Paul Buskirk, an athletics administrator at the University of Kansas, is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in the August primary. He’s competing against five other Democrats. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Paul Buskirk felt a calling 16 years ago to expand his contributions to public service by campaigning for election as Kansas’ governor.
He put the idea to a test by chatting with a handful of close friends. Reaction was mixed. Some were incredulous. Others thought it marvelous. The next step was to seek an endorsement from his wife. He called her with a pitch that outlined how a political novice from Lawrence should take on incumbent Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who had been around electoral politics since her youth in Ohio.
“I said, ‘Lauren, this is what I’m thinking. What do you think’?” Buskirk said. “There was this long pause on the other end of the phone. She said, ‘Hmm, I just love Kathleen Sebelius. I don’t think I could vote for you.’ That campaign fizzled and crashed and burned very quickly.”
Sixteen years later, Buskirk responded to his political urges by filing to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for U.S. Senate. There are six Democrats and two Republicans in the running — no Sebelius — for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, the Kansas Republican.
Buskirk, academic support director in the athletics department at the University of Kansas, said members of his family had always been engaged in service, whether as a teacher, doctor, pastor or in other ways. The timing of his 2022 quest feels better on a personal level, he said. Another layer of motivation emerged May 2 when Politico reported a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court was on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade and upending 50 years of court precedent on abortion rights.
“The world took a little change and turn on May 2,” he said.
He said he wouldn’t try to change voters’ minds on abortion, but wanted the Senate to seriously consider essential questions about child welfare raised by the possible overturning of Roe and potential Aug. 2 passage of an amendment to the Kansas Constitution declaring nothing in the state’s Bill of Rights gave a woman the right to an abortion.
In a politically divisive atmosphere, Buskirk said, interests of children born into unstable families should be at the forefront of public policy debate on abortion.
“Maybe the mother is not prepared to be able to care for that child. Maybe she didn’t really want the child. There’s such tremendous need for us to talk more about adoptions services,” Buskirk said.
Buskirk joined a candidate field with six Democrats, including Mike Andra of Wichita, Mark Holland of Kansas City, Kansas, Robert Klingenberg of Salina, Michael Soetaert of Alta Vista and Paul Wiesner of Overland Park. On the GOP side of the ledger, Moran of Manhattan is running in the primary against Joan Farr of Derby. Farr, who previously ran for governor against Sam Brownback, is concurrently running for U.S. Senate in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Buskirk said he’d never met Moran but thought of the senator as someone with “upstanding character.” He also said Moran had made “disturbing” decisions in the past couple years.
Buskirk grew up in Nebraska and Colorado before moving to Derby. He enrolled at KU to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He added a master’s degree in counseling psychology. During graduate school, he was involved in academic support services for KU students. He stuck around and has worked in education for 33 years.
“I work with our 500 student athletes that come to the University of Kansas,” Buskirk said. “If you come to Kansas, we will give you every opportunity to be successful in athletics and academics. So the student makes the choice, they come to Kansas, the coaches deal with the athletics part, and then they hand the rest of the responsibility to us.”
He said he was alarmed by violence perpetrated against children in schools across the nation. He said the Senate must rise to the challenge of mental illnesses undermining children and young adults. It’s not the whole answer to violence, he said, but part of the response to a national emergency.
The constitutional right to bear arms was developed when men and women owned rifles that required a bit of gunpowder, a lead ball and a ramming rod to reload, he said. The law ought to mirror realities of firearm technology allowing an 18-year-old to legally purchase a military-style assault weapon and walk into a Texas elementary school to massacre 19 fourth-graders and two teachers, he said.
“I don’t think that the common sense founders would have any problem saying: ‘You want to buy a gun?’ Cool. Extend the background time on the checks.’ I’m pretty sure the same founders would say that if someone’s found to have some mental wellness issues, I’m not sure they want him carrying a gun,” Buskirk said.
Buskirk said he didn’t share assertions by former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election won by President Joe Biden was flawed by corruption. He said individuals clinging to unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about election fraud were likely just angry at the election of a Democrat.
The actions by local, state and federal government agencies to thwart the COVID-19 pandemic have been denounced by people opposed to limits on mass gatherings, vaccination programs or wearing a mask as an intrusion into individual liberties. Buskirk doesn’t fall into that camp.
“It’s the obligation of government to be intrusive when the welfare of the people is in danger. I think that’s the role we would expect them to do … to save us. Maybe not always perfect, but do not sit back and do nothing,” he said.
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