”
Reducing political corruption and improving access to health care topped Bergeson’s list of priorities. In addition to calling for implementation of a single-payer “Medicare for all” health care system, he said campaign finance reforms are needed to curb the corrupting influence of “big corporate donors”
“I support publicly financed elections but believe that system will only work if there is a national framework behind it,” he said, pledging to set an example by accepting only individual donations of $500 or less for his campaign.
There was relative harmony on some issues, including LGBT rights.
“I think this is something we all agree on, and that’s pretty cool,” Randleas said.
Scavuzzo, a Catholic, said his religious beliefs make it difficult to support laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, but he said he is personally opposed to it.
“People just need to be more accepting,” Scavuzzo said, adding that he would “try to appoint” members of the LGBT community to his Cabinet if elected.
Likewise, the candidates were in lockstep on the need to legalize, or at least decriminalize, marijuana. Several promised if elected to release inmates serving time in state prisons for non-violent drug offenses.
Bergeson said he would push to add Kansas to a growing list of states that have legalized medical marijuana.
“In my opinion, it is despicable that the law in this state forces people with certain illnesses to choose between abiding by the law … or living a healthy life,” he said.
‘There was no fear’
Ella Keathley, the Free State student who organized the forum, said the event exceeded her expectations, particularly the level of student involvement.
“That was the thing I was worried about,” Keathley said. “Are they going to feel like this was a waste of time? But I really do feel like they got very interested.”
The teacher who helped Keathley pull the event together also was pleased.
“I thought it came off great,” said Blake Swenson, who teaches government, history and social studies at Free State.
In particular, Swenson said he was struck by the maturity of the candidates and their direct answers to tough questions
“I was impressed. When the questions came, there was no fear,” he said.
Kansas is one of a handful of states that doesn’t require candidates for governor to be of a certain age.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach wants to change that.
“I think it’s both amusing and encouraging that high school students are throwing their name into the governor’s race, but it is appropriate to have minimum ages for the governor’s office,” Kobach told the Kansas City Star in September.
But Keathley said there is no reason that Kobach, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, or anyone else should be threatened by the wave of teen candidates.
An effort to impose an age requirement now that Kansas teens have engaged in the political process would “just show that they’re cowards,” she said.
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.