Kansas GOP mailers push ‘patently absurd’ crime narrative, teachers union says

TOPEKA — GOP mailers flooding Kansas mailboxes across the state in the last push before Election Day are focusing on crime.

Some Kansans have called the mailer contents blatant lies and a form of fearmongering that follows national GOP election tactics.

Republican candidates are accusing Democratic opponents of increasing crime and wanting to defund the police, stirring up voter fears ahead of the election by using the COVID-19 pandemic crime spike in 2019-2020, though crime has decreased in the past year.

Rep. Heather Meyer, an Overland Park Democrat, is running for reelection against Republican David Soffer. Meyer has represented her district for about a year, replacing former Democratic Rep. Brett Parker in September 2021.

One mailer funded by the Kansas Republican Party claimed Meyer was “fueling the Kansas crime surge,” saying Kansas families lived in fear of rising violent crimes in Kansas. Other information on the mailer said that Kansas was named one of the most dangerous states in the U.S. and that Kansas’ overall violent crime rate is higher than the average.

Meyer said the mailer was filled with false information, and showed the Kansas GOP’s lack of principles.

“The Kansas GOP and my opponent have continued to send out slanderous mailers which are not only filled with misinformation, but also lack integrity, any sense of ethical responsibility to our constituency, and put my family in danger,” Meyer said in a statement to the Kansas Reflector.

“Everyday we read more headlines about the violent crime in Kansas on the rise, and all of us wonder the same thing: ‘Will it strike my family next?’ ” the mailer read.

But 2021 data released by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation actually shows a decrease in overall crime in Kansas. The total crime index documents the number of crimes per 1,000 people. In 2021, total index crimes decreased 9.2% from the 10-year average, and 6.9% from the previous year.

The number of violent index crimes was 17.9% above the 10-year average, but decreased 2.1% compared to 2020. In 2021, the rate of violent crimes in Kansas was about 4.6 offenses per 1,000 people. Compared to 2020, the murder rate decreased 10.4%, rape decreased by 0.3% and robbery decreased by 17.9%.

The mailer said Kansans couldn’t trust Meyer to keep them safe, and that she was “endorsed by a radical group that called for defunding the police.” The radical group referenced is the Kansas National Education Association.

Marcus Baltzell, director of communications for the KNEA, said this was a lie. The KNEA has never considered supporting defunding the police, he said.

“It’s patently absurd. We wonder who’s not doing their research over there, because we have never as an organization called for defunding the police,” Baltzell said. “I can’t even say that they’re obfuscating the truth. They just are not interested in the truth, apparently.”

When asked about the defunding police statement, Shannon Pahls, Kansas GOP spokeswoman, referenced a June 2020 letter sent to congressional leaders by a civil rights coalition. The letter doesn’t say anything about defunding the police, instead asking for greater police accountability in the wake of several racially biased police killings. The letter was signed by the National Education Association, not the Kansas chapter.

“That letter advocates for the elimination of federal programs that provide resources to law enforcement,” Pahls said, referencing a section that asked lawmakers to get rid of federal programs that provide military-grade equipment to law enforcement.

“Heather Meyer registered to vote as a socialist and has embraced some of the most extreme policies of the Democrat Party,” Pahls said in a statement to Kansas Reflector. “She has welcomed the support of groups who have advocated for defunding our police. This is not surprising given that she registered as a socialist, but her views are far outside the mainstream.”

Meyer said GOP rhetoric is used to distract voters from real issues.

“It’s deeply unsettling that they are so afraid of discussing policy and what we will do for our communities, that they will resort to smear tactics and violent rhetoric, instead of telling voters where they stand and what they’ll do,” Meyer said.

Republicans at national and local levels have used crime and economic inflation as rallying points of their voters, turning public conversation away from reproductive rights issues that galvanized Kansas voters, particularly women, into action during the August vote.

Baltzell said he hopes Kansans voters can see through Republican rhetoric.

“They are lying to their voters, plain and simple,” Baltzell said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Terrified, disheartened and confused: Democrats running for Kansas House face threats

TOPEKA — In late August, Rep. Heather Meyer was taking her son to school when she noticed something weird on her car’s windshield.

When she tried to wipe it off, the Overland Park Democrat realized it was a pack of 40 printouts, including pictures of dismembered fetuses, accusations that she was a baby murderer and notes calling Democrats evil.

Someone had found her address — which she had previously removed from voter records for safety reasons — and came by in the night to leave the packet in front of her house.

“It was just really unsettling,” Meyer said. “If I’d seen it somewhere else, maybe I’d laugh it off and say no big deal. But because it happened in my driveway, at my home, where my family lives, it was terrifying.”

As the November election gets closer, Democratic candidates say they have been physically threatened, yelled at and followed while canvassing or during other attempts to broadcast their platforms to Kansans. They say their Republican counterparts aren’t met with the same hostility.

Meyer filed a police report to get the incident on record. Meyer has represented her district for about a year, replacing former Rep. Brett Parker in September 2021 and running for reelection on the November ballot. She said she loves the work, but worries about the environment of extremism that has taken over politics, referencing conservative media.

“If you tune in to Fox News, they say a lot of that,” Meyer said. “If you listen to the Ted Nugent show, for instance, which Kris Kobach was just on, you hear a lot of that. You hear a lot of people targeting us specifically. Democrats don’t do this stuff, and it’s just not in our nature. We try our best to serve our communities. I’m not saying that Republicans don’t try to do the same, but I think that at our core, we just aren’t as prone to extremism.”

Kirk Haskins, who is running for a Topeka district seat in the House, said he was canvassing in a neighborhood a few weeks ago when he was approached by a resident, who told him that if he didn’t leave immediately, he would get shot. Haskins mentioned the incident during an Oct. 4 legislative forum, where no Republican candidates showed up.

In an interview with Kansas Reflector after the forum, Haskins said he was sure the person was serious. Haskins filed an incident report with police about the threat.

“It did come up in a conversation in a neighborhood that I’ve lived in for 23 years. So it was a little bit disheartening,” Haskins said.

Kim Zito, a Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Michael Dodson in a Manhattan district, said she was chased while canvassing in a residential area a few weeks ago.

Zito said a man started shouting her when she knocked on his door, and then followed her down the street, still shouting when she backed away. Zito moved on to the next house, but he blocked her access to the door, telling the homeowner not to accept what she was “peddling.” When he tried to grab her arm, she ran to her car and drove off.

“I was a mixture of angry and confused,” Zito said. “What I was doing didn’t really warrant such a response. That was just really overblown for someone who just rang the doorbell to introduce myself. That was just really preposterous.”

Zito said she’s had a few other incidents of people calling her a baby killer when they found out she was canvassing as a Democrat, but that this was the worst she has experienced.

“It shook me up. And I’m not a person to get shaken up,” she said.

Jalon Britton, who is running against incumbent Republican Rep. Patrick Penn in Wichita, said he noticed a car following him for two days in a row while canvassing a particular neighborhood. He thought he was mistaken, and that maybe the car was some sort of delivery service, until he was speaking with an older woman who lived in the neighborhood.

The man in the car pulled up, and asked the woman if she was safe talking to Britton, and if he was bothering her. She told the man that she and Britton were discussing his platform, and he drove away again.

“She was an older white lady and I’m a Black man. He was asking her, ‘Was it OK?’ Like he was gonna police me or something if she wasn’t, or if she didn’t answer the way he wanted her to,” Britton said. “I felt embarrassed. I felt small.”

Britton learned that there had been four or five complaints filed against him for soliciting in that neighborhood during the two days he canvassed there. While Britton is still determined to continue to get his message out, he said the whole experience left him feeling angry and sad, especially the thought that a candidate for office was still getting racially profiled in 2022.

Misti Hobbs, a Democrat running against Republican Leah Howell for a district in Sedgwick County, had her property vandalized after she painted a large abortion rights mural on her fence ahead of the August vote on abortion. Her paintings were vandalized with spray paint, including large genitalia. Hobbs said the vandals had tried to pry the boards away and light the fence on fire.

After she filed a police report and the incident was publicized, Hobbs said she got a lot of mail, mostly support letters, but also a few threats. She said that sometimes she’d get notes left on her door saying that she was going to hell, or in one incident, a driver screaming racial slurs as he passed their residence, because her husband is Black.

“I did my best to concentrate on all the love, you know, but words like that are just horribly scary, especially when I have young children living in the house and family staying here until they find their own place,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs said things have mostly calmed down, but she’s still practicing safety precautions. Hobbs said this sort of harassment is a partisan issue.

“I don’t want to say it’s on Republicans, but I do want to say that that is the narrative that the national party is pushing, therefore their little sects of state parties push and align with that. So, it is an attack on Democrats and democracy. I just don’t see Republicans getting chased and threatened like Kim Zito up in Manhattan, Kansas. I’m not seeing them,” Hobbs said.

Chuck Torres, running against Rep. Eric Smith in a district that spans Coffey, Lyon and Osage counties, said he has noticed incivility while doing door-to-door campaigning.

Torres said he believes this reaction is caused by Donald Trump’s influence.

“A lot of people just shut down. Others get angry and say we are evil,” Torres said. “I’ve been called other choice words. I’ve had my card thrown back at me a few times. All I am trying to do is provide them information so they are knowledgeable when they vote. I will usually just leave and tell them to have a nice day.”

Kansas Republican Party spokeswoman Shannon Pahls said an anti-abortion Republican teenager was attacked while canvassing ahead of the abortion amendment. Pahls didn’t respond to inquiries about whether Republican candidates were being harassed ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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DOJ announces federal oversight plan for Kansas elections

TOPEKA — Federal officials on Tuesday announced plans to install oversight of the Kansas voting process ahead of the November general election.

Jared Maag, district election officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas, will field Election Day complaints, voting rights concerns and election fraud issues.

Tuesday was the last day for Kansans to register to vote in the November general election. Advanced voting by mail and in person begins Wednesday.

The Department of Justice said it will protect the integrity of the election process by halting intimidation and discrimination at the polls, and addressing threats of violence against poll workers and election officials.

“The franchise is the cornerstone of American democracy. We all must ensure that those who are entitled to the franchise can exercise it if they choose, and that those who seek to corrupt it are brought to justice,” U.S. attorney Duston Slinkard said in a statement.

Maag’s oversight is supposed to promote public confidence in election security, which has been plagued by claims of voter fraud for the past few years. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and election officials say elections are secure.

Public figures like Kris Kobach, the GOP candidate for Kansas attorney general, and former President Donald Trump have used voter fraud myths to support laws that make voting more difficult for citizens.

During Kobach’s two terms as Kansas secretary of state, an office he held from 2011-2019, he pushed a law requiring residents to prove their citizenship before registering to vote. The law prevented more than 30,000 eligible voters from participating in elections and cost the state $1.9 million in fees and expenses. Kobach faces Democrat Chris Mann in this year’s attorney general race.

Current Secretary of State Scott Schwab, the state’s top elections officer, affirmed the security of the 2020 Kansas elections, while other Republicans, such as U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall and Reps. Jake LaTurner, Ron Estes and Tracey Mann, voted to overturn the presidential election. Schwab, who is seeking reelection this year against Democrat Jeanna Repass, has continued to affirm the security of Kansas elections.

Allegations of election fraud and election abuses can be reported to the local FBI field office at (816) 512-8200 or to Maag by calling (785) 295-2850. Violations of federal voting rights can be reported to the Civil Rights Division in Washington, DC by phone at (800) 253-3931 or through a complaint form at https://civilrights.justice.gov/.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

As election looms, Kansas Republicans rally around fentanyl crisis

TOPEKA — At national and local levels, Kansas Republicans are rallying around the issue of battling fentanyl to win over voters in a close race.

During Wednesday’s GOP rally in Topeka, U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall told the crowd that, unlike Gov. Laura Kelly, Attorney General Derek Schmidt would take fentanyl off the streets.

“We need a governor who supports law and order, and will keep our families safe, and who gets fentanyl off the streets and out of social media,” Marshall said.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Legal fentanyl is prescribed for pain relief. Illegal fentanyl is commonly mixed with other drugs because it’s a cheap way to create a more powerful high. Because fentanyl isn’t detectable without a test strip, people taking fentanyl-laced drugs are at a greater risk of overdose.

Marshall introduced legislation in September aimed at holding social media companies accountable for their role in fentanyl distribution. Marshall believes drug cartels are using social media such as TikTok to traffic fentanyl throughout the U.S.

Schmidt, the GOP nominee for governor, blamed Kelly for rising fentanyl abuse in the state, saying that the “poison” was manufactured in China by a branch of the Chinese Communist Party and then shipped to Mexico, where it is “mixed up and put together by drug cartels” and then smuggled over the border.

Schmidt said Kelly wasn’t doing enough to help southern governors with immigration problems.

“When she was asked for help by the border governors down on the southern border of the United States, she didn’t just say no,” Schmidt said. “She said they’re engaged in political games. That was her phrase.”

Kansas Democrats have pushed back against Schmidt’s rhetoric. State Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, said Republicans needed to focus on the state’s fentanyl problem at the local level instead of talking about border issues.

“I would challenge any Republican to tell me what Kansas can do about securing the border with Mexico. We have absolutely zero authority over that,” Probst said. “So for them to try to capture the fentanyl issue, which is a very real issue in our communities, and tie it to border security, it’s a dog whistle, because they can get people scared about immigration and tie it to fentanyl. And try to conflate those two issues.”

Probst also said Schmidt was silent about the fentanyl issue when Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would legalize fentanyl testing strips earlier this year.

“You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little skeptical and jaded and cynical when I now hear Republicans talking about this as an issue they care about,” Probst said.

During the rally, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said if elected, he would take legal action against President Joe Biden, saying his immigration policies opened the door for drugs brought across the Mexican border.

“If Joe Biden comes up with yet another way to open our borders, to bring in more fentanyl to our streets, what are we going to do?” Kobach said, in a call-and-response with the audience.

The audience chorused back: “Sue Joe Biden.”

U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner said Kansas, and the U.S. in general, was being swamped with illegal immigrants bringing fentanyl across the border.

“The Border Patrol is being overrun right here in Kansas,” LaTurner said. “We’re dealing with this on a daily basis. The No. 1 killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 45 is fentanyl. Over 300 Americans every single day are dying of this. It’s pouring across our southern border, and this administration isn’t doing anything about it.”

LaTurner’s statistics have not been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said leading causes of death among all American adults in 2020 were heart disease, cancer and COVID-19. Preliminary CDC data for 2021 shows a similar trend.

Opioid overdoses are on the rise, though. CDC data for 2021 showed more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in a single year, with most of these overdoses involving opioids.

In 2021, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said that out of the 338 drug overdoses reported between Jan. 1 and June. 30 of that year, 149 were related to fentanyl or fentanyl analogs. The provisional report showed a 54% increase in fatalities from an overdose during the same six-month period in 2020.

A new report of child deaths across the state showed six fentanyl-related deaths in children under the age of 17 in 2020.

Kelly announced a $17.2 million federal grant given to the state and the Kickapoo Tribe to address the opioid crisis on Thursday, a day after Schmidt’s comments.

The funding will be used to treat opioid addiction and increase access to recovery support services, among others, with the goal of reducing opioid overdose deaths. According to the press release, recovery support services will go to those using prescription opioids, heroin, fentanyl, fentanyl analogs and psychostimulants.

“The opioid crisis impacts families across Kansas, which is why it’s critical that we make opioid treatment and prevention resources available in every community,” Kelly said in the news release. “This funding will help make that possible, and in doing so save lives and bring relief to struggling Kansans.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.