Kansas lawmakers split on response to teen governor hopefuls

Kansas state Rep. Vic Miller, right, D-Topeka, answers questions from Rep. Michael Houser, R-Columbus, during a debate on a bill setting the minimum age to run for governor at 18, Tuesday, Feb 20, 2018, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The measure was inspired by a raft of teenage candidates running this year. (AP Photo/Mitchell Willetts)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — In a Kansas governor’s race that’s already wild and crowded, more than half a dozen of the prospective candidates are teenagers, and legislators are divided over whether to try to prevent having such young hopefuls in the field in the future.

The Kansas House on a 73-43 vote advanced a bill Tuesday that would require candidates for governor and other statewide offices to be voters in the state, starting next year, effectively setting the minimum age at 18. House members were expected to take a final vote by Wednesday to determine whether the bill passes and goes to the Senate.

Some lawmakers said candidates should have some life experience before running for governor and that not having an age limit allows the ballot to get too cluttered with people who may not be serious. Others argued that creating barriers to running is undemocratic and there’s no reason to discourage young people from being engaged in politics.

Kansas and Vermont are the only states with no age requirement to run for governor. Until this year, Kansas officials haven’t discussed the need for one. The wide-open governor’s race and the national attention paid to the teens who have declared their candidacies have some lawmakers wanting to step in. The state also lacks a formal residency requirement for candidates, which has attracted some teen hopefuls from out of state as well.

Six Kansas teenagers have formed campaign committees, and the first, 17-year-old Wichita student Jack Bergeson has paid a $2,207 filing fee to secure a spot on the August primary ballot. At least three out-of-state teens also have declared their candidacies, exploiting the lack of a specific residency requirement that the bill also would impose.

More than 20 prospective candidates for Kansas governor of all political stripes have declared themselves, and one south-central Kansas man even tried to launch a campaign for his dog. Ex-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback was term-limited when he resigned last month for an ambassador’s post, and new GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer faces a tough battle for a full, four-year term.

“Maybe we’ll have some Russian operative who wants to file as governor because we have no statute against that,” said House Elections Committee Chairman Keith Esau, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican.

Other lawmakers, including top Senate Republicans, think having a minimum age is reasonable. Rep. Jene Vickrey, a conservative eastern Kansas Republican, favored setting it at 30. He said that is an age in which someone has gained some life experience.

Having such young candidates can be a distraction and take away from those who are “engaged in really making an effort in being the next governor,” Vickrey said.

A majority of states require their governors to be at least 30 and to have been residents for at least two years, according to the Council of State Governments.

In Vermont, a 13-year-old boy declared his candidacy last fall, but Kansas has gained far more notoriety since Bergeson launched his campaign for the Democratic nomination last summer as a 16-year-old. His platform includes legalizing and taxing marijuana and raising the minimum wage. He called the age-requirement bill “obviously reactionary.”

“It is obviously coming up because they feel threatened, and they feel that people are bringing up real issues and the politicians in power don’t like to hear those things,” Bergeson said.

Some lawmakers side with Bergeson and the other teens — at least the ones who are running and from Kansas. Those legislators argued during Tuesday’s debate that the state shouldn’t dampen young people’s interest in politics.

Democratic state Rep. Vic Miller, of Topeka, said if a teenager can manage to win a primary, “Then so be it.”

“That’s called democracy, and I love democracy,” he said.


AP Political Writer John Hanna also contributed to this story.

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