Kansas Senate candidates on the issues: Working across party lines

Photo credit Chad Kainz. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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 #3:

  • Politics seems more polarized than ever, with activists in both parties seeking ideological conformity on many issues. What experience or relationships can you point to that show you have an ability to reach out and work with those who might not always agree with you? Please give specific examples.

District 8 (I-435 Corridor)

Cindy Holscher (Democrat)

As the co-founder of the Women’s Bipartisan Caucus, I know the importance of working together in a collaborative fashion. During my first term, I reached across the aisle to form this group which ultimately shaped a tax reform plan which helped end the disastrous Brownback experiment. We got people to sit down and talk, and form solutions for issues facing the state.

When we faced roadblocks from extremist leadership regarding Medicaid Expansion, I worked with a bipartisan group crafting the plan for bringing it forward and was chosen to advocate/deliver arguments for expansion on the House floor. We passed it, but unfortunately, Gov. Brownback vetoed the bill.

When it comes to bringing forward Legislation, I always seek to have a well-rounded group of collaborators/co-sponsors for bills. I believe success is better when it is shared with others.

James Todd (Republican)

Political polarization is a real problem right now. While much of it is driven by current leadership in Washington, I really believe the Washington politics of today is more of a reflection, rather than the cause, of how people treat each other across the country. We can do better and we can start here in Kansas.

I grew up in a family largely made up of Democrats, in fact I am the only Republican my mother ever voted for. My loving family helped me develop skills allowing for civil discussion and a separation of political differences from character judgment.

To state it simply, my family has always been able to talk about politics and it does not affect our love for each other. I also have friends of all political stripes, including apolitical. The apolitical one’s might be the most rational among us. While I served in the Kansas House of Representatives, I maintained a civil relationship with all of my colleagues.

One example I can provide of working with a Democrat on legislation from my time serving was with HB 2502. I was the Vice-Chair of Federal and State affairs and HB 2502 was a gun bill in a conference committee. I had a discussion with the ranking democrat about the bill and we determined there was an over site in the drafting of the bill and school teachers would be allowed to conceal carry on field trips. I got the bill pulled back into the conference committee and fixed it so the law was unchanged regarding teachers. A cordial relationship and a simple conversation helped keep a major policy change from occurring.

District 10 (Shawnee, Lake Quivira, parts of Overland Park and Merriam)

Lindsey Constance (Democrat)

My approach to addressing politically-charged issues is to find common ground and use those commonalities as a starting place for conversations.

For example, Shawnee has passed several sustainable infrastructure measures such as Green Streets, which uses natural systems to save taxpayer money. By approaching these conversations from the shared value of saving taxpayer dollars and providing benefits to residents, we have built unanimous support behind these policies.

As President of Climate Action KC, I’ve helped build a nonpartisan coalition of leaders with the shared vision of creating a resilient KC Metro. When the conversation is positive and focused on solutions, it’s amazing what can be accomplished. Since 2019, we have grown to include 125 elected officials from 10 levels of office. We hosted a Climate Action Summit, published the Climate Action Playbook, and are now drafting the regional Climate Action Plan.

I believe we can bring this level of positive, proactive problem solving to KS Legislature, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to find common ground on the issues that matter most to Kansans.

Mike Thompson (Incumbent Republican)

This is a great question. I also think what people are frustrated with is also the lack of civility. It’s okay to disagree, but we should be able to do so in an amicable way. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were a great model for this.

Having been an active member of our community for decades, I’ve learned that we all agree on far more than we disagree, and there are actually a lot of areas where working together is possible.

For instance, the other day I was speaking with a Democrat, and he was as concerned about property taxes as any Republican. We all pay taxes, we all have a mortgage or rent to pay, and so a lot of our struggles cross party lines. I’ve certainly learned a lot simply by listening to people in all walks of life.

The people of District 10 certainly don’t fit into neat ideological boxes, and they expect their Senator to work with all of their colleagues, regardless of party or ideological label.

District 11 (I-435 Corridor)

Joy Koesten (Democrat)

For over 20 years, I’ve taught learners of all ages the importance of building strong interpersonal relationships and organizing coalitions to achieve common goals.

During the 2017-2018 legislative sessions, I was part of a bi-partisan coalition that crafted policy to fund our schools adequately and equitably. My focus has always been on crafting good public policy, not on party ideology.

In addition to my regular duties as a legislator, I kept constituents informed and engaged in the following ways:

  • wrote and published over 45 blogs outlining my position and votes on every issue
  • spoke at over a dozen town halls and forums about legislative issues
    visited with administrators and teachers in the Blue Valley Schools in the district over 30 times
  • hosted a dozen constituents who shadowed me for the day
  • hosted 20 middle and high school students who served as pages
  • mentored 3 college interns
  • answered hundreds of emails from concerned constituents, even when they disagreed with me
  • assisted constituents with problems they were having with various state agencies
  • met with dozens of advocates on various issues

Last year, after two decades of advocating for mental health funding and expanding access for treatment for addiction services, my husband and I worked closely with Children’s Mercy last year to establish an endowment that will fund local research in behavioral health and suicide prevention. Our event “Collaboration for a Cause” (https://www.collaborationforacause.org/) raised $100,000 toward funding that endowment.

These are just some of the things that I have done over the years that demonstrate my commitment for collaboration as the next State Senator for District 11.

Kellie Warren (Republican)

Politics seems more polarized than ever, with activists in both parties seeking ideological conformity on many issues. What experience or relationships can you point to that show you have an ability to reach out and work with those who might not always agree with you? Please give specific examples.

As an attorney for more than twenty-five years, I have experience working with my clients, and the other side of an issue, to get problems solved.  I listen, I learn the facts, apply the law, and we discuss.  People want their problems solved.  That’s what I do.  We work together to find an agreeable resolution.  We meet in the middle.  That has been my approach in Topeka as I have served as a State Representative for Leawood and Overland Park since 2019.

That approach is vital to getting things done. My bi-partisan record in Topeka reflects that commitment.  For example, on K-12 education, with a bi-partisan vote, we solved the school funding crisis, where previous legislatures had failed. On the issue of re-opening our state during COVID-19, both parties came together, with the governor, and passed compromise legislation that provided certainty to businesses and increased local control, while still giving the governor the flexibility she needed. This will continue to be my approach in the State Senate.

District 21 (Lenexa, parts of Overland Park and Shawnee)

Tom Bickimer (Republican)

We have an example right here in this senate district of what’s wrong with politics: Four years ago, Senator Sykes promoted herself as the “Right Republican.” Just two years later she decided she wasn’t. Changing political parties mid-term may have been the right thing to do for her, but it was absolutely the wrong thing to do for her constituents. Her effectiveness as a legislator was severely damaged. Let’s be clear on this, I will always put people before politics.

I’ve spent my whole career negotiating contracts and it’s not about besting the other party, it’s about creating an agreement that both parties can feel good about. The same approach has worked on the many community boards and working committees that I’ve served on. Recently I was part of an Overland Park task force that included stakeholders throughout the community who successfully reached a consensus on numerous building and energy code revisions.

It’s disturbing to me to hear candidates declare that the days of reaching across the aisle are over. I am not one of those candidates. People are tired of the bitter partisanship that has taken our government institutions hostage.

Dinah Sykes (Incumbent Democrat)

During my time in the legislature I’ve built relationships with legislators regardless of ideology or policy positions. Sometimes that work is done in public, and other times it happens when you share a meal or a conversation about the ordinary things in life. I recently had a fun conversation with a conservative colleague who teasingly offered to deliver yard signs.

The future and well being of our youngest Kansans is one of my strongest passions. I formed a bi-partisan early childhood caucus to find ways to work together to improve the lives of those children.

I also showed that I can move good policy through the legislature when I introduced the piece of legislation providing housing protections for victims of domestic violence. The legislation had 27 cosponsors out of the forty members of the Senate. I worked to build strong bipartisan support and guided it through both the House and Senate and to the governor’s desk where Governor Kelly signed it into law.

I left the Republican party because it was clear that, at least in Kansas, you must agree with leadership or you will be penalized by losing your seat at the table. When I voted based on my district, leaders threatened me.  Both chambers of the Kansas legislature need new leaders who understand that our best work happens in the creative tension necessitated by compromise.

District 6 (Northeast Johnson County)

Pat Pettey (Incumbent Democrat)

Polarization is not only affecting politics it is affecting every aspect of our lives. It is causing division in families and among friends.

In today world our sources of information divide us and so it is hard to have a common voice. I have spent my adult years working to help other organize towards common goals and one of the most important pieces is that a person feels valued and safe.
Leaders need to use words of respect and value and I work daily to practice this towards those in the legislature and in my community.

Diana Whittington (Republican)

Did not respond.

District 7 (Northeast Johnson County)

Laura McConwell (Republican)

There seems to be an unwillingness to speak to those with whom we disagree, discuss the areas of disagreement or respect those with whom we disagree. Here are a few specific examples of collaboration:

1) In Mission’s update update of the Comprehensive Plan, we brought together Mission residents, property owners and businesses, included Mission employers, employees, shoppers, and residents of neighboring communities. The collaborative process resulted in vociferous redevelopment;

2) Mayor Lori Watts Hirons and I worked with Johnson County on Easy Ride creating public transportation options for our seniors;

3) To address Mission’s expanded floodplain ($52 million of commercial property) we brought the Mission area community together including our state Representative, Ed O’Malley, state senator, David Wysong, County Commission Ed Peterson and County Chair Annabeth Surbaugh. Governor Kathleen Sebelius provided support of the Division of Water of the Department of Agriculture to help us understand the nature of water, water run off, water quality and the flood plain. Because we were continuing to work on priorities outlined in our Comprehensive Plan update, we had the opportunity to take measures to create cleaner water and less run off;

4) As we developed our storm water plan, we had to figure out how to fund it. As a community we worked with Johnson County Government and our downstream neighbors. Both Annabeth Surbaugh and Ed Peterson were fully engaged. Congressman Dennis Moore, Senator Pat Roberts, Senator Sam Brownback, Congressman Jerry Moran provided support for us as we navigated funding;

5) I sat on the MARC board as the Johnson and Wyandotte County Council of Mayors representative and actively worked with other elected, appointed and staff from cities and counties across our region. A passion of mine is infrastructure and transportation;

6) Robbie Mackinen and I were the initial co-chairs of the alliance between KCATA and The Jo;

7) Working with the community, we passed 3 limited sales tax initiatives to fund the expansion of SPJCC, fund street maintenance and replace our pool;

8) I worked with Westwood Hills Mayor Allen Roth, the County, The Jo and community to create a state-of-the-art transit station in Mission;

9) Most of my community involvement has been with non-partisan organizations who provide support to our children, families and seniors. The fact are my signs are found in Republican, Democratic and Unaffiliated yards demonstrates I can find common ground.

Ethan Corson (Democrat)

When I met Dr. Barbara Bollier, she was a Republican State Senator, and I was the Executive Director of the Kansas Democratic Party. But that didn’t matter to either of us. Dr. Bollier and I built a relationship based on mutual respect, and she is a friend and mentor.

I’m proud that Dr. Bollier has endorsed me to succeed her in the State Senate, and I know she would not have made that decision if she didn’t believe I would continue her approach of listening to constituents, following the facts, and always putting the interests of the district ahead of political agendas.

In the spring of 2019, I was a Fellow at the Robert Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, working with the next generation of our state’s leaders. The Institute “is dedicated to promoting political and civic participation, as well as civil discourse in a bipartisan, philosophically balanced manner” and I always conducted our discussions in that spirit.

I was privileged to serve in two senior leadership positions in the U.S. Department of Commerce. First, I was the senior political appointee leading an office of 17 mostly non-partisan civil service employees that worked for the Secretary of Commerce.

Later, I was Chief of Staff of the International Trade Administration, a bureau of 2,200 non-partisan civil service employees stationed across the world. In both of those positions, we built strong, cohesive teams that fulfilled their mission to faithfully serve the American people. We were able to deliver results because we never let politics get in the way — ideas were judged on their merits, and the only question was “what is best for the American people.”

Our civil servants are national treasures, and they serve both Republican and Democratic Administrations. I never asked any of them which party they supported, or who they voted for, because I frankly didn’t care. Our north star was doing right by the American people.

I’ll be the same way in the State Senate.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item #4:

Is action needed in the Legislature to ensure that all Kansans are treated fairly at the hands of police and government institutions in the wake of the racial justice movement? Do you believe Kansas records and meetings laws guarantee sufficient transparency?