Four years ago, Laura Kelly, a Democrat, won re-election to represent Kansas Senate District 18 with 51.6% of vote. Her opponent, a Republican and former senator, garnered 48.3% of the vote.

Kelly now serves as governor, having been elected to her first-term in 2018. The lawmaker appointed to take her place in the Kansas Senate, Vic Miller, is running for the seat he used to occupy in the Kansas House rather than seek election to the Senate. That leaves Senate District 18 open for the taking. The district is a mix of urban and rural, including parts of northern Topeka, the Shawnee County communities of Rossville and Silver Lake and the surrounding area, and portions of Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee counties. It’s political loyalties have been divided in recent years, with the district favoring Donald Trump for president in 2016 and Kelly f0r governor in 2016.

Here’s a look at how the two candidates vying for the seat answered several questions from The Journal about key issues in this year’s elections:

Tobias Schlingensiepen (Democrat) and Kristin O’Shea (Republican)

District 18

Kristin O’Shea

Kristin O'Shea legislative candidate

Please briefly introduce yourself.

Kristen and her husband Gabriel live and work in Topeka where she runs her business. Her business increases the performance of individuals and teams through Gallup CliftonStrengths assessments, training engagements, and organizational development consulting. She has moved the needle on the development of strengths for corporate, nonprofit, government, and faith-based organizations. Kristen proudly pioneered and championed the vision of Kansas State University becoming a Strengths-based campus. O’Shea increased engagement, well-being, retention, and impacted a campus of more than 28,000 students, and her success is featured in the introduction of Gallup’s Clifton Strengths for Students book. O’Shea recently chronicled her success story with an audience of 1,500 as the Keynote at the Gallup CliftonStrengths Summit 2018. Previously O’Shea served as Executive Director of the quality of life division for the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Greater Topeka, and coordinated membership for LeadingAge Kansas an association for non-profit aging services. She has received the Topeka 20 under 40 award for 2020 and the Rising Professional Award for the College of Health & Human Science at Kansas State University for 2019. Kristen serves on the Board of Trustees for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library and was the Vice President of Shawnee County Parks and Recreation. She has a Masters in Education and is a graduate of Kansas State University.

If elected this fall, what would be your top priority while in office?

First and foremost, any COVID recovery plan has to include opening the economy safely and getting people back in their jobs. We must support our local small businesses. We must keep student outcomes top of mind by getting students and teachers back in the classroom safely and fully funding education. Also, we must focus on the most vulnerable populations with support for mental health services and healthcare in the 18th district. And of particular interest to Senate District 18, I want to help push through the Polk/Quincy Viaduct project during a time of constrained budgets. Transportation is a huge driver of economic development and job creation in our district. I am talking with the constituents of the 18th district and learning the issues that are important to them.

These are tough times. Kansans will likely need elected officials willing to lead on a number of difficult challenges. As an office holder, how will you work in service of helping us navigate this period of distress and strengthen our communities, state and nation for the long term?Please share your thoughts in a few sentences.

As your senator, I would bring a fresh perspective as a businesswoman, leader, and servant to my community. As a small business owner, I’ve suffered firsthand from the economic downturn with COVID. My work with strengths coaching and formerly with Heartland Visioning has been about bringing disparate voices together to find common ground and move community initiatives forward in a bipartisan fashion. People are stressed and uncertain right now, and I will represent their needs to protect their freedoms and rights.

What’s the biggest problem in health care right now?

It’s too expensive

How do you feel about the current level of government involvement in health care?

It’s just about right

What should the future of health care be in your view? Would you prioritize making it more affordable, more accessible, or something else? To what extent should the government be involved, and should it be doing the same, less or more than it is now?Please explain your views in a few sentences.

Too many people, including myself, get surprise healthcare bills in the mail where you have no idea the services were going to cost so much. Patients should receive an upfront real price estimate of the services before it is provided. This will help people plan and prioritize their health needs. We should be able to customize our healthcare insurance based on our unique needs. Think about car insurance and home insurance. You can choose which parts of the plan you want. Why can’t we customize the coverage we have for our health insurance? The last thing is access. Can people see the right doctor for the job when they need it done? The in-network and out-of-network process can become a barrier to people receiving the care they want and need. 

How should the Legislature resolve the ongoing debate about Medicaid expansion?

A bipartisan solution like Senate Bill 252, from the 2020 session, should be debated on the floor. 

In a few sentences, please explain your thinking on how the Legislature should resolve the Medicaid Expansion debate and your views on the issue.

I think Medicaid expansion should be moved to the floor to be debated. Right now it has been held in committee along with other healthcare bills. I would support senate bill 252, “Expanding medical assistance eligibility and implementing a health insurance plan reinsurance program.” I don’t believe Medicaid expansion is the ideal solution, but it is what we have to work with within the confines of the federal government. Even if we pass expansion, there are many other challenges that need innovative solutions around healthcare. 

What should government’s role be in facilitating economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there specific things you would like to see done or not done?

First and foremost, any COVID recovery plan has to include opening the economy safely and getting people back in their jobs. We must support our local small businesses. We must keep student outcomes top of mind by getting students and teachers back in the classroom safely and fully funding education.

What would you prioritize when dealing with shortfalls in revenues that fund state services? What would you do about taxes? How would you deal with the state budget’s funding for K-12 education?

As a small business owner who didn’t have any revenue in the 2nd quarter of 2020 due to COVID shut-down, increasing taxes is not an ideal answer because the tax base isn’t there. Everyone has had to make hard decisions about cutting their budgets and being resourceful and I think the state budget will need to as well. We’ve seen during COVID-19 how much our schools provide important social services, so cutting them should be a last resort. 

The pandemic further exposed a lack of broadband access in parts of the state and other divides in access to Internet service. What do you think should be done?

I support legislation like what passed the house in 2020 that would establish a competitive grant program to fund broadband expansion projects. I’d like to champion this through in the 2021 session. I serve on the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library Board of Trustees and our CEO has been heavily involved in getting broadband expanded in our community. 

How would you evaluate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Kansas thus far?

Leaders have shown respect for the virus but need to be careful that policies don’t disproportionately impact small business.

Should the COVID-19 pandemic continue into 2021, what would your top priority be?

Keep the economy going.

What key lessons would like to see Kansans take away from the pandemic and the response to it? Do you see the need for changes as a result of what’s happened?

-People are resourceful and a one size fits all approach isn’t in everyone’s best interest. 

-We must balance the urban vs. rural needs of the state. 

-We must think holistically about the physical, social, mental, vocational, and financial well-being of Kansas citizens. We can’t become too laser-focused on one area or other challenges arise. -Uncertainty and lack of consistency in people’s lives creates fear. 

-If your business puts food on your family’s table it is essential. 

-Broadband access is extremely important and shouldn’t be assumed. 

-Social services provided in the schools have increased in their importance. 

-Things we never thought we could do like telemedicine, we realized quickly that we could do it. I hope this spirit of agility and efficiency in government can continue. 

-It is an opportunity to reform and focus on what matters most. 

How should legislators respond to the events of this summer (such as the prison outbreaks of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and concerns about preserving law and order) in shaping the state’s criminal justice system for the future?

These events have raised the temperature on these issues and shown there is room for some growth and change. Positive change is adaptive and takes time, so quick solutions are likely not the answer. I’d like to see the conversations about criminal justice continue while supporting law enforcement. 

Tobias Schlingensiepen

Please briefly introduce yourself.

My name is Tobias Schlingensiepen. I grew up in Topeka, Kansas, attended Topeka public schools, Washburn University, and graduated from the University of Kansas. After graduate studies in Theology in Germany, I was a teaching and research assistant at the University of Bonn, in the Protestant Theological Faculty’s Department of Social Ethics. Since 1999, I have served First Congregational UCC in Topeka, Kansas, since 2005 as Senior Minister. I was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 in Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District. I am married to Abigail Schlingensiepen. Between us, we have eight children and 11 grandchildren. 

If elected this fall, what would be your top priority while in office?

Affordable access to healthcare for all Kansans, Medicaid Expansion.

These are tough times. Kansans will likely need elected officials willing to lead on a number of difficult challenges. As an office holder, how will you work in service of helping us navigate this period of distress and strengthen our communities, state and nation for the long term?Please share your thoughts in a few sentences.

Our toughest challenge is political polarization. It poses a serious obstacle to tackling every important issue confronting us today. One would think that, given the interrelated challenges of providing affordable access to healthcare for everyone, ensuring adequate funding for public schools, reviving the economy, and finding innovative and effective ways to navigate a pandemic, with public safety always in mind, we would strive to unite around addressing them. Instead, all these issues seem merely exploitable opportunities to stoke fears, incite anger, and pit us against each other. As an office holder, I would 1.) create regular opportunities to meet with, listen to, and inform my constituents regarding the issues before the Kansas Senate; 2.) I would study the issues and their implications for those affected, listen to all stakeholders, engage in open and respectful discussion with my colleagues, and seek to address them in the best way possible, rather than exploiting them for the sake of political posturing. It is long past time that we put the ‘R’ back into representation. As a pastor and a law enforcement chaplain, and a member of numerous Boards of Directors, I have done exactly that for over twenty years. I will dedicate myself to a level-headed, common sense, informed, responsible, and honest approach to the challenges confronting us, and I will respectfully invite my colleagues to join me in doing so. Calm focus is what is needed now, more than ever. 

What’s the biggest problem in health care right now?

Lack of access to insurance

How do you feel about the current level of government involvement in health care?

It’s not involved enough

What should the future of health care be in your view? Would you prioritize making it more affordable, more accessible, or something else? To what extent should the government be involved, and should it be doing the same, less or more than it is now? Please explain your views in a few sentences.

This question, given the complexity of our U.S. political, social, and economic reality, cannot be addressed in a few words, any more than the complex of problems it acknowledges invite easy solutions. To my mind, healthcare should be affordably available to everyone living within the United States. This is the case in other so-called industrialized nations, and it is simply preposterous that we should continually offer proof that we, alone among such nations, seem incapable of making it so. If we took the insurance principle seriously, rather than caving to health industry stakeholders, long accustomed and addicted to inflated expectations of profitability, we could achieve healthcare for all. With the SCOTUS’ Citizens United ruling, the enormous sums of money available to dissuade political leaders from interrupting highly profitable revenue streams, it is difficult to see how government, especially as polarized as our current political climate has become, will step up and act as the adult in the room. The Affordable Care Act was a bold effort in the right direction, but hardly adequate to addressing the overall challenges. For now, expanding Medicaid in Kansas is doable and would be a great relief to over 130,000 people without affordable access to healthcare. For now, even little steps can make a significant difference in the lives of many. 

How should the Legislature resolve the ongoing debate about Medicaid expansion?

It should pass Medicaid expansion.

In a few sentences, please explain your thinking on how the Legislature should resolve the Medicaid Expansion debate and your views on the issue.

Medicaid expansion should have been passed years ago. Not doing so has left upwards of 130,000 Kansans without affordable access to healthcare and thus medically vulnerable. It has threatened, and even ended, the delivery of care to Kansas’ rural communities, where a number of hospitals have had to close their doors due to a lack of adequate funding. Healthcare jobs have been lost, and Kansas has been left poorly positioned to face the current pandemic. In rural areas, lack of access to healthcare will be detrimental to economic development. The failure to expand Medicaid in Kansas has impacted our State’s overall economic viability. It is imperative that Medicaid Expansion be expanded at the earliest possible opportunity. Whether that will be possible in the next legislative session hinges upon the willingness of the electorate to vote in candidates committed to getting this done. 

What should government’s role be in facilitating economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there specific things you would like to see done or not done?

ECONOMIC RECOVERY 

  • I am committed to moving Kansas forward. I watched for nearly a decade how the reckless economic policies of the previous administration devastated our state. 

○ 3 credit downgrades 

○ School funding was slashed, schools closed early, and we lost teachers to surrounding states ○ Critical services for our most vulnerable Kansans were underfunded 

○ Public safety was jeopardized 

  • The 2019 Legislature tried to bring back the reckless tax policy we experienced during the tenure of the Brownback administration. It would have given tax breaks to giant multinational corporations, and would have created a budget hole of nearly $200 million. Imagine where we would be today, given the current public health crisis, if that bill had passed. I will not support these types of irresponsible policies. 
  • As we face recovery from the economic downturn directly resulting from COVID-19, we must work to support small businesses, protect investments in education at all levels, and get Kansans back to work in good-paying jobs. 
  • I understand how much small businesses, especially, are struggling to recover after the shutdown from COVID-19, and they need help. We should be investing in Main Street. That’s why I will work to ensure they have the resources they need to recover. ○ I believe Kansas should shift more economic development resources to retraining and attracting small business. ○ I believe the state should rewrite bid procedures to make it easier for small businesses to compete for Kansas contracts.
  • I will also work to restore tax fairness in order to promote job growth and provide relief to hardworking Kansans, including small business owners, and Kansans living on fixed incomes. Most importantly, I am committed to working to reduce the reliance on property taxes.

HEALTHCARE 

  • Thousands of Kansans lost their jobs and, subsequently, their healthcare. Now, more than ever, Kansans need access to affordable, quality healthcare that provides coverage of pre-existing conditions. This is why I support expanding Medicaid. 
  • More than $4 billion of Kansas taxpayer dollars has been forfeited to states that have already expanded Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid in Kansas means providing up to 150,000 Kansans – including veterans – with the ability to see a doctor when they’re sick. It also means helping keep rural hospitals and clinics open, and it creates jobs.
  • Staying healthy makes it easier for Kansans to get back to work and stay at work. A healthier, more productive workforce will help our state economy grow. This also provides Kansas families with stability.
  • Kansans also need the reassurance of no surprise medical billing, the expansion of telehealth services for rural Kansans, and a reduction in prescription drug prices.

EDUCATION

  • Businesses rely on a quality, highly trained workforce to be successful. The 2019 Legislature passed a bipartisan plan that fully and equitably funds public schools. For the first time in nearly a decade, we are not embroiled in school finance litigation. I will fight to protect this critical investment.
  • Our children and grandchildren cannot afford to have funding go backwards – they are the next generation workforce, and businesses rely on a highly trained workforce to be successful. ● I also know that not all high school graduates are college bound. I will also work to protect funding for technical education and job training programs.

INFRASTRUCTURE

  • Although the 2020 Legislative session was cut short due to COVID-19, one of the best things to come from it was the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Plan. This is a 10-year program that will jump-start the economy with good-paying jobs and investments in much needed infrastructure projects, including modernizing roads, bridges, and highways, as well as expanding rural broadband. 

○ Rural broadband is critical for the success of so many Kansans – for our children and grandchildren, many of whom are currently learning remotely; for farmers and ranchers; for small businesses, and so on. 

○ This transportation program will also invest a minimum of $8 million in each county. 

  • I will fight to protect funding for the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Plan.
  • As you may recall, during the Brownback-era, the highway fund was raided of nearly $3 billion to pay for a failed tax experiment. This delayed projects and prevented the creation of thousands of well-paying jobs. We cannot afford to go back to that. 

What would you prioritize when dealing with shortfalls in revenues that fund state services? What would you do about taxes? How would you deal with the state budget’s funding for K-12 education?

It seems clear that, in the current crisis, there is no reasonable way to cut an already lean budget. In the near term, it will presumably be necessary for the State to borrow against a future rise in revenues. As for taxes, I have indicated some of my, albeit very general thoughts, in the answer to the previous question. Regarding education funding, see my response to the previous question. 

The pandemic further exposed a lack of broadband access in parts of the state and other divides in access to Internet service. What do you think should be done?

  • Although the 2020 Legislative session was cut short due to COVID-19, one of the best things to come from it was the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Plan. This is a 10-year program designed to jump start the economy with good-paying jobs and investments in much needed infrastructure projects including modernizing roads, bridges, and highways as well as EXPANDING RURAL BROADBAND. 

○ Rural broadband is critical for the success of so many Kansans – our children and grandchildren who are learning remotely; farmers and ranchers; small businesses; and so on. ○ This transportation program will also invest a minimum of $8 million in each county. 

  • I will fight to protect funding for the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Plan. 

How would you evaluate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Kansas thus far?

Governor Kelly has provided excellent leadership during this crisis. Unfortunately, vocal public opposition and partisan opportunism has led to undermining her administration’s efforts. If the insights of public health experts are on track – and, so far, they have been – we will experience a spike in infection rates, especially with the beginning of the new school year and the resumption of in-person instruction. Whether too much or too little has been done to address the pandemic is a matter of perspective. People of different ages and at different levels of financial security will view the matter differently. Protecting our health and protecting the economy in the face of the pandemic is a difficult balancing act. We are having to learn as we go along. Again, polarisation and our failure to unite is hampering our ability to address the pandemic in as concerted a way as one would hope. 

Should the COVID-19 pandemic continue into 2021, what would your top priority be?

There is no other option but to learn behaviors that protect against contracting and spreading the virus, on the one hand, and adapting business and jobs to continue to operate as safely as possible. There is no perfect solution. The economy is as important to our health and well being as taking precautions against the virus. We must take care of the one without ignoring the other. 

What key lessons would like to see Kansans take away from the pandemic and the response to it? Do you see the need for changes as a result of what’s happened?

The political polarization that, for years now, has been on the rise, has reached crisis levels. Nowhere is this more evident than in our widely divergent responses to COVID-19. At one extreme, COVID-19 has been deemed a hoax, at the other as a grave threat to public health and safety. Our responses to the pandemic have ranged from absolute distrust of public health officials and willful ignorance regarding their expertise to those who recommend we simply “Trust science.” We should trust science and health experts to advise us about what is involved in confronting COVID-19. Science, however, cannot ultimately repair the damage to the economy or tell us exactly how to adapt to all the changes we are facing. Our inability, even in a crisis, to work toward a common approach to living within a pandemic, has demonstrated that our divisiveness may well prove a greater danger to our health and safety than the current crisis. Covid or no Covid, we are in the midst of global changes which we have not seen since the end of WWII. The pandemic is accelerating this dynamic, exaggerating our perception of it, and exacerbating our response to it. Political leaders should tone down the rhetoric. What we need now is not more incitement to panic but a vision of our future that is greater than our divisions, one that requires all of us to get there. It’s time for political leaders to lead. 

How should legislators respond to the events of this summer (such as the prison outbreaks of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and concerns about preserving law and order) in shaping the state’s criminal justice system for the future? 

Across the country, criminal justice reform has been one area in which bipartisan agreement has been noticeably and fortuitously apparent. There are reasons for this, which to explain would take up too much space. Suffice it to say a great deal of research, long-term grassroots, political and judicial engagement, has succeeded in shepherding criminal justice reform through every level of policy making, from the local to the national. It has led to changing perspectives and, correspondingly, opportunities to address longstanding inequities in our justice system. The U.S. is clearly suffering from too much incarceration, and for reasons arguably unrelated to immediate concerns for public safety. Too many, for example, who would be better served by mental health providers and facilities, if they existed in sufficient numbers, are being warehoused in our prisons. Our prisons have, in a real sense, also become monuments to our collective unwillingness to care for each other appropriately, let alone adequately. Certainly legislators can have an impact on this situation, and they should seek to do so. It is outrageous that people incarcerated, ultimately for being mentally ill or for any number of ultimately petty offenses, should have to remain in a facility with a Covid-19 outbreak and thus potentially be sentenced to death via virus. The Black Lives Matter movement is expressive of inequities that go back four centuries and whose consequences are undeniably still with us today. Too many of us fail to dignify this fact with the necessary collective, as well as individual, self-critical understanding and attention. That inequities, as well as evident social and economic disparities, continue to exist between white Americans and Americans of color has deep historical roots, as we know. Not surprisingly, this is also reflected in the history and current reality of our criminal justice system. But, again, political polarization, always easier than investing the sustained energy and resources necessary to overcoming the negative and still nagging legacies of the past, is exacerbating polarized and polarizing responses to the point of violence. This is hardly conducive to constructive engagement. Quite the opposite. In the current public outcry and debate, where polarization trumps constructive engagement around analysis, understanding, and potential change, increased hostility and open violence are always near at hand. People of color, African-Americans in particular, repeatedly confronted with cellphone-video footage of law enforcement officers shooting or otherwise killing black men, have had enough. Unlike the rest of us, this is a reality they know only too well. But seeing it on television makes it impossible for them, or the rest of us, to ignore. Are these the results of “a few bad apples” or finally irrefutable proof of systemic police brutality? Law enforcement agencies, without distinction, are being subject to nationwide scrutiny, and even blanket condemnation. The counter-reaction seeks to protect law enforcement personnel and agencies from what it perceives to unjust attacks on our public heroes. Is it surprising that there are radicalizing elements on both sides of this divide, seeking to take advantage of the hostilities to gain prestige and favor among their “constituents.” Thus, peaceful protests have turned violent, when a few “bad apples” began to destroy shop windows and set trash cans on fire, for example. On the other hand, overt white supremacists, rallying around law enforcement personnel, are using their alleged loyalty to “our heroes” as a cover for their continued commitment to fomenting race hatred. What is being missed is that many law enforcement agencies, pastors, and other community leaders have sought for years to create trust between law enforcement personnel and minority populations, which have traditionally and justifiably viewed each other with suspicion and hostility. A robust commitment to community policing and regular mutual dialogue and common activities have been among the elements of restoring trust around concrete relationships between the police and the residents of the neighborhoods. Whether or not such efforts go far enough is beside the point. What is not, however, is that all such efforts are threatened by the current polarized and polarizing tendencies, which are easily exploitable by forces wholly uncommitted to anything but denial. As a rule, adapting to new realities doesn’t come about without some source of pressure. But too much pressure, especially when it gets out of control, can lead to overreaction and thus end up destroying what progress had been made and set constructive police-community efforts back a generation or more. I am certainly no expert on any of this but, as a law enforcement chaplain for over twenty years, I do know that police officers are called upon to enforce laws they don’t make but are duty-bound to enforce. Independently of questions about an individual police officer’s conduct, laws are made by legislators. It is my belief that law enforcement officers are increasingly called upon to take up more and more slack for what, again, we are collectively unwilling to acknowledge and address. In this way, they are being asked to solve problems they are incapable of solving, and often at great personal risk to themselves. That, really, is hardly their job! It is ours, and political leaders should be pressured into tackling it. And the only way that is going to happen is if the voters make them. But voters, unwilling to do so, are causing harm to the law enforcement profession, as well as to each other by failing to do so. Again, political leaders must seek to unite us, and lead toward a future we can all imagine!

 





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