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General election will decide new state senator for district that includes southern Topeka

State Rep. Brenda S. Dietrich unseated the appointed incumbent senator in District 20, Eric Rucker, in the August primary. She faces Democrat Rachel Willis in the Nov. 3 general election to win the opportunity to represent parts of southern Topeka and the surrounding area.

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:

Kansas Senate District 20

Brenda S. Dietrich (Republican) and  (Republican)

Brenda S. Dietrich

Brenda S. Dietrich, Senate candidate

Please briefly introduce yourself.

I am Dr. Brenda Dietrich, the retired Superintendent of the Auburn-Washburn School District in Topeka, Kansas and the current Representative in the Kansas House from the 52nd District. This is my 2nd term in the House and I am a candidate for the 20th Senate District. An interesting fact is that the 52nd House District sits almost entirely inside the 20th Senate District, so I am already tuned in to the issues that are important to at least a third of the constituents in the 20th Senate District. I am a 4th generation Kansan who has always been actively involved in my community, but I had never run for an elected office until I ran for the Legislature in 2016. I retired in 2015 after 40 years in public education so that is clearly an area for which I am passionate. I have also been married for 40 years and we have a daughter who lives in Lenexa. I still serve on four community boards in Topeka and I am in Rotary. I truly believe in “service above self” and see myself as a public servant and an independent thinker, not a typical politician.

 

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

I have many legislative areas that are critically important to me, but my top priority is serving the people in my district through responsive leadership and through legislation that improves the lives of Kansans through initiatives such as lowering the sales tax on food, getting Kansans back to work safely in this COVID environment, funding education and essential services, holding government accountable, and being a good steward of our tax dollars.

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.

COVID has taught us we have to plan for the future and all contingencies. I will use my background as a Superintendent to help the state plan for the unexpected by putting in place a strong foundation of local control combined with a responsible, efficient, and compassionate government.

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?

I believe government involvement in healthcare is ineffective.

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.

I think healthcare needs to be more affordable, without question, but also more accessible. We have rural communities with no primary care physicians and hospitals are not within a reasonable distance. I think every family should be able to afford the care they need to lead a healthy life and access to patient-centered, high quality health care, too. There is a role for government, but it should be limited. 

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

I have supported Medicaid expansion in the past, and I would expect to support it in the future, but I am also open to other reforms that would increase access to healthcare

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 do not believe Medicaid Expansion will pass the new Legislature without a compromise plan. There have been too many missed opportunities already to resolve the issue. I think a compromise plan that is reasonable and practical is the most likely way the debate can be resolved. 

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?

We need to do everything we can to get Kansans back to work and our businesses thriving. There are choices that governments can make to restart their economic engines. The first thing we could do is remove the red tape and barriers that are identified obstacles to our businesses. We need to allow them to grow, expand, and create new jobs.

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?

We need to do everything we can to get Kansans back to work and our businesses thriving. There are choices that governments can make to restart their economic engines. The first thing we could do is remove the red tape and barriers that are identified obstacles to our businesses. We need to allow them to grow, expand, and create new jobs.

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?

The pandemic has put a spotlight on this issue and it is imperative we not ignore it … so the good news is we have taken some initial steps to increase access broadband through the state’s allotment of federal CARES Act funding. The State Finance Council approved $60 million in grants to expand broadband in Kansas. It will not totally alleviate the gaps, but it is a start. Lack of broadband access is an economic development issue as well as a dis-equalizer in providing telehealth and educational programming. There has been some discussion about using public/private partnerships to help continue chipping away at the areas in Kansas that lack internet access. I read a report that said 90,000 residents in our state lack internet access. That is unacceptable in the 21st century. We can do better and now that the problem has been magnified by the pandemic, we should be innovative and collaborative in our approach to solving this.

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

Most places have done the right amount in terms of limits.

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?

There are some very important lessons we can all learn from experiencing a pandemic, whether it is at the governmental level or the personal level. First of all, I think we can clearly see that successful responses hinge on decisive leadership and unified/consistent responses. We also have seen the value of transparency and clear, consistent communication. Our state had a plan, but no one ever expected to really have to implement it and we were missing some key components … adequate reserves of PPE, testing supplies, trained staff, etc. On a more granular level, we have probably all noticed that insurance companies have had to pivot to meet the logistics of testing and treating COVID patients. Our health systems were not prepared for the pandemic. Banks are regularly stress tested … it seems as if we have neglected the need to stress test the responsiveness and resilience of our health systems. Technology has become critically important whether processing unemployment claims, providing quick COVID test results, working from home, or “home” schooling. We need to invest in technology and audit our preparedness for future pandemics. We also need to reflect on the importance of our decisions in a pandemic and how it affects our way of life and our economy. Hopefully, we have realized the importance of personal responsibility and the necessity and value of local control. The pandemic is something we may never experience again, but we should take this opportunity to evaluate all aspects of our responses and learn from our successes and our mistakes.

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? 

The criminal justice system in America is very complex …with county courts and jails, state courts and prisons, and a federal justice system with its own courts, judges, and prisons. The state’s response to all of the events of this summer should begin with having a fair and impartial criminal justice system and protocols in place to ensure our local communities have the tools to address the events in their communities. In particular, we need to work with our communities to establish alternative responses to folks in a mental health crisis or who suffer from homelessness and substance abuse by using first responder teams of mental health providers to de-escalate a situation and provide the skilled help those folks in crisis need. Legislatively, communities have asked us to look at how we can expand training for law enforcement in areas that have been identified as problematic regarding community engagement and at sentencing reforms and guidelines for prosecutors. Looking at all of those areas will do a great deal to potentially improve the lives of Kansans as we work to improve our criminal justice system for the future.

Rachel Willis

rachel willis kansas senate

Please briefly introduce yourself.

Rachel Willis is a fifth generation Kansan who has lived in Topeka for the past 15 years. She grew up on a wheat farm in Central Kansas. She graduated from Washburn University and went on to the University of Kansas for a Master’s Degree in Public Administration.

She is married to Steven Willis, and they have a son in elementary school.

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.

In these extremely difficult and ever-changing times, citizens need leaders who are working to unite communities, not tear them apart. I will commit to working across the aisle to ensure elected officials are working for all Kansans, no matter what profession they hold or political party they identify with. Kansans need leaders at the local level who are willing to listen to what issues are impacting them the most and collaborate with other officials to solve these problems swiftly.

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

Lack of access to care or providers

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.

I would like to see health care become more accessible to all, which would mean an increased reliance on government involvement and programs. Access to both physical and mental health care is a human right, and one that should not be denied due to economic factors.

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.

Expanding Medicaid in Kansas provides nearly 150,000 Kansans with access to healthcare, it helps keep hospitals and clinics open, and it creates jobs. Unlike tax cuts, which removes dollars from the state treasury in the hope that new jobs and revenues will be created, Medicaid expansion dollars will go to work in our state on day one.

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?

I feel that the government has a responsibility to support those who are unable to work and bring in their usual income due to the pandemic. The government should be providing regular stimulus checks to offset any economic loss due to COVID-19.

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?

Kansas has the highest sales tax on food in the nation when combined with local sales tax rates. Additionally, property taxes have skyrocketed over the past decade. These taxes make it more difficult for hardworking Kansas to provide for their families and for seniors on fixed incomes to stay in their homes. I will fight for fair tax policies that restore the balance and reduce the burden on those who need it most. I also recognize and applaud the work that Governor Kelly and the 2019 Legislature accomplished in restoring adequate and equitable funding for K-12 schools. However, there is still more work to be done to ensure adequate investments continue to be made in education at all levels — from early childhood education programs to K-12 to higher education and career and technical training programs.

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 feel that all Kansans should have reliable and consistent access to Internet service, especially in the case of children who are doing school online. The government should come up with creative solutions to ensure there are public spaces with internet service available to all that are also safe and equipped for socially-distancing, such as parks and other outdoor spaces.

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

Most places have done the right amount in terms of limits.

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

Stop the spread of the virus.

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?

I would like Kansans to remember that things can be replaced but human lives can not. While we do need to take steps to ensure our economy can recover, we must take care of one another first.

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? 

The criminal justice system in Kansas, as well as the entire United States, has racism deeply rooted in every aspect of it. Legislators have a responsibility to represent all constituents, especially those who have been most marginalized. The only way to dismantle this systemic racism is to identify the figures who are furthering it the most and abusing their power to maintain racist systems. I am hopeful that a new wave of politicians will be elected to office and begin to do the important and necessary work to create a safer future for all Americans, regardless of factors such as ethnicity and race.

Navigating the Pandemic Election

How to Vote and Be an Engaged Citizen During a Time of Disruption, Conflict and Uncertainty A KLC Journal Magazine Virtual Launch Event and Discussion Join us from 5-6:15 PM. on Thursday, Oct. 22, for the virtual release of the KLC Journal magazine’s Fall Edition with a focus on issues and voting in one of the most unusual elections most of us have ever seen.