By John Celock
While Kansas has been on youth streak in its state Legislature, an 18-year-old from Tonganoxie is seeking to bring the age down a little lower.
Austin Harris, a recent graduate of Tonganoxie High School, defeated Harold Fevurly Jr. to capture the Democratic nomination to challenge Rep. Connie O’Brien (R-Tonganoxie) in November in the 42nd district. Harris defeated Fevurly 302-241 to capture the Democratic nomination in the district that includes parts of Leavenworth and Douglas Counties.
“I think the legislature and government in general needs a new generation of people to step in,” Harris told The Celock Report. “We have a lot of leaders who have been there for a while and we need more people who are willing to stand up and look at new areas.”
Harris said he was motivated to run for office by the recent school finance laws enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback (R). The bill, which was prompted by a state Supreme Court decision earlier this year on school funding, has been an issue Democrats across the state have criticized, saying that Republicans have underfunded state schools. Democrats have also objected to the law having sections that ended due process guarantees statewide for teachers.
Harris said that as recent public school student he has seen issues with how state funding decisions have played in the classroom. He said he wants to increase state funding for public schools in order to improve education quality.
“For four years I saw the cuts and pain the schools were going under,” he said. “Education really got me into it from seeing first hand what is going on.”
O’Brien took issue with Harris’ education funding call, arguing that Republicans have increased education funding. While congratulating Harris on his primary win, she said that the state government is working to fund education.
“The state of Kansas spends 51 cents on every tax dollar in k-12, when you add in higher education it’s another 12 cents,” O’Brien told The Celock Report. “According to every study we are fourth in the nation on spending on education.”
O’Brien argued that it is up to local school districts to put the state funds into the classroom.
“We’re doing our part of giving money to education,” she said. “Once it goes to the local school board it is up to how it is spent.”
The debate between O’Brien and Harris is similar to the statewide debate between Democrats and Republicans on the school funding issue.
Harris said that he wants to reexamine Brownback’s tax cut package if elected, arguing that the tax cuts have underfunded the state government. He said that he wants to explore ways to balance revenue collection with economic development. He argued that the tax cuts have led to cuts in road maintenance, senior issues and other agencies. He said that state agencies “don’t have the manpower to enforce all the laws and regulations.”
Republicans have argued that the tax cuts have been stimulating the Kansas economy and have said that revenues will remain strong. They have argued against recent bond rating cuts the state has seen from Wall Street.
Harris cited his time interning in the state Department for Aging and Disability Services, where he said the agency has had to cut back on nursing home inspections due to manpower cuts and the need to focus on criminal background checks for those working with senior citizens. Harris also said he is also concerned about dam inspections and if the state is doing enough to ensure the integrity of dams.
If elected Harris would enter the state House as a freshman at Washburn University in Topeka. He told The Celock Report he would likely take the spring semester off next year in order to acclimate to his legislative duties. He said following that he would work to balance school and his work in the state House.
A student government and high school forensics veteran, Harris said that he has had a positive reaction from people in his district. He noted that his competing in forensics helped lead him to run, since the debates meant he had to keep up with a variety of state and national issues.
“For us there has been a pretty positive reaction of people that I am young,” Harris said. “When we first started my age was my biggest concern and would I be taken seriously. I was quickly proven wrong, I was taken seriously and a lot of times it is seen as an advantage.”
At least one other teenager has been elected to the Kansas state House. According to the Kansas state Library, 19-year-old John L. Sullivan, a Wichita Republican elected in 1978, is believed to be the youngest ever House member in state history.
While rare, it is not unheard of for a teenager to win a state legislative seat in the United States. In 2000, 18-year-old Derrick Seaver was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives. Seaver, who switched from the Democratic to Republican Parties while in office, would serve six years before retiring in 2006 to focus on college.
In May, 17-year-old West Virginia Republican Saira Blair defeated incumbent Larry Kump for the GOP nomination for a seat in the state House of Delegates, Blair, who will turn 18 before the November election, is the daughter of a state senator and is considered the frontrunner in the GOP heavy district.
Teens have also won mayoral offices nationwide including former Hillsdale, Mich. Mayor Michael Sessions (R), who won office in 2005 as an 18-year-old high school senior. In Kansas, Smith Center Mayor Trey Joy (R), was 19 when he first won office in 2009. Joy lost a GOP primary for the state House in 2012.
In 2012, Kansas elected the most new state legislators under 35 of any state; with most being in their mid to late 20s and early 30s. Two of the younger legislators elected in 2012, Democrat Emily Perry of Mission and Republican Reid Petty of Liberal did not seek reelection this year, while a third, Republican Josh Powell of Topeka, was defeated in Tuesday’s GOP primary.
Harris is one of several young legislative candidates in Kansas this year. In the Wichita suburbs, Republican Blake Carpenter, 23, is facing off against Democrat Lynn Wells for the seat of Rep. Jim Howell (R-Derby), who is running for county commission. In Barton County, 33-year-old Ellinwood Republican J. Basil Dannebohm is unopposed his bid to succeed Rep. Marshall Christmann (R-Lyons), who gave up the seat for an unsuccessful state Senate run.
Other young legislators are welcoming Harris’ campaign. Rep. Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) told The Celock Report that a campaign from someone who is 18 means the person is “driven to make a difference.” Whipple said that he welcomes young candidates regardless of party and said it is important to have younger representation in state government.
“I’m impressed with any young person who wants to serve in public life, regardless of which party they come from,” Whipple said. “That’s just encouraging because they want to step up and step out.”
In particular he welcomed Harris’ focus on education.
“I’m not surprised with the budget that we saw come out of this session. We are seeing every state college and university respond to the Brownback cuts on higher education with increased tuition rates,” Whipple said. “Now it seems more critical than ever for young people to pay attention. It means the difference between being able to afford college and not being able to afford college. Education means opportunity and young people need to pay attention now more than ever.”
State Democrats also welcomed Harris to the general election, citing his focus on education.
“The Kansas Democratic Party looks forward to helping Austin Harris as he works to return commonsense to Topeka. His primary victory is a testament to his dedicated efforts and commitment to restore Kansas values,” Democratic Party spokesman Dakota Loomis said. “We trust that voters will see these same qualities over the coming weeks and months. Austin has experienced first hand the troubling issues Kansas students face under Sam Brownback and is ready to get our schools and state back on track.”
Harris said that he is pleased with how the campaign has gone so far and looking forward to the general election.
“It has been a learning experience for us,” he said. “We’re glad we decided to go for it.”