Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, seen participating in a Kansas Reflector podcast, denounces the idea of leaning on government mask or vaccination mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The surging delta variant of COVID-19 and rising hospitalizations and deaths among Kansans in the past month couldn’t shake Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt’s objection to government-issued mask or vaccination mandates.
Schmidt, who has served as the state’s attorney general for a decade, said the more hands-off responses of South Dakota, Florida and Texas to the pandemic enabled residents of those states to weather the threat just about as well as states such as Kansas that waded into the pandemic with sweeping executive orders.
“The instinct to mandate as a sort of necessary tool in order to respond to the pandemic has really been proven inadvisable, ” Schmidt said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “It’s not necessary to mandate in order to get an effective public health response.”
Kansas’ one-dose vaccination rate of 65.9% for eligible residents trails the national average of 69.8%. The state’s rate for fully vaccinated people has reached 55.2%, which is worse than Colorado and Nebraska and better than Missouri and Oklahoma.
Kansas school districts, businesses and local governments have responded to the delta variant by adopting policies requiring COVID-19 testing for employees who have stiff-armed the vaccine. Starting Aug. 23, Johnson County will mandate testing of unvaccinated employees once or twice per week.
Gov. Laura Kelly, who responded in early 2020 to the pandemic by limiting in-school instruction and mass gatherings has transitioned to a position that allows city and county governments to determine how best to grapple with the coronavirus.
Schmidt, who represented Independence in the Kansas Senate before he was elected attorney general, said 31,000 infections, 1,200 hospitalizations and 260 deaths linked to COVID-19 in Kansas since July 14 didn’t shake his belief in an individual’s freedom of choice. He declined to set a metric that would cause him to abandon that position.
“My own view is that, you know, medical care of vaccines is a personal decision. People ought to be entrusted with it. I just don’t think government trying to mandate a vaccination is a very smart move at all,” Schmidt said.
He said the Kansas Supreme Court issued a decision that found women in Kansas had a constitutional right to abortion because the Bill of Rights guaranteed bodily autonomy. The attorney general opposed that court decision, but argued it was relevant in the COVID-19 debate because “it is quite a thing for the government to order a needle to be stuck in somebody’s arm.”
The attorney general has appealed to the state’s highest court a Johnson County District Court judge’s decision striking down Senate Bill 40, which overhauled the state’s disaster emergency law to limit a governor’s authority in such a crisis.
Schmidt said he was convinced Kelly stretched the old law and contorted it in ways that “not only were never intended, but that were illegal.”
Schmidt is competing against former Gov. Jeff Colyer for the GOP nomination for governor in 2022, and the opportunity to challenge Kelly, the incumbent Democrat. Schmidt said the clock was ticking on Kelly’s tenure as the state’s chief executive. In 2018, Colyer lost the Republican primary to Kris Kobach, who was defeated in the general election by Kelly.
“I think we need a new one,” Schmidt said. “That won’t be surprising to anybody. I’ve been disappointed in Governor Kelly’s leadership and her work as governor. Obviously, I’m a Republican. I have a different philosophy of government than she has. And you know, I think if you need a new governor, and you believe that, then step up and run and give folks a choice.”
He said Kansas voters would respond to his “solid conservative record,” despite rumblings from Colyer that Schmidt lacked conservative credentials. Schmidt also said a lot of Kansans didn’t want to rehash the years Gov. Sam Brownback and his lieutenant governor, Colyer, were at the helm. Colyer was governor for about one year after Brownback’s resignation to work in the administration of President Donald Trump.
“Jeff and I have known each other 25 years. We’re friends. I think he would say the same thing,” Schmidt said. “Obviously, things are a little awkward right now. And you’re competing for the same job, but the sun will rise tomorrow. And we’ll all move ahead.
“I do think that Kansans are ready to turn the page on the last 10 years. They don’t want to refight the same fights. They want to have somebody with solid conservative principles, who also has the ability to say, ‘Let’s look at things freshly, let’s do things differently, and not get sort of sucked back into the vortex of old battles,’ ” Schmidt said.
A few key issues
Schmidt said he was an opponent of abortion and asserted that he had done more than anybody else in Kansas during the past decade to stand up for laws designed to regulate abortion.
“I’ve been in the middle of those fights, I’ve led some of them and I believe in the cause,” he said.
He endorsed the proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution placed on the August 2022 statewide ballot that would reverse the state Supreme Court decision carving a constitutional right of women to abortion. It is Schmidt’s contention that right doesn’t exist in the state’s constitution.
In terms of the Second Amendment, Schmidt said the state finally passed a law beefing up reciprocity of Kansans’ concealed carry permit with other states.
He’s opposed to Kelly’s recommendation that the Legislature expand eligibility for Medicaid. He pointed to the state’s cost of broadening a health entitlement program that received about 90% of its funding from the federal government.
In addition, he said, there should be a work requirement in any expanded Medicaid initiative so it didn’t resemble welfare.
“After a year of COVID, and all of the uncontrolled spending out of Washington, there’s a new sensitivity to the idea,” he said. “You know, the old argument is, ‘It’s free money. Why don’t you take it?’ And the reality is Kansans are much more skeptical of that notion today than they were even a year and a half ago, because of the unbelievable amount of so-called free money.”
BLM, death penalty
Schmidt, who has delivered remarks at law enforcement academy graduation ceremonies, said the Black Lives Matter protests led him to consider the value of Kansas’ early implementation of a professional training and licensing agency for police and sheriff deputies.
“It’s a very valuable tool for ensuring that law enforcement is a profession, not just a job,” he said. “I always tell the graduates, ‘You’re signing up for a very difficult job. We trust you. We respect you. We appreciate you. But we also expect a lot out of you.’ And I believe that.”
Schmidt has defended capital punishment statutes in Kansas while serving as attorney general and was a supporter of the death penalty while in the Legislature.
However, the state hasn’t executed anyone since 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down death penalty statutes in Kansas and 39 other states nearly 50 years ago. In 1994, state lawmakers enacted a new law that has been repeatedly tested in court but not led to lethal injection of a convicted killer.
“It’s just a matter of justice. There are some homicides that are so heinous … justice demands the old notion of an eye for an eye,” Schmidt said. “Now, if the state wanted to go a different direction, obviously a majority could do that. But I am one who thinks that we ought to fix the Kansas capital punishment law so that it can actually be used in appropriate cases and not to scrap it.”
Schmidt said he wasn’t willing to get involved in the Republican Party’s primary for attorney general. The current ballot would include Kobach, the former secretary of state from Lecompton; Kellie Warren, a state senator from Johnson County; and Tony Mattivi, a former federal prosecutor from Topeka.
“Yeah, I’m staying out of the attorney general’s race. I have my own race for governor,” Schmidt said. “I have supporters, strong supporters, who are backing me for governor who are with each of the three Republican candidates who have announced. We’ll let Kansans sort all that out.”
He said that when dust settled in January 2023, he hoped to hand off the attorney general’s office to a person who would maintain standards of professionalism that he demanded the past 10 years.
“When I got there the office was in something of disarray,” he said. “I was the fifth attorney general in 10 years, and they are four-year terms. So you can imagine the turmoil that had ensued. We have fixed so much of that. We focus not just on the big headline issues, but on lots of little day-to-day stuff that really matters.”
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