National GOP group’s attack advertisement at center of dispute with Kansas governor’s campaign

Gov. Laura Kelly disputes ‘rough road’ allegation; RGA files ethics complaint

By: - May 27, 2022 8:12 am
Gov. Laura Kelly's reelection campaign urged television stations to pull the National Governors Association's ad by alleging it falsely Kelly halted work requirements for welfare recipients. NGA responded by filing an ethics complaint. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection campaign urged television stations to pull the Republican Governors Association’s ad by alleging it falsely Kelly halted work requirements for welfare recipients. NGA responded by filing an ethics complaint. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Republican Governors Association political action committee filed an ethics complaint in wake of an attempt to derail their attack ad targeting Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for allegedly dropping in 2019 a requirement adults work part-time, search for a job or get employment training to qualify for food stamps and other assistance.

Kelly campaign lawyers Courtney Weisman and Jonathan Berkon urged Kansas television stations to reject the RGA’s ad because it incorrectly claimed the governor “stopped” enforcing a rule that able-bodied adults had to earn their food stamps and cash aid. The governor’s reelection campaign argued the Kelly administration contemplated a policy shift, but amendments to eligibility rules weren’t implemented due to GOP criticism.

The complaint submitted to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission and signed by the RGA’s executive director in Washington, D.C., contended a Kelly administration Cabinet secretary shouldn’t have introduced into the debate a letter documenting the agency’s history of compliance with welfare eligibility rules. The secretary’s letter was relied upon — improperly, RGA said — by the Kelly campaign in an attempt to convince broadcast stations KSNT and KTKA to pull the RGA commercial.

The complaint said Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, improperly provided the Kelly campaign an agency memo on official DCF letterhead. It’s not clear Howard knew how the governor’s office or her campaign would make use of the one-page letter.

“Unfortunately for Kelly, no matter how much she improperly uses state resources and taxpayer-funded staff to aide her political campaign, we will keep holding her accountable and voters will reject her this November,” said RGA spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez.

The RGA is engaged in the Kansas gubernatorial campaign on behalf of Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run against Kelly.

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the RGA is lying about Governor Kelly’s strong track record. It’s this type of campaigning that Kansans despise,” said Lauren Fitzgerald, a Kelly campaign spokeswoman.

Howard’s letter to Will Lawrence, the Democratic governor’s chief of staff, said DCF didn’t relax rules to extend food stamp benefits to unqualified adults in 2019 or 2020.

RGA officials asserted, but didn’t offer evidence, that Kelly and Lawrence forced Howard to get involved in the political dispute. Under Kansas law, RGA staff said, state employees in Kansas couldn’t be coerced into engaging in political activities. Kansas statute also says state officers or employees couldn’t make use of public funds or time to expressly advocate nomination, election or defeat of a candidate, the RGA said.

 The Associated Press published a story in December 2018 that said Kelly wanted to “roll back cash assistance rules.” Kelly wasn’t sworn into office until January 2019. An article published by The Wichita Eagle in July 2019 said the attorney general gave Kelly a deadline to “drop (her) welfare plan.” A subsequent Wichita Eagle story said Kelly abandoned the welfare eligibility reform idea due to concern articulated by Republicans and the potential of an expensive legal fight.

Howard’s memo said a DCF document issued July 11, 2019, stated discretionary exemptions from work mandates wouldn’t be applied to welfare recipients. That document reversed an earlier DCF memo indicating the goal was to use limited exemptions.

“To claim that Governor Kelly ‘stopped’ requiring healthy adults to look for work while receiving welfare benefits is simply false,” Kelly’s campaign attorneys said in a letter to broadcasters. “You have a duty to protect the public from false, misleading or deceptive advertising.”

Jessica Furst Johnson, counsel to the RGA’s political action committee, said in correspondence to TV stations the Kelly campaign shouldn’t be permitted to “infringe on the PAC’s right to speak by distorting claims and inventing alternate reality in an effort to carefully curate what Kansans see on the airwaves.”

The RGA’s commercial, labeled “Rough Road,” was a response to Kelly’s campaign ad outlining how she brought Republicans and Democrats together to produce a record budget surplus, fully fund K-12 public education and implement a program to fix Kansas highways.

“Like most Kansans, I am not too far right or too far left,” Kelly said while speaking from a roadway in Auburn near Topeka. “Amazing what you can do when you govern from the middle.”

The RGA political action committee’s rebuttal commercial raised objections to Kelly’s vetoes of tax legislation and bills requiring boys or men to participate in school or college sports according to gender at birth.

“She stopped requiring healthy adults to look for work while receiving welfare checks,” the RGA ad’s voice over said. “Under Laura Kelly, our families are facing a rough road ahead.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.