Johnson County high school students organizing a town hall in Olathe Saturday said they found out from local newspapers that U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder would not attend their event.
The students had sent the Overland Park Republican a letter, multiple emails and posted invitations to the event on social media. One tried visiting his local office only to find it locked.
"I have been emailing Yoder’s office every day for the past couple days. I haven’t received anything back at all," said April Ma, a 16-year-old junior at Blue Valley West High School and one of the organizer's of Saturday's "Town Hall for Our Lives" in Olathe.
Yoder's staff never replied to their requests before his campaign inaccurately referred to their town hall as a Democratic primary event in a statement to media.
"Kevin appreciates the invitation to this Democratic primary event. He looks forward to debating their candidate in the fall after they have picked their nominee," said C.J. Grover, Yoder's spokesman.
Taylor Mills, 16, called the label unfair, making the issue sound like it's only important to one political party.
"We want dialogue. We want him to show up. We want him to show that he cares about how we feel," said Mills, a junior at Blue Valley North High School and a member of the National Honor Society and her school's student council.
The other student organizers are from the Shawnee Mission, Olathe and Kansas City, Kan., districts.
"We are in a state with some of the most lax gun laws and Kevin Yoder has been silent for the last two months with Parkland, so we really wanted to sit down with him," Mills said, referring to the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that claimed the lives of 17 people.
Ma said she was caught off guard by Yoder's campaign informing the media of its decision to skip the event before telling the students. Yoder's campaign did not immediately respond to a follow-up.
"As a representative of Kansas, we think it’s literally his job to be attending town halls like this," said Ma, a member of her school's debate team who also volunteers for the Youth Hope Fund, a Chinese-American charity devoted to overseas disaster relief efforts.
Grover reiterated his position that the event was a Democratic-aligned when asked about why Ma did not get a response to her emails.
"We are aware of a single request made just this week to participate in this event, and as I said before we won't be joining a Democrat primary debate," he said.
The event follows last month’s March for Our Lives, a series of marches in support of gun control that took place in 800 cities, including Kansas, after the Parkland shooting.
Seven of Yoder’s challengers have agreed to attend the town hall, which will take place at 3 p.m. Saturday at Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe and is expected to take roughly two hours.
It will feature questions on gun legislation, education and LGBT rights, among other topics.
Democratic candidates Tom Niermann, Sharice Davids, Mike McCamon, Jay Sidie, Brent Welder and Sylvia Williams have all agreed to participate, according to the news release. Libertarian Chris Clemmons will also attend.
Mills said the fact that a Libertarian has agreed to attend the event highlights the absurdity of Yoder's campaign calling it a Democratic event.
"I definitely will be remembering this," said Mills, who won't be old enough to vote in this election but will be in another two years.
Yoder received a 93 percent candidate rating from the National Rifle Association in 2016 during his successful re-election campaign again Sidie.
Yoder ranks 74th among members of Congress in terms of money the NRA has spent on behalf of his campaign or against his opponents. The NRA has spent $52,938 in support of Yoder over the course of his congressional career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The NRA did not immediately comment on the town hall in Yoder's district.
The issue of guns could be a delicate one for the Republican in the suburban district, which has experienced several cases of high-profile gun violence in recent years. The race was rated a toss-up last month by RealClearPolitics, a national site that tracks polling data, and winning the seat has been a top goal for national Democrats since last year.
The church where the town hall will be held is less than five miles away from the bar where last year Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a Garmin engineer, was murdered in a racially motivated shooting.
Yoder took Kuchibhotla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala, with him as his guest to this year’s State of the Union address and has been heavily involved in efforts to ensure she can remain in the country following her husband’s death.
The town hall is also not far from the Jewish community center and retirement community where three people were killed in a 2014 shooting.
Both incidents received international attention.
"This could be the one district that is much more complicated on the gun issue than the other ones in Kansas," said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.
Beatty said that Yoder has been safe in past elections, but that could change this year. "One thing that could make him vulnerable is a surge in voter turnout and one place that is always open to a surge is young voters," he said.
Yoder voiced his opposition to gun control efforts during a town hall hosted by the Kansas City Star in Olathe last year.
“I don’t think the answer is restricting rights for law-abiding Americans,” Yoder said at the time. “Restricting their Second Amendment rights isn’t going to make them feel any safer. When I go to Washington, D.C., I’m in the biggest gun-free zone probably anywhere in America. You’re not allowed to carry a gun in Washington, D.C. And there’s areas there where you might want to, but you’re not allowed to protect yourself. That’s not the country I want to live."
Since then Yoder has come out in favor of restrictions on bump stocks, devices that can be used to increase the firepower of semi-automatic weapons.
Niermann, who teaches at Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, criticized Yoder's decision to skip the student-organized town hall, saying as a sitting congressman he should weigh in on the issue that is important to the community.
Niermann said that he is not surprised by the student activism that has dominated political headlines in recent weeks.
"For the last several years I have been waiting for students to emerge like this. They are deeply concerned about the issues affecting their future.... And I think part of the reason they are responding to gun violence is the inaction of their elected representatives," Niermann said.
"I don’t think elected officials can brush this issue aside any longer," said Niermann, who supports closing the gun show loophole for background checks and banning military style assault weapons.
Welder, a labor attorney who lives in Bonner Springs, said that he's not surprised that Yoder will forgo the event.
"What is he going to say?" Welder said. "He sides with the NRA and corporate gun lobby every single time and I think that the reason he's not coming is he doesn't have any solutions to give to the people."
Welder called gun control one of the key issues in the race and said he was excited by the student activism on the issue.
"I love it and I think it's just another example of how fired up the grassroots are right now," Welder said. "The last time I saw the grassroots anywhere close to as fired up as this was back when George W. Bush was in office."
Sharice Davids, a Johnson County lawyer who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, said that she was disappointed by Yoder's decision to not attend.
"It feels as though there are a lot of people in the district who care about this issue and are interested in seeing common sense action on this. I’m hearing from a lot of people," she said.
Davids said that she will be calling on the other candidates to take a firm stance against taking money from the gun lobby at the forum.
Davids, who launched her campaign in February, has raised more than $125,000 since joining the race, according to her campaign.
Welder's campaign said Thursday that it has raised more than $240,000 since January and has roughly $340,000 cash on hand.
Niermann has raised more than $520,000 since launching his campaign last year, including more than $200,000 since January, his campaign announced Thursday.
Yoder raised more than $390,000 during the first three months of 2018 and his campaign has nearly $2 million cash on hand.
The Star's Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.