By SCOTT AUST
Former state representative Ed O’Malley joked during a stop Thursday at the Clarion Inn, part of a statewide tour to cities across the state announcing his candidacy for governor of Kansas, that he has been “trying really hard” to visit Garden City but the weather hasn’t cooperated.
During his exploratory campaign listening tour this spring, O’Malley was scheduled to come to town a couple days after the late April blizzard that buried the area under a foot of snow. A couple months later, a second visit was derailed due to severe weather in the Dodge City area.
“I’m just glad there wasn’t a plague of locusts raining down from the sky on our way out today,” he joked.
A Johnson County native, O’Malley earned a degree in history from Kansas State University, was an aide to Kansas Governor Bill Graves, and was twice elected to the state legislature from the 24th District, serving from 2003-2006. He then founded the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita. He and his wife, Joanna, childhood sweethearts who met on a school bus in the seventh grade, have three children.
More than three dozen people showed up Thursday to hear O’Malley’s views on state issues as he seeks the GOP gubernatorial nomination for next year’s election. O’Malley officially threw his hat in the ring this month and kicked off a seven-city tour to introduce himself to the voters. He joins nine other candidates in the crowded Republican field.
Referring to the number of declared candidates, O’Malley joked that it’s easier to say who’s not running for governor. But he thinks the large number is good for the state, that Kansas needs a competitive and vigorous debate because it will make the candidates stronger.
“I love this state. I love Kansas. I love our people, and I love our communities. … And I feel like we’re nowhere near our potential. Over the last several years we’ve had way too much chaos, way too much frustration and not enough progress,” he said.
At least one member of the audience wondered if the crowded field is good for the state. Dr. Bill Clifford expressed concern that the number of good candidates in the race, such as O’Malley, will split the vote which could clear the way for Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to be elected.
O’Malley didn’t shy away from the question, saying that Kansans are clamoring for vision, unity, collaboration and results and pointing out that Kris Kobach, on the other hand, has made his career by dividing.
According to O’Malley, Kansans want a governor who is focused on core issues like schools, the economy and the state budget, not pet issues. He said none of the people he has heard from while on his tour of the state have talked about the issues Kobach appears to be focused on.
“Kansans want a governor who is focused on this state. Kansans want a governor who wants ‘this job’ because of ‘this job.’ My sense is Kris Kobach cares most about his national name recognition,” O’Malley said. “At a time when I think most Kansans want a back to basics governor who goes about managing the state … I think Kris Kobach is bad for Kansas because he’s not focused on Kansas.”
O’Malley also believes Kansas voters are smart enough to evaluate the candidates and make the best choice. He doesn’t think there will be as many Republican candidates on the ballot by next Augusts’ primary so O’Malley is confident voters will make the right decision and that they won’t choose Kobach.
“But it’s only going to happen if more voters step up and engage in the Republican primary,” he said.
Education part of platform
The crowd offered several concerns about education at the Garden City event, likely not a surprise given the Kansas Supreme Court’s recent decree that the state’s public education system still needs more money to meet Constitutional muster.
Education is a huge issue for O’Malley, one that has economic implications.
“We can create the best public education system in the world and it will fuel our economy. It’s an economic argument. To do that doesn’t necessarily mean throwing money at it,” O’Malley said.
In his three point vision, O’Malley believes the state ought to have the best schools in the world which will fuel the economy, that state government needs to be transformed to serve people better, and that there needs to be leadership to bring people together.
“I believe we’ll grow the economy by having the best schools in the world. I don’t think that has to cost an arm and a leg more,” he said. “If we’re going to become No. 1 in education, it’s because we’re going to fundamentally transform the way we do education, which requires leadership. No. 2, we’re going to transform the way we do state government. We’re going to have the right metrics, we’re going to reward people for hitting those metrics, we’re going to be accountable to citizens in ways we haven’t been. And No. 3, we’re going to do this with leadership from Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and a governor that fosters that leadership across the spectrum. I don’t believe we solve our toughest problems with just one perspective. I’m a Republican. If we want lasting solutions to our toughest issues … we have to solve these things together.”
Willing to lead
Sen. John Doll asked O’Malley his plan for getting the state out of what Doll called its “economic purgatory.”
O’Malley said anyone saying they have the exact answer is just making it up or trying to fool you. He said the best way to solve problems is to get people with different perspectives to sit down together and pound out solutions, something that has been lacking in Topeka for a number of years.
“So I don’t know how exactly we get ourselves in a position where we’re not spending over $100 million just on debt service, how we get into a position where we quit having the bank of KDOT fund our everyday spending, but my sense is that the way to approach it is to sit down and agree that’s not the way we want to do it, and figure out and make the hard choices,” he said. “I think to make it sound like it’s a simple answer would just be lying to constituents, and trying to fool ourselves and them along the way. We’re in a tough situation. There’s no easy way out. The only way we’re going to get out is to sit down and try to figure out a way forward.”
As a Republican, O’Malley believes in limited government and local control. He said the GOP is supposed to be the party that seeks to run government like a business, but the last eight years the state has been run like a bad business — erratic, chaotic, no stability, wonky tax rates, doubled debt, and downgraded bond rating.
“I think leadership starts with listening. You’ve got to listen all the way through. It can’t just be about listening, but it better include listening. It’s amazing what you can learn if you just shut your mouth and open your ears,” O’Malley said.