by Mary Rupert
With in-person campaigning happening less because of COVID-19, several candidates for the Kansas House in Wyandotte County participated in a virtual candidate forum on Wednesday, Oct. 7.
The online forum was sponsored by Business West and Kansas City Kansas Community College. Plans are to show the forum starting this week on the KCKCC cable television channel, KCEC, and on YouTube.
The candidates tackled several weighty topics at the forum, including diversity issues, adequate assistance for the unemployed, development in all parts of the community, and their positions about maintaining education funding.
Panelist J.D. Rios asked the candidates if they would disavow racism, and all did.
How would candidates address issues of racism and police brutality in America in the Kansas Legislature, or how have they already addressed them, asked panelist Elnora Tellis Jefferson.
Rep. Stan Frownfelter, D-37th Dist., who is running as a write-in candidate, said the some issues have been addressed through juvenile justice bills and criminal justice bills. If the last session hadn’t been cut short by the pandemic, the bills might have gone through the committee last spring, he said.
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-36th Dist., agreed that there are packages due to come out on criminal justice reform, but since the session was cut short, it didn’t happen.
Race relations here weren’t as difficult as they have been in other communities because of things this community has done, she said, including keeping a good relationship with minorities. Also, Wyandotte County trains every law enforcement officer in de-escalation techniques, she said. Going all-in on crisis intervention training has made a difference in the community, she added. The community also has been a leader in community policing for some decades, she added. While there still may be a lot to do, there also are some positive things here, she said.
Jordan Mackey, a Republican who is running for the 33rd District, said he is a Bonner Springs City Council member, and they have added body cameras and car cameras in Bonner Springs. “Our officers are not police officers, but peace officers,” he said. The officers go into the community, he said. He said Wyandotte County is doing a great job, being proactive, and has done it before the national news.
Greg Conchola, a former member of the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department who is running as a Republican for the 32nd District, said they are doing an excellent job, with updated training on how to interact with the community, handling situations professionally and safely. They have some of the best training in the nation, he said. KCK doesn’t have some of the same problems as other cities because they are well trained, he said. The department needs to have adequate funding in order to continue that training, he said. Prevention is a much better path than reaction, he said.
Rep. Pam Curtis, D-32nd Dist., said Kansas City, Kansas, has benefited from having good community policing. Crime is solved fast when it’s done as a partnership between police and the community, she said, and KCK has benefited from that. They also have room to improve, she added.
There are reforms moving through the Legislature, Rep. Curtis said. The criminal justice reform commission has been meeting and a set of reforms will come through this session, she added. It’s a comprehensive reform recommendation package, and there are also some individual bills being introduced, she said. They also will have the civil asset forfeiture report, and this year they may have legislation on the issue, she said.
She said she worked on the auto expungement bill, removing a barrier from felons who have to mark the felon box on job applications. They are eligible for expungement, but some do not have the thousands to hire an attorney to take that off. Under the proposed bill, it would be automatically taken off, she added. Rep. Curtis said they could make headway on these issues this year.
Rep. Louis Ruiz, D-31st Dist., said this issue was pertinent now.
“It can happen in Kansas City, Kansas,” he said. “We’re not immune to things like that happening, especially when it comes to violence and police being involved.”
He cited a recent case where a teenager was shot and killed. He said the south side has been hit hard with shootings and deaths among young people.
Even though Kansas City, Kansas, is blessed with diversity, it also can be a burden, and as a Latino growing up here, he saw things happen that shouldn’t have happened, he said. He has discussed establishing a liaison between the Latino community and the police department.
“Right now, tensions are high, tempers are flaring,” he said. They need to emphasize mental health efforts and communication, he said. He hopes to have a longer legislative session to get involved with some of the issues and circumvent some things from happening.
Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-34th Dist., said there is a common theme in the comments of community engagement.
“We have to get our community members engaged with law enforcement,” she said. “Dialogue has to open. It is not there in the community relations that I see.”
When the George Floyd incident took place, on behalf of the Quad Caucus, made up of African American, Latino American, Native American and Asian American members, they submitted a statement to the House condemning the action, she said. Many signed on to two pieces of legislation; however the politics of the leadership were not recorded until the day before they adjourned, Rep. Winn said.
The civil asset forfeiture bill has ramifications, including with local law enforcement agencies that do take the assets, she said. Rep. Winn added she believes the Wyandotte County delegation will support the fair hearing and resolution of issues that are needed.
“A lot of the policies will govern other law enforcement agencies, and they may or may not be willing to open dialogue to address the issue,” Rep. Winn said.
The last day of the session, two members, one from each party, stated they had to open dialogue, she said. The legislators are trying and know the significance of the issues, she added.
What would the state do if federal assistance runs out for the unemployed? Most candidates were in favor of trying to help from the state level, but some doubted that there would be enough funding. The question from panelist Mary Rupert also included parts about what the state might do if housing assistance and small business assistance runs out. Some federal CARES Act funding assistance is scheduled to end Dec. 30, unless it is renewed by the federal government.
Rep. Winn said she would support the state finding funds, although she isn’t sure there are any remaining CARES Act funds. Especially she would support finding funds for rent assistance to prevent evictions and to provide some relief so small businesses can not only reopen, but rehire. The pandemic has wiped out a lot of growth, and she would support the state stepping up to find resources to try to boost the local community.
Rep. Ruiz said there has been a lot of unemployment in Wyandotte County, and the extension of benefits depends on what they get from the federal government. He said the governor has stated that that it would be hard to continue the same level of funding without the federal funds.
“I support looking for funds, trying to ascertain funds,” he said. The state can’t borrow money, and due to the last administration it is still trying to dig out of a hole, he added. The governor and administration will do the best they can to still maintain a standard of care for the citizens and workers of Kansas, he said.
Rep. Curtis said from March to July, she spent the bulk of her time helping residents with unemployment benefits and helping businesses to access grants.
“We have to figure out a way to help people survive until we’re able to return to some kind of normalcy, whatever that is,” she said. “We’re all suffering from a lack of having a nationally coordinated response.”
She said without additional help from the federal government, the cities and states will be in dire straits. She is all for prioritizing and trying to take care of people who are trying to survive, she added.
Conchola said the state received a significant amount of money from the federal government.
“I don’t know where that money went,” he said. Some should have gone to assist with unemployment benefits and getting small businesses up and running again, he added. He would support more funding from the federal government, if it was necessary, but with better oversight, so it would go where it’s needed, he said.
Rep. Burroughs said Kansas was granted $1.3 billion by the federal government, with Sedgwick and Johnson counties receiving direct funding. A little over $800 million was left for the rest of the state, and was divided by population size and the impact to communities of COVID-19. Wyandotte County received over $30 million that was divided among the cities of Kansas City, Kansas, Edwardsville, Bonner Springs, school districts and local agencies. The funds were to prevent the impact of COVID-19, paying for expenses such as personal protective gear.
He commended Gov. Laura Kelly for issuing emergency orders that prevented evictions during the pandemic; he also thanked front-line workers in harm’s way during the pandemic, and said they were fortunate to have the quality of Kansans who look out for other Kansans’ interests.
Rep. Burroughs said he is ready to make sure that the unemployed, underemployed and uninsured people of Kansas would receive benefits from any economic development package from the federal government to the state that would provide job growth and opportunities.
Mackey said this has been a passionate issue of his, since he is in the construction field. One of his goals as GOP county secretary here until August, was to be a “squeaky wheel” on the issue.
There are many hourly workers in Wyandotte County, including people on furloughs and layoffs, and they need to be supported, he said. “We need to start supporting our whole state,” he said.
Rep. Wolfe Moore was appointed by Gov. Kelly to serve on the SPARKS task force that decided how the federal CARES Act federal funding would be spent. She said the bulk of the money went to the counties, because they best know what the needs are. Additionally, they are still in the process of deciding allocations, and have already allocated much-needed funds to nursing homes that required personal protective gear and the ability to do mass testing. There were also allocations to health care, she said.
Some funding went to rent assistance and also, assistance is being offered to landlords in cases where renters are no longer occupying the premises because of COVID-19, she said. Child care for parents who were essential workers also received some funding. More money also was allocated for testing, she said, which is considered to be the way to reduce the virus by isolating those who test positive.
Rep. Frownfelter said while he is supportive of helping unemployed people, they have to be careful of moving funds around or they won’t have them for other programs that they need, such as education, foster care programs, mental health programs and Medicaid expansion. The state is required to have a balanced budget, unlike the federal government.
He said one reason they’re hurting now is the state went through a recession, and just as they were getting back on their feet again, they were hit with the pandemic. In the past years, the state gave breaks to the employers, instead of leaving it alone, he said. There could have been enough money there now if they had not reduced it, he believes. They didn’t think ahead for a recession or pandemic, he added.
Several other questions also were asked at the forum, which will be shown through Nov. 2 on the Kansas City Kansas Community College cable channel, Spectrum Channel 17 and Google Channel 141. It is also being shown on YouTube.
The forums also are on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLMfeRPiOepX1DVWc9Tz2RISP4a-Hmxnpq.
For other stories about the election, see http://wyandottedaily.com/category/election-2020/.
To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.