Kansas Senate candidates on the issues: Police, transparency and the racial justice movement

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 #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?

District 11 (I-435 Corridor)

Joy Koesten (Democrat)

Across the globe, people are standing up for criminal justice reform. It’s long past time to rectify the systemic racism and inherent inequities in our communities. And nowhere is this more critical than in our criminal justice system.

According to the ACLU, the U.S. population makes up only 5% of the global population, but nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Over the past 5 decades, our incarcerated population in this country has increased by 700% – that equates to 2.3 million people in jail and prison today. The increase in prison population cannot be explained by population growth or in a rise in crime – in fact, crimes rates of all sorts have fallen dramatically over the years.

Kansas records and meetings laws can only guarantee sufficient transparency if the people in charge enforce the laws. The tragic case of John Albers is a clear example of how organizations can manipulate the records and meetings laws to shield people from being held accountable.

As Senator, I will support legislation that eliminates financial incentives for incarceration, enacts sentencing reforms, improves law enforcement policies, and ensures that everyone is accountable to the people of our community.

Kellie Warren (Republican)

As a member of the Kansas House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, an attorney, and a Kansan, I do believe it is important that the Kansas legislature continue to review our laws to ensure all Kansans are treated fairly. When a specific law is demonstrated to not treat all Kansans fairly, appropriate action should be taken.

On the question of transparency, I do believe government should operate as openly as possible and shine the light of day into the process of governing. The public is benefitted from access to their government. After all, it’s your government.

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

Tom Bickimer (Republican)

I have the greatest respect for our local police departments. Society demands so much more of law enforcement than simply upholding the law. Our police work hard at keeping us safe the right way. It’s a dangerous job, unforgiving and under-appreciated until the unthinkable happens, until an officer is murdered.

Yes, we should expect accountability, as state senator I will lend my voice to discussions about what that might look like at the legislative level.

Dinah Sykes (Incumbent Democrat)

Listening is one of the most important things a legislator does. This summer, like many others, I’ve been listening and learning. As we listen and as we learn, it is impossible to ignore the ways our systems have created and exacerbated problems along racial lines. As an alum from NCSL’s Early Learning Fellows I have been doing follow up training and our first session was on the Historical Context of Racial Inequities in the US.

I am committed to looking at our system and evaluating how we can use the already needed criminal justice reform to work to address racial inequities in Kansas. Criminal justice reform must consider racial impacts and protect against scenarios where we don’t have justice for all. I believe that Johnson County is taking significant steps forward in our Police Academy by increasing training on mental health issues and de-escalation tactics. I am also encouraged that we are seeing community conversations about racial injustice by members through groups like Advocacy and Awareness Group: Johnson County.

District 6 (Northeast Johnson County)

Pat Pettey (Incumbent Democrat)

I am a white women and I know that I have not experienced what it is like to walk in the shoes of anyone whose is a minority. I do believe that we always need to continue to look at legislation outside of our own lens and that is why opportunities for civility training are invaluable. I feel that our local law enforcement need to use their in service to address community disparities because they face it everyday.

The issue of transparency will never go away. The legislature has become more transparent and open in the last four years. The fact that we all carry a camera on our phone is continuing to move the needle.

Diana Whittington (Republican)

Did not respond.

District 7 (Northeast Johnson County)

Laura McConwell (Republican)

Racial Justice: there is legislation implemented in the country for nearly my entire lifetime, so it appears top down solutions have limitations. We, as individuals, need to check ourselves to create a bottom up cultural shift. Dialogue surrounding fair treatment and racial justice is happening now. Elected leaders need to work with each other and the community so we can make real sustainable changes and not have this just be an election issue. If there are legislative solutions which will help, then I would work to enact them.

The governmental institution I have the most experience with is the Court. While Mayor I sat on the Johnson County Criminal Justice Advisory Committee which consists of a varied group of community stakeholders. During my tenure we focused on adult reform, substance abuse and ways to help those coming out of the criminal system. Johnson County is ahead of many places in the country regarding criminal justice reform. We need to continue to improve. A potential constituent shared that he was having the same conversations with his sons that his parents had with him. We should all have as our goal that his sons with not have to have the same conversations with theirs.

KORA/KOMA: The legislation is sufficient. I would like to see a more consistent meeting schedule so that the public and stakeholders have an easier time finding meetings and/or following the legislative action.

Ethan Corson (Democrat)

Yes, action is needed in the Legislature to ensure that all Kansans are treated fairly at the hands of police and government institutions. This is why I applaud Governor Kelly for establishing the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice and look forward to receiving its recommendations of specific policy actions the Legislature can take on issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Kansas.

Now is the time for the Legislature to take a comprehensive look at our criminal justice system and address areas where reforms are needed. We also need to increase access to affordable housing, improve access to quality education, increase the availability of affordable healthcare, and end voter suppression. Concrete action in each of these areas would improve racial justice in Kansas.

Last week, the Kansas City Star reported that the average sales price of new and existing homes in Johnson County has reached nearly $400,000. If we genuinely want to increase the diversity that enriches our lives, Johnson County must focus on affordable housing.

Additionally, Kansas needs to enact a statewide version of the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), like the one passed this month by the Kansas City, Missouri City Council. Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau has introduced this legislation, which would ban discrimination based on a person’s hair style or texture. Currently, employers can fire people because of their dreadlocks or not hire them at all.

With respect to Kansas records and meetings laws, our laws need to strike the appropriate balance between protecting individual privacy and ensuring transparency. If elected, I will closely review those laws for imbalances.

District 8 (I-435 Corridor)

Cindy Holscher (Democrat)

Transparency in any industry/work environment is a good thing whether it be the medical field, teaching, law enforcement, etc. During the special session I brought forward HB 2010, which would make law enforcement disciplinary records public (except when there is an active investigation) and would prohibit the hiring of certain law enforcement officers with a history of serious misconduct/brutality.

Additionally, I believe our police, like many agencies in the state, likely lack funding. There is technology available that could play a very big role in ensuring accountability. Measures like these are important so that we deal with any concerning issues while we protect the reputation of our many excellent LEO.

James Todd (Republican)

As Kansans we can take pride in the fact that we are the Free State. The baptism by fire that was our State’s founding ensured that slavery did not gain a foothold here. Our record on civil rights is not without blemish though. In Topeka sits a relic of “separate but equal”, the segregated schoolhouse of Brown V. The Board of Education.

While great strides have been made, the journey to achieve and protect the founding principle that “all men are created equal” is not over. We need to work to make sure every Kansan is treated equally under the laws of Kansas.

My nephews and niece are mixed-race. I have always wanted them to be treated fairly and equally. The road forward on race relations is for us to disregard our incidental difference in skin tone and treat everyone with respect and equal dignity. Race is a social construct, there is no race but the human race.

Any efforts on police reform should include our police officers as partners. They have a strong interest in seeing improvements to law enforcement. We should bring them into the conversation about qualified immunity, civil asset forfeiture, and no knock warrants.

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

Lindsey Constance (Democrat)

Yes. I believe that many of the policies that have hurt our state over the past decade have been in part the result of a lack of diversity in our elected leadership. Many of our decisions in government have consequences beyond our original intent, and it is difficult for legislators to recognize the impact on a community a decision might have without that community’s voice at the table.

Progress in racial justice in our state has absolutely been impacted by this inaction by leadership to seek out and learn from all parts of our constituencies, and as a result we have created and maintained systems and institutions that do not adequately and fairly serve all members of our community. We need leaders who are unafraid to affirm that Black lives matter, who are willing to examine our institutions when our neighbors tell us they are not working for them, and who will work to make them better so that our state continues to move in a more just direction. The best way to do this is through collaboration, and we need transparency in our processes so that everyone has an opportunity for their voice to be heard and to be a part of shaping our policies.

On the city council and as President of Climate Action KC, I have advocated for and sought out collaboration with stakeholders and the community before voting on an issue or deciding a course of action, and I will continue to approach my decision-making this way in the legislature. When I’m in the Senate, I’ll fight to make our government more accessible and accountable to the people it serves, so that we can all work toward creating a brighter future for Kansas.

Mike Thompson (Incumbent Republican)

While I know of no specific legislative action that is necessary at this time, I’m always open to review, to ensure that all of our laws are applied fairly. Regarding transparency, I would like to see more done so citizens can closely follow their government even if they are not present, For instance, much of our legislative work is done in committee, and I believe any vote that moves a bill forward in the process should be recorded. Detailed minutes should be required for meetings at all levels of government, so the public understands how and why a governing body reached a decision.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item #5:

Climate change continues to be a major concern for Shawnee Mission Post readers. What steps should the federal government be taking now to address the impact of the changing climate in the coming decades? How would you work to see those steps enacted?