Kansas Senate candidates on the issues: Gov. Kelly’s response to COVID-19

Photo credit Celia Llopis-Jepsen/Kansas News Service.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for office address ahead of November’s general election. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for seats in the Kansas Senate.

We’ll be publishing the candidates’ responses to one item per day each day this week. Today we’re publishing the candidates’ responses to item #1:

Gov. Laura Kelly enacted a series of executive orders this spring to stem the spread of COVID-19. What’s your assessment of the state government’s response to the pandemic? Did the state do enough? Too much? What, if anything, would you have liked to see done differently?

District 6 (Northeast Johnson County)

Pat Pettey (Incumbent Democrat)

I strongly support the approach Governor Kelly took in March of 2020. She closed our K-12 schools and she followed the science to keep Kansans safe. Unfortunately, COVID- 19 has been made into a political issue due to the lack of leadership in Washington DC. The legislation that the Kansas legislature passed shifted the control to a broader base to include the LCC or State Finance Council. Also, cities and counties and school boards are now making locally driven decisions. Governor Kelly has continued to base her decisions on science and the advice of Dr. Lee Norman, Sec. of Health & Environment. This pandemic has shown how important maintaining the government services is to addressing a disaster. Government Brownback neglected these areas and it shows. A governor needs to have the authority to make quick decisions in a disaster I will not support legislation that changed this law.

Diana Whittington (Republican)

Did not respond.

District 7 (Northeast Johnson County)

Ethan Corson (Democrat)

Governor Kelly was correct to move early and aggressively to stem the spread of COVID-19. It was unfortunate how quickly Republican leadership in the legislature sought to take what should have been a time to come together and wrestle this deadly virus into submission into a political game. Sadly, it was when 90 of our 105 counties opted-out of a mask requirement that we saw cases and deaths increase, as well as community spread in urban, suburban, and rural counties. 34 states have had statewide mask requirements, and experts believe that if we had a cohesive, statewide approach, we would be in a better position to achieve our shared goal of fully reopening our schools and businesses.

I support Local Control, but when you are trying to contain a once-in-a-century pandemic that is ripping across the globe, it makes sense to have a coordinated statewide response, not an ineffective patchwork approach. We are a highly mobile society. We regularly travel between counties, and the virus obviously does not respect county lines.

Last week, KDHE Secretary Dr. Lee Norman said Kansas is “losing the battle” against COVID-19, and we reported a record increase in new cases and 40 more deaths. Let me be clear – the time for playing political games around this virus is over. In the Kansas Senate, I’ll listen to public health professionals and ignore political agendas.

Laura McConwell (Republican)

I have appreciated Governor Kelly’s calm demeanor during the pandemic and allowing Counties to act in accordance with their communities.  My focus is to look forward and be pro-active.  Lessons we should understand from 1918 are COVID-19, or the next novel virus, is going to impact us for some time and we need to be prepared to safely return to school and work despite it.

We need to be pro-active in moving our state forward, keeping our businesses and schools open and being healthy. The state should act as a convener of local units of governments, legislative leadership, experts and stakeholders including public health officials, scientists, doctors, businesses, schools, etc.  The collective stakeholders sharing their respective expertise will allow us to determine best practices.  The science is everchanging as we continue through the pandemic and learn more about the virus which makes collaboration all the more imperative.

District 8 (I-435 Corridor)

James Todd (Republican)

With the information that was available in March, I think a shutdown was reasonable. As information on the outbreak in our area became available it became apparent that Kansas was not experiencing an outbreak like the one experienced in New York City and was not experiencing the hospitalization or death rate that was predicted in the models.  At that point, the state should have moved toward reopening, approaching the reopening with an abundance of caution and with orders on safety precautions (such as a mask mandate) for businesses to follow.

The Governor continued with a shutdown after the scientific information no longer justified it and Kansas has suffered the consequences with the worst job recovery rate in the nation. If the hospitalization and death rate rise then another shutdown could be justified. Currently, higher infection rates have not resulted in an increase in deaths and hospitalization.  It is important for the leaders of Kansas to remain responsive to changes in the data should they arise.

Cindy Holscher (Democrat)

I appreciate the response made by KDHE and the Governor which were based on science and fact.  In May, under the Governor’s plan, Kansas was receiving accolades for it’s response which was effective in keeping numbers low/mitigating the virus Unfortunately, our extremist controlled legislature preferred to downplay the effect of the virus while making it a political issue.

After they worked to defeat the plan, the virus was allowed to spread to all counties in the state and we became a hot spot.  As a result, difficult decisions have had to be made including how our schools will operate, when, in reality, we could have likely avoided being in this situation.

District 10

Mike Thompson (Incumbent Republican)

My assessment is largely positive, but I did have some concerns.  Many of the executive orders were fine, common sense reactions to help Kansans, and I thought the initial stay at home order made sense, as we worked on a response.

As I articulated at the time, the trouble I had concerned the extended shutdown orders of Kansas businesses. I did not feel the KEFF (Kansas Essential Functions Framework) was well-thought out and resulted in much confusion for Kansas businesses, many of whom should have been able to remain open.  The process to get approved to be open was quite confusing and lacked transparency.

I would have preferred to see a system that was fully transparent and more based on risk, where businesses could open provided that risk was mitigated.

That all being said, I was very pleased that during the Special Session, the governor and legislature worked together on a compromise that provided more checks and balances, more certainty for Kansans over the long haul, kept our businesses open, and allowed for more local control. I supported that compromise and from my vantage point, it has largely worked.

Lindsey Constance (Democrat)

I think Governor Kelly has responded to the pandemic as best she can, considering the limits placed by Republicans on her ability to quickly respond in the middle of a public health crisis. She has been listening to health experts to inform her actions, and is making smart decisions to keep our lives and livelihoods safe.

The best way to get Kansans back to work and school is by following best practices to reduce transmission and community spread of the virus, and her administration has encouraged that every step of the way. I am disappointed in the obstructionist tactics extremist leadership has used over the course of this pandemic to undermine Governor Kelly in order to score political points. A public health and economic crisis is no time to play partisan games, and I would have preferred for legislative leadership to put aside extremist ideology in order to do what’s best for working Kansans. We deserve leaders who will prioritize our health, safety, and economic well-being over political gamesmanship.

District 11 (I-435 Corridor area)

Kellie Warren (Republican)

The state government’s response overall was quite good. The executive orders, by in large, were meant to give various entities – such as the courts and our schools – flexibility and they did that.  I also applaud the extension of deadlines related to taxes and the like, and bi-partisan legislation signed by the governor that gave counties across Kansas local control over the response to the pandemic.

The biggest controversy surrounded the stay at home orders. They certainly were appropriate in March, to give time for us to get our arms around the pandemic. However, as time wore on, the definitions of essential and non-essential were frustrating, and transparency in data and processes was lacking, leaving many business owners unable to open and thousands of Kansans unemployed.  There were also severe issues with the unemployment system and it took too long for many Kansans to receive their benefits. I worked with many frustrated businesses and unemployed Kansans to get them the benefits and resources they needed.

Ultimately, it was good news for Kansans when the governor and legislature came together during the special session to work out our differences and pass a compromise bill. That bill provided more checks and balances, gave much more control to local governments, and provided businesses more certainty. I applaud the governor for her work on that bill and voted yes.

Joy Koesten (Democrat)

Leadership means a willingness to face problems with courage and resolve. It means a willingness to face extremist, ideological opposition and calls for shared sacrifice. Gov Laura Kelly is a Moderate leader with character. Early on Governor Kelly closed non-essential businesses and ordered people to stay home. She also closed school buildings, while simultaneously pulling together a broad coalition of educators and administrators to develop a plan to continue to educate students at all levels.

These were not “easy” choices. They were not the “popular” choices. Gov Kelly’s decision to keep businesses and schools closed early on was based on observed data – that COVID-19 is an incredibly virulent and pervasive disease that threatens our lives and our livelihoods. And these early decisions saved lives.

Republicans in the legislature and county commissions have consistently hampered the Governor’s ability to have a state-wide coordinated response to the pandemic, causing confusion, slowing our ability to sustain recovery, and costing lives. There is clear medical consensus that masks, social distancing, and testing will reduce the burden of this pandemic. Yet Republicans, like Kellie Warren, continue to deny these facts. The coronavirus doesn’t pay attention to city or county lines, or your party affiliation. Our personal actions have consequences for everyone. That is the difficult truth and one that only a true leader will explain to us.

The Governor has made decisions based on the best interest of all Kansans according to expert advice like a true leader does. Sadly, politicians like Kellie Warren and the Brownback/Trump Republicans have seen this as an opportunity to feed off of our shared fears to score political points.

For the first time in over 70 years, we’re being asked to come together and fight as one county against an enemy we can’t even see. Our biggest sacrifice isn’t to die on the shores of Normandy or suffer the cruelties of a concentration camp. We’re being asked to wear a mask, socially distance, and wash our hands.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want us to “go back to normal.” But COVID has changed everything and we must come together for the greater good, regardless of politics. That’s how we beat this virus and get back to “normal.”

District 21

Dinah Sykes (Incumbent Democrat)

Governor Kelly and her team have done a good job listening to science and learning as we’ve gone through this pandemic. I think she and her team are doing the best job they can during the middle of an uneven federal response. I recently finished reading The Great Influenza: the Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John Berry. In the book, Berry argues that the greatest failure in 1918 was the loss of faith and trust in elected officials who didn’t share what they knew. I’m afraid the book on Covid may have some of these failures, when we have a county commissioner telling people to go buy guns and prepare for war.

In contrast to our federal response, I think Gov. Kelly and Sec. Norman transparently and frankly share what they know and let science lead them and their response. Obviously if we knew in March what we know now, we would have done some things differently. I am disappointed that some in the State Finance Council seem to be focused on undercutting the governor at every turn. During this pandemic, our focus must be on protecting health to allow us to begin the hard work of economic recovery.

Tom Bickimer (Republican)

I’m not going to second guess our government officials’ initial containment response to the pandemic. As unprepared as our state and country were, I think they did the best they could to buy time for our healthcare system to play catch-up. As for the latter containment orders, all I can say is that there is no room for politics during a crisis.

Here’s what I think we’ve learned: We need more testing with results in less than 24 hours. Social distancing, hand sanitizer and masks are a given provided that our schools and businesses stay open.  Data accuracy, reporting guidelines and the criteria by which the severity of the crisis is measured have to be consistent at the county and state levels. Finally, the executive and legislative branches of our state government must work together to update, clarify and de-politicize the State’s emergency powers.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item #2:

Would you vote for a bill to expand Medicaid? If not, how do you justify that choice in regard to loss of Federal funds, loss of medical facilities especially in rural areas and increasing numbers of Kansans without health insurance? If yes, how do you respond to critics who say it will cost too much?