From left, Kansas attorney general candidates Kris Kobach, Tony Mattivi and Kellie Warren. The GOP candidates appeared at a forum Saturday in Wichita to elaborate on their policy and political views amid the competitive primary election. (Kansas Reflector photos by Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith)
TOPEKA — Republican attorney general candidates Kris Kobach, Kellie Warren and Tony Mattivi took advantage of a rare face-to-face appearance in front of partisan loyalists to explain why Kansas voters should punch their ticket in 2022 and to rub salt in political wounds of their rivals.
Kobach, a two-term Kansas secretary of state, vowed to keep working to irritate the ACLU if elected attorney general and revealed a “dirty truth” about the Kansas Chamber political action committee’s endorsement of Warren. Kelly, the state senator victorious in her only two campaigns, urged voters to place faith in someone who knew how to win elections rather than Kobach, given his back-to-back losses for U.S. Senate in 2020 and governor in 2018.
Mattivi, a retired federal prosecutor, said the state deserved an experienced, professional courtroom operator at the helm. He also dismissed Kobach’s proposal to create a new unit in the attorney general’s office devoted exclusively to filing lawsuits against the Biden administration.
The Kansas Federation of Republican Women, which celebrates the union of pearls and pachyderms, convened the forum in Wichita in conjunction with the Kansas Republican Party’s annual convention. Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, is running for governor instead of re-election. In Kansas, the attorney general is the state’s chief law enforcement officer and has jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases and the KBI.
Laurel Stiffler, president of the Republican Women organization, said the gathering Saturday illustrated the GOP had “three very intelligent, compassionate patriots” campaigning to replace Schmidt. Chris Mann, a former police officer, is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for attorney general.
Each of the GOP candidates praised the proposed abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution destined for August primary ballots. The amendment was placed on statewide ballots by House and Senate members who responded with dismay to a Kansas Supreme Court opinion declaring the right to abortion could be found in the constitution’s Bill of Rights.
Warren, Kobach and Mattivi predicted the amendment would be approved by a simple majority of Kansans voting. There was consensus passage of the amendment would lead to legal challenges and the next state attorney general would be responsible for defending the amendment in court.
“Having that amendment pass is just the beginning,” Mattivi said.
Warren, who defeated the only state GOP senator to vote against the abortion amendment, said she was the only candidate on the stage who had actually cast a vote in support of the measure.
Advocates for the amendment, including Kansans for Life, argued the constitution had to be amended to protect reasonable limits on abortion in Kansas law. It would place the Kansas Legislature in the lead when determining rights of women making decisions about reproduction.
Kobach said adoption of the amendment and success in the courts would affirm the Legislature’s role in decisions of bodily autonomy.
“When we pass Value Them Both, our Legislature will be free to pass laws to protect life as they should,” he said.
In the state Supreme Court’s 6-1 decision, the majority concluded Section 1 of the Bill of Rights contained “protection of the right of personal autonomy, which includes the ability to control one’s own body, to assert bodily integrity and to exercise self-determination.”
Mattivi, a retired assistant U.S. attorney from Topeka, worked in the Department of Justice for more than 20 years. He prosecuted cases of terrorism, money laundering, racketeering, organized crime, drug trafficking and violent crime. He led a team of prosecutors who convicted three southwest Kansas militia members who plotted to blow up an apartment building and slaughter more than a hundred Somali Muslim refugees.
He also worked in offices of the Kansas attorney general and the Shawnee County district attorney, but had not previously sought public office.
He said Kansas required a credible, seasoned, ethical prosecutor — not a politician — to confront the wave of violent crime in the state. The murder rate in Kansas spiked at the same time protesters took to the streets to argue for defunding of police departments, he said.
“We seem to have reached this point in our society when in order to be considered socially enlightened you have to be soft on crime,” Mattivi said. “The most important thing an attorney general can do, as your chief law enforcement officer, is to do everything in his or her power to keep you safe.”
He said federal officials were running astray by “coming after our guns” and usurping citizens’ property rights. The most at-risk constitutional freedom was the right to speak freely, he said, because society was at a point where “if you don’t agree with the popular opinion, then you’re shunned.”
In response to a question about possible changes to the 180-person staff in the attorney general’s office, Mattivi said the attorney general played an important role in supporting county prosecutors pursuing perpetrators of hideous crimes. He said it would be folly to shrink the office’s staff and he rejected Kobach’s idea of reducing the administrative staff through attrition.
“You can’t on one hand talk about indiscriminately filing lawsuits and on the other hand talk about downsizing the office that does that,” Mattivi said.
He said the race for attorney general wasn’t a career stepping stone for him because he harbored no aspirations for higher office.
“I’m not running for attorney general because I want to be governor or because I want to be senator,” Mattivi said.
Warren, a Leawood Republican, entered politics in 2018 by challenging Rep. Joy Koesten, a moderate Republican. Warren prevailed 58% to 42% in that contest, and in hindsight accused Koesten of being a “woke liberal.”
Two years later, she took on Sen. John Skubal, another GOP moderate, and won 64% to 36%. In both instances, she squarely defeated the Democratic nominee.
“Losing elections has consequences,” said Warren, who pointed to Kobach’s defeat by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. “We are paying a high price in Kansas for having lost in 2018. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We need to make sure we don’t have a Democratic attorney general who would be nothing except an ally of the Biden administration.”
Warren serves as chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first woman to hold that job in Kansas history. She said that work — neither Kobach nor Mattivi have served in the Legislature — demonstrated her ability to advance policy that touched a spectrum of legal topics.
Warren promised she would focus her campaign and service as attorney general on protecting “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” guarantees etched in the constitution. In part, she said, that required her to push back against the “far-left radical agenda” of people disenchanted with law enforcement officers and of government officials during a COVID-19 pandemic that so far killed more than 8,000 Kansans.
“We’ve seen our liberty and our pursuit of happiness basically destroyed these last few years by government overreach,” said Warren, who took credit for helping craft religious and medical exemptions to vaccine mandates.
Warren, with more than 25 years of experience in business law, has handled cases involving price fixing, importation of medicine from China and private property rights. She asserted liberals would keep trying to turn Kansas blue in a political sense by running to state or federal court rather than engage the legislative process.
“You know what, they know that perhaps our courtrooms are more friendly to the left political agenda than the Kansas voters are,” she said.
Kobach: Dirty truth
Kobach, of rural Lecompton, said he hadn’t intended to run for attorney general in 2022. He said he was wrapping up background checks required to take a position in the administration of Republican President Donald Trump during a second term. That plan was derailed when President Joe Biden, a Democrat, won.
Kobach said the outcome was influenced by “election shenanigans” that resulted from a “clear-cut” case of distortion of the Electoral College through alteration of election rules. He said he became convinced of the need to run for Kansas attorney general after just one of the nation’s attorneys general — Texas’ Ken Paxton — had the “backbone” to seriously pursue his theory of Electoral College misconduct.
“There are a lot of attorneys general who talk tough, who are Republicans and call themselves conservatives, but when it comes time to stand on a limb and actually do something that has risk, they won’t do it,” said Kobach, who taught constitutional law for about 15 years at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
He took credit for contributions to four lawsuits against the Biden administration. If elected in November, he promised to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Texas attorney general and help lead the anti-Biden charge with a strategy that could be called “lawfare.” The special unit he would create in the attorney general’s office would be staffed with lawyers from around the country who had demonstrated expertise required, he said.
Kobach pledged to be the kind of attorney general who personally wrote legal briefs and delved into cases rather than outsource that important work. He said he was eager to go head to head with attorneys of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 2020, a federal appellate court affirmed the ACLU’s victory over Kobach in a trial that tested constitutionality of the state’s proof-of-citizenship law on voter registration. The statute was ruled unconstitutional because it blocked more than 35,000 Kansans from registering. In 2021, the Kansas attorney general agreed to pay the ACLU and other attorneys $1.9 million in fees and expenses for the five-year battle.
Kobach said he didn’t secure the endorsement of the Kansas Chamber’s PAC because of his work to thwart the flow of undocumented immigrants to Kansas. The PAC endorsed Warren.
Specifically, Kobach said, the Kansas Chamber was unhappy with Kobach’s activities to unravel actions by cities and counties to create “sanctuary cities” that shielded people without U.S. citizenship and in the country without government permission.
“You want to know the dirty truth about it? I’ll name names,” he said. “Kansas Chamber of Commerce opposes anything that reduces the supply of illegal labor in Kansas. Let’s be blunt. That’s why the Kansas Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like me, because I speak very clearly. We are going to reduce illegal immigration in Kansas and we’re going to reduce sanctuary cities.”
In response, Kansas Chamber president Alan Cobb said Kobach’s claims about the PAC’s endorsement was “entirely false.”
“He didn’t earn the endorsement because of his track record of failure in the courtroom, as indicated by losing multiple cases costing Kansas taxpayers millions and being ordered by a federal judge to receive legal education, as well as repeatedly losing at the ballot box,” Cobb said.
He said Kansas needed an attorney general “who is competent, knows the law and will serve our great state with integrity. Kris Kobach’s record clearly shows he isn’t qualified to be the next attorney general of Kansas.”
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