Opinion

Derek Schmidt campaign tries to have it both ways on Kansas diversity and fundamental rights

July 13, 2022 3:33 am

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt chats with those attending the state Supreme Court’s redistricting hearing last month. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

Derek Schmidt’s campaign talks out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to diversity.

When handling questions about fundamental rights, the presumptive Republican gubernatorial candidate’s operation says different things depending on the audience. Should women have a right to access birth control? Should LGBTQ people have a right to, well, exist? It depends! The Schmidtizens seemingly don’t want to offend moderate voters who like Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. But they also don’t want to alienate any far-right extremists. After all, there’s no worse fate in today’s GOP than being branded a RINO.

Examples? Oh, we have them.

After the Wichita Eagle’s opinion section criticized the attorney general’s anti-LGBTQ grandstanding over school lunch programs — the piece was titled “Why is Derek Schmidt trying to allow anti-gay discrimination?” — his lieutenant governor candidate wrote a huffy response. Katie Sawyer insisted that the column got the Schmidt campaign all wrong.

“Kansans can oppose discrimination — and Derek Schmidt and I do — while also standing against Washington telling us how to raise our kids,” she wrote.

See? They oppose discrimination! Nothing to see here, not at all. Never mind, of course, that Sawyer doesn’t say what kind of discrimination she and Schmidt oppose. Is it discrimination against LGBTQ people? She wouldn’t specify. Can you imagine the ruckus among Kansas Republicans if she actually wrote that gay people deserved to be treated equally?

Sawyer took a different tack when she appeared at a Republican candidate forum in Marion.

According to reporting from the Kansas City Star, the lieutenant governor candidate criticized Kelly for vetoing a bill that targeted transgender children. That was disturbing enough, showing that the campaign would contradict its supposed opposition to discrimination in front of a friendly group. But what came next during the discussion of trans folk was truly alarming.

“When the moderator of the forum asked for questions from the crowd, a man in the audience said, ‘I think she oughta change the lock on her office door,’ referring to Kelly. Another man chimed in, ‘If she was ever at the Capitol, we might,’ ” according to reporter Kacen Bayless.

“Sawyer, a former staffer for Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, did not respond to the two comments and was instead seen laughing in the video along with the rest of the crowd,” Bayless wrote.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt gives a statement and answers questions after filing to run as a Republican for governor at the Secretary of State’s Office. Schmidt waited to file until last minute and announce his running mate, Katie Sawyer. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

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Friends, she laughed.

When confronted with Kansans voicing implied homophobic threats, Sawyer laughed. And this is what she says in public, in front of other Republicans. Who knows what she may have said or approved of in her now-locked Twitter account?

The Schmidt campaign, as you might imagine, strongly disagrees with the above interpretation. Campaign manager CJ Grover told the Star that it “should be embarrassed for publishing this hit piece and ought to apologize for smearing Marion County with the false suggestion one of their senior citizens was threatening the governor. We will indeed change the locks on the governor’s office doors — in January after Kansas voters reject the liberal Kelly-Biden agenda in November.”

Speaking of Grover, I contacted him late last month to ask whether Schmidt believed there was a constitutional right to birth control, same-sex intimacy or gay marriage. I also asked whether the candidate would support legislation protecting those rights in Kansas. After the U.S. Supreme Court voided Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson, many worried that other fundamental rights could follow.

The campaign’s response was that fears of such moves were nonsense. (Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurrence notwithstanding.)

“The critics of the ruling advancing those concerns are simply not correct,” Grover wrote. “Nothing in Dobbs implicates any of those other precedents that have recognized different constitutionally protected rights.”

Like Sawyer's claim that she and Schmidt oppose discrimination, there's less here than meets the eye. The campaign didn't say that Schmidt believed those rights were in the Constitution, only that they weren't at risk. He didn't commit to passing state laws protecting his fellow Kansans if the Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

– Clay Wirestone

Like Sawyer’s claim that she and Schmidt oppose discrimination, there’s less here than meets the eye. The campaign didn’t say that Schmidt believed those rights were in the Constitution, only that they weren’t at risk. He didn’t commit to passing state laws protecting his fellow Kansans if the Supreme Court ruled otherwise. On the other hand, Kelly’s campaign was able to answer both questions directly: Yes.

But what does Schmidt say when he’s speaking from his official perch as attorney general? Why, just last week he issued a news release headlined: “U.S. Supreme Court term good for liberty, the rule of law.” Huh. He says the high court’s ruling in Dobbs “was the right decision.” He writes that he supports the “Value them Both” state constitutional amendment, which would clear the way for the Legislature to pass a total abortion ban.

He hails decisions expanding prayer in school and Second Amendment rights, among others, and notes in his introduction that these are “important decisions that reinforce the principle that courts are to interpret the law as it actually is written, not as judges or advocates wish it to be.”

That sure doesn’t sound like someone eager to see the court uphold precedents on birth control and LGBTQ rights, does it?

Don’t worry, though. I read in the Eagle that he and his lieutenant governor candidate “oppose discrimination.” Perhaps that’s the discrimination exercised by folks who are paying attention.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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