What does it say about Kansas that three teenagers are running for governor?
All three high school students say they are serious contenders to succeed Gov. Sam Brownback, whose administration has, by all accounts, been an absolute flop. In less than five years, Brownback’s firm belief that the state could tax-cut its way to prosperity proved to be a horrendous debacle. The promised flood of private sector jobs never materialized. Could these high-schoolers do any worse?
Among the other candidates they face is Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has become a trusted collaborator of President Donald Trump and who is the It Boy of the Republican crusade to kick certain Americans off the voting rolls. Voter suppression policies first honed by Kobach in Kansas, predicated on the fallacy that voter fraud is rampant, have been adopted across the country. Meanwhile, his attempts to find and prosecute such violations in Kansas have turned into an expensive farce. (Again, could the high schoolers do any worse?)
I salute their energy and willingness to serve their fellow Kansans, but the truth is they are running because they can. There are zero requirements — zilch — for gubernatorial candidates in Kansas. There are no age limits. No basic requirements. In fact, a candidate need not even be registered to vote, nor do they have to be a human being. (It’s only a matter of time before Toto enters the race.)
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The young candidates include a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old from Wichita and a 17-year-old from Prairie Village. All are boys.
An argument could be made that allowing such youthful candidates makes a mockery of the state’s highest office. What we need are elected officials who are more seasoned in life, not less. Maybe then we wouldn’t have ridiculous antics such as the Missouri state senator who recently hoped on Facebook for the president to be assassinated.
Every state has at least one example of such daftness. It never ends. A Kansas legislator once opined that undocumented immigrants should be hunted like feral hogs, with a gun from above in a helicopter.
And voters too often let this foolishness pass — or, worse, encourage it. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that someone who seems relatable, a lot like ourselves, is the best candidate. Intelligence, experience in government, ability to grasp the complexities of policy and process: Who needs it? Americans vote for, and campaigns promote, candidates who flatter the average voter.
It’s a symptom of poll-driven electioneering. And it produces a political system that appeals to nobody in particular. (The exception is gerrymandered or otherwise overwhelmingly partisan districts, where pandering to extremists is increasingly typical.) It’s hardly a surprise that so many Americans choose not to be engaged in electoral politics.
The lax — no, deplorable — voting patterns in the United States begin when prospective voters are young. They often don’t see voting as a civic duty or, in many cases, even as a right to protect jealously.
The three young candidates in Kansas may be having a bit of a lark, but they are indicative of what American politics needs. Primarily, our political system must engage people at a far younger age than it does now. (Also, we need to get young women involved. None has thrown her hat in the Kansas gubernatorial ring — yet.)
Jack Bergeson of Wichita, running with a 17-year-old friend as his lieutenant governor, includes some telling language in his website: “Despite our age, we feel the obligation to run for public office and give the people of Kansas a choice of candidates” who haven’t been influenced by the political establishment.
Imagine that: a candidate who pitches himself as new, fresh and unseasoned.
Yes, the American political system could use the invigoration of fresh voices, of people who aren’t beholden to slush funds put together by PACs with untraceable donor lists, or to party hierarchies that threaten elected officials with being “primaried” for even the slightest perceived infraction against a set ideology.
Too often, something happens to people, even very well-intentioned people, when they seek to enter politics.
We’ve cranked up the political system to work against the better intentions of newbie candidates. People can’t get elected without a lot of money. So our parties ossify; our political process becomes unresponsive.
So maybe we should foster the passions and advocacy of young people. We may not find them qualified to lead a state before they have graduated high school, but we need to listen to them, respect them and channel their best impulses toward a future when they will have the experience necessary to lead.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist and member of The Kansas City Star's editorial board.