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A Political Tornado in Kansas

Times Staff Writer

Atty. Gen. Phill Kline predicts a more righteous future for this nation. A future shaped in Kansas.

In his future, women facing unwanted pregnancies would receive support, not abortions. Gay couples would not defile marriage by exchanging vows. And citizens with God in their hearts would stand up as one to insist that their government reflect their morality.

These are Kline’s values. They seem to him essential Kansan values too. And so he promotes them at every turn, hoping to light a fire.

“Study Kansas history,” he said the other day, words tumbling out in an eager rush. “We were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, prohibition.... Then we got conservatism and recognized the importance of faith.”

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Kline beamed. “In many ways,” he said, “Kansas leads the nation on social issues. And always will.”

Endorsing a key element of Kline’s vision, Kansas voters last week overwhelmingly approved a far-reaching ban on gay marriage. Kline had promoted the amendment as a way to rein in “activist judges” who would “deny you the right to define family.”

That troubled state Rep. Jeff Jack, a fellow Republican, who said Kline seemed to go out of his way to bash the courts. “It seems to me,” Jack said, “he’s gotten into some areas that you just wouldn’t expect the attorney general to get into.”

Clearly, Kline, 45, is no ordinary attorney general.

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He travels the state preaching from church pulpits, with a firebrand charisma that has earned him a reputation as the state’s best orator. He declares that some of the laws he’s sworn to enforce are repugnant to him -- especially a woman’s right to abortion. He says he will uphold that right, but he interprets it narrowly.

Kansas law permits abortions late in pregnancy only if the woman would otherwise face “a substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” To Kline, this means her physical health must be gravely threatened.

That interpretation is at odds with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that restrictions on abortion must include exceptions for the woman’s mental as well as physical health.

Nonetheless, Kline is weighing criminal charges against doctors who may have terminated advanced pregnancies out of concern for the mother’s psychological state. Seeking evidence, he is demanding access to dozens of patient medical records; the abortion clinics are appealing.

Kline pushes against legal precedent in the schoolroom as well.

A federal judge in Georgia recently ordered the removal of stickers in biology textbooks telling students that “evolution is a theory, not a fact.”

Soon after, Kline told conservative members of the Kansas Board of Education that he would back them if they put similar stickers on textbooks -- a move the board had not even considered when the attorney general brought it up.

Kline is vague on how he would overcome the legal objections raised by the Georgia judge, but he insists he could.

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That confidence has long been one of his defining traits.

Kline and his four siblings were raised by their single mother in a rough part of Kansas City, Kan., “in oh-my-God-lock-the-doors land,” according to a longtime friend, state Sen. Phil Journey.

Money was tight. “They struggled and struggled,” Journey said. And when Kline’s mother got a successful business going -- referring parents to day-care centers -- her children watched in frustration as state bureaucrats burdened her with red tape.

After answering questions about his policies, Kline said he did not have time to discuss his background.

But his high school friend Jeff Sharp remembers a few moments that had a deep effect on Kline -- especially a church trip to Haiti, where he was stunned by the poverty and inspired by the missionary work.

Sharp, who remains a close friend, says Kline’s most impressive trait is his tenacity. Even as a teenager, Sharp said, he was “very determined, very driven.”

And very calculating: When he joined the high school wrestling team, Kline scouted the competition statewide and decided he would do best in the 119-pound class, Sharp said. He worked out relentlessly to make the weight, putting himself through punishing runs to drop about a dozen pounds.

The pain paid off when Kline won a wrestling scholarship to Central Missouri State University. He graduated with degrees in political science and public relations, then enrolled in the University of Kansas School of Law. While still a student, he launched a long-shot (and losing) campaign for Congress.

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His political philosophy, then and now, was drawn straight from his own life.

“He really pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” Journey said. And Kline expected others to do the same. “He knows not to count on government being there for you because government just seemed to get in the way for his family,” Journey said.

At the same time, Kline has said his family’s struggles left him determined to help those who cannot help themselves, including unborn children, the mentally ill and developmentally disabled adults.

Sitting tall in a straight-backed chair in his office -- which is decorated with a picture of Abraham Lincoln -- Kline quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from memory: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Kline put that philosophy into action when he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1992 after several years of working on civil litigation for a Kansas City law firm. Even as he fought fiercely to shrink government, he worked behind the scenes to expand funding for the developmentally disabled, a move that prompted grateful activists to name him legislator of the year.

Kline’s top priority was cutting taxes. He pushed so effectively, critics today blame him personally for the revenue shortfalls that have hit public schools hard. (Kline and his wife, Deborah, send their only child to a parochial school.)

Kline gave up his state House seat in 2000 to run again for Congress. His narrow loss didn’t dent his ambition: Two years later, he was running for attorney general.

He campaigned on a promise to crack down on second- and third-trimester abortions, especially those conducted for reasons he considered trivial -- and thus, illegal -- such as a fetus’ deformities or genetic abnormalities.

Another campaign focus was chasing child predators off the Internet. “You would be amazed,” he said. “There are websites teaching pedophiles how to be pedophiles.” Free speech arguments in favor of such sites disgust him: “Parents have the right under the Constitution to protect their children.”

During the contentious 2002 election, Kline’s critics pointed out that the state Bar had suspended his law license three times because he had failed to keep up with continuing education requirements. But Kline remained enormously popular among the social conservatives who increasingly dominated the Kansas GOP.

For more than a century, Kansas had been led by Republicans who focused on lowering taxes and shrinking government, not on fighting for social change. Many in the party leadership quietly supported abortion rights.

In 1991, the political landscape tilted when antiabortion protesters staged the “Summer of Mercy” -- months of impassioned, prayerful and at times violent demonstrations.

As the drama played out, conservatives across Kansas “started realizing they weren’t alone,” said Joseph Aistrup, a professor of political science at Kansas State University. “They started pushing for state policies that reflected their values.”

The following year, Kline was among a crush of state representatives elected by newly empowered conservative voters. Two years after that, in 1994, conservatives took over the Kansas House; they hold it still. (Moderate Republicans control the Senate, but barely.)

With social conservatives in ascendance, candidates like Kline tend to have an edge in a GOP primary, Aistrup said. In general elections, however, they often struggle, as they draw opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans. So when Kline is held up as a possible candidate for governor -- or for national office -- Aistrup is skeptical.

After all, Kline won the attorney general’s race by a margin of less than 1%. And though he promised to find common ground with his opponents, he soon began making moves that alarmed them.

In the fall of 2003, he issued an impassioned defense of a Kansas law that subjected sexually active teens to much steeper criminal penalties if they were gay.

In a legal brief, Kline argued that the state should punish a boy who had sex with an underage boy more harshly than a boy who had sex with an underage girl because the heterosexual couple might some day marry, and “marriage creates families” -- a desirable outcome for the state.

Treating “same-sex or bestial contact” the same as Romeo and Juliet pairings “will begin a toppling of dominoes which is likely to end with the Kansas marriage law on the scrapheap,” he wrote.

That rhetoric astounded the ACLU lawyer who opposed Kline in the case.

“The arguments he put into his brief seemed to me not to come out of any legal doctrine, but instead to be designed for the headlines,” lawyer James Esseks said.

That’s a frequent rap on Kline, who is easy and articulate in front of the cameras, with an athletic build and a clean-cut, forthright face that shows well on TV. Certainly, he likes the big stories.

“Virtually every issue of our day is colliding in the courtroom now,” Kline said. “I enjoy that challenge.”

Kline also relishes the day-to-day work of an attorney general.

One afternoon in late February, aides kept rushing into his office for his signature on various documents: a settlement with an unethical cemetery operator; a letter to a dating service accused of preying on the disabled; a complaint against a telemarketer for violating the do-not-call list.

Scanning the pages through smudged glasses, Kline gave each his sober attention -- even a letter from a woman complaining that her city council had forbidden her to keep hens in her yard. “Shucks! So she’s going to lose her chickens?” Kline asked.

The matter was a bit beyond his purview, he admitted, but all the same, he signed a letter to the woman’s state legislator, asking him to intervene to save the poultry.

“General!” an aide snapped, diverting his attention. “I’ve got a couple of no-call and fax-blaster settlements I need you to sign.”

Such mundane consumer protection settlements take up most of Kline’s time. His constituents, however, know him -- and judge him -- by his signature issue: abortion.

Those who opposed him when he ran for office say their worst fears have been confirmed. Those who supported him love him more than ever.

For his part, Kline said he considered abortion “a foundational issue, cutting right to who we are as a nation.” But he added that his actions as attorney general were rooted in state law, not his personal agenda.

“My job is to enforce the law,” he said, “not to engage in civil disobedience.”


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