Stateline Story

Arizona Fame Propels Kobach's Kansas Hopes

  • September 01, 2010
  • By Daniel C. Vock
Photo by Ed Zurga, the Associated Press
Besides Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Kansas City law professor Kris Kobach may be the most visible supporter of Arizona's recent law to discourage illegal immigration. With a sterling resume and telegenic looks, Kobach has defended the action everywhere from the studios of Fox News to the editorial pages of The New York Times .

That Kobach is using all the attention to run for public office hardly comes as a surprise: Friend and foe alike marvel at Kobach's drive. But the particular office he has set his sights on is curious, if only because it has so little to do with his signature issue of curbing illegal immigration. Instead of running for attorney general or state legislator, Kobach is the Republican nominee for Kansas secretary of state, the top elections administrator.

"I see a breakdown in the rule of law in elections that is similar to the breakdown of the rule of law in immigration," he says. He argues that election fraud, like illegal immigration, is widespread and could be effectively curbed with straightforward ideas.

To combat election fraud, for example, Kobach wants to require voters to show photo IDs at polling places, make voters prove their citizenship when they register and keep better tabs on voters once they are on the rolls. To Kobach, finding solutions is easy, even if passing them isn't. His goal, he says, would be to get the changes passed in Kansas and then encourage other states to follow its lead.

Fighting fraud at the ballot box is a rallying cry for conservatives everywhere, but Kobach says he saw evidence of voter fraud during his failed 2004 bid for Congress. Democrats in Wyandotte County, home of Kansas City, were receiving absentee ballots ahead of the election, even though they hadn't requested the mail-in forms. "Either an individual or an organization was systematically, fraudulently requesting absentee ballots on behalf of Democrat voters without their consent" to boost the Democratic turnout, he says.

"The real fraud here," counters Kansas Secretary of State Chris Biggs, " is Kris Kobach's claim that we have voter fraud." Biggs, a Democrat who will face Kobach in the November election, says many of the examples Kobach points to are technical voting violations, not fraud. As a prosecutor, Biggs says, he handled 20,000 cases in 15 years; only one dealt with voter fraud. That one case involved a Desert Storm veteran who tried to vote, even though he wasn't a citizen, Biggs says.

Biggs' emphasis is on the ministerial duties handled by the secretary of state's office: monitoring cemetery trust funds, improving the office's auditing capacity and making sure vendors that sell electronic voting machines don't have too much control over counties. "The biggest issue, though," Biggs says, "is are you going to have someone in the office who cares about the office, which does a lot of things that, frankly, aren't that exciting, instead of someone who is gallivanting across the country?"

The secretary of state post is not normally a high-profile position. The duties include running elections, keeping tabs on lobbyists and handling other paperwork for the state. Until he resigned in February to work in the private sector, the previous secretary of state, a Republican, had held the job for 15 years. Biggs became the first Democrat to hold the spot since 1951 when he was appointed by fellow Democrat, Governor Mark Parkinson.

But Kobach's candidacy has transformed the sleepy, down-ticket race into what many Kansas political watchers say will be this year's most exciting statewide campaign. Already, he has been joined on the campaign trail by Joe Arpaio, the controversial Phoenix-area sheriff known for his crackdowns on illegal immigration, and by former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft, Kobach's former boss. 

A legal background

Kris Kobach, the candidate for secretary of state, often sounds like Kris Kobach, the law professor from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. When talking at a rally for Second Amendment rights, Kobach explained how the origins of the right to bear arms traces back to the restoration of the monarchy and the elevation of William of Orange as King of England. His pitch on voter fraud includes a story about Missourians crossing over to Kansas to sway a congressional election — in 1864.

The professor holds degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford. In 2001, he took two years off from teaching constitutional law to work for Ashcroft. His duties covered immigration enforcement and border security at a time when the country was still reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 2001. It was that work that led Kobach to focus on combating illegal immigration.

One of his first moves once he left the federal government was to sue the state of Kansas on behalf of several students for offering in-state tuition to undocumented students. Kobach argued that the practice violated a 1996 federal law, but the courts ruled his plaintiffs did not have legal standing to sue. (He has since filed similar suits against California and Nebraska.)

Nonetheless, the Kansas suit established Kobach as the go-to guy  for states and localities that wanted to discourage undocumented immigrants from coming to their area. It was the first time, for example, that Kobach was hired by  the Immigration Reform Law Institute , the public interest law firm affiliated with the Federation for American Immigration Reform . Both groups work to curb illegal immigration and to slow legal immigration.

Kobach worked with the institute to draft ordinances in Hazleton, Pa., that would have penalized landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants or businesses that employed them. A federal judge later threw out those rules , because they usurped the federal government's authority.

That issue — called "preemption" — comes up nearly every time a state or locality tries to take on illegal immigration, and it's where Kobach's background as a constitutional lawyer is especially helpful, says the institute's general counsel, Michael Hethmon. "We are operating at a far higher level than we were" because of Kobach's help, Hethmon says. "Preemption was an unbelievably obscure and gray area of the law."

In Arizona, Kobach has defended several laws to fight immigration from preemption challenges and other legal attacks, even before the passage of SB 1070 this year. Kobach's early work there got the attention of Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, a Republican who has long tried to write tougher anti-immigration measures .

Kobach helped Pearce draft a 2007 law to punish businesses in the state that hired workers illegally, up to and including the loss of their business licenses. So far, courts have upheld the law, although the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal in its next term. The federal government sued Arizona over SB 1070, the law passed this spring that gives police more power to determine if criminal suspects are in the country legally. Parts of it are on hold while the lawsuit goes forward.

Pearce enlisted Kobach in crafting this year's law, and Kobach has defended it in the court of public opinion, too. "You know you're going to get sued, so you want to write it right. Language is everything," says Pearce. "You reach out to people you have faith in. I have a great working relationship with Kris."

Kobach says he will continue to work on immigration issues part-time, in addition to working full-time as secretary of state, if he is elected.

Never far from controversy

Wherever Kobach goes, controversy seems to follow.

"I think he loves it," says University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis, a Democrat. "He has a lot of drive and a lot of ambition. He clearly is willing, and I'd even say happy, to court controversy."

Apart from immigration, Kobach's stint as chair of the state Republican Party from 2007 to 2009 also drew plenty of scrutiny. Kobach angered moderate Republicans by establishing a "loyalty committee" to punish party members who supported Democrats. That followed a number of public defections, including the decision by a former chair of the Republican Party, Mark Parkinson, to run as lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket with then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius. Parkinson moved up when Sebelius went to Washington to join President Obama's cabinet last year..

Kobach also came under fire for messy bookkeeping at the party that has now led to an audit by the Federal Elections Commission. Kobach has blamed the financial irregularities on the party's then-executive director. "Consider the ultimate barometer of success for any chairman — winning elections," he wrote in an op-ed . "The results of my leadership of the Kansas Republican Party speak for themselves. In an election year that was very bad for Republicans nationally, the Kansas GOP won big."

In 1999, members of the Missouri House of Representatives cheered as they voted to strip money from the state school where Kobach teaches in retaliation for an op-ed he wrote accusing members of the Missouri and Kansas legislatures of "sloppy lawmaking." Kobach decried the dwindling number of lawyers in state legislatures and offered lawmakers his help in writing new laws. In the end, though, the money was restored by the Senate. Plus, Kobach says, the chief instigator of the move in the House eventually went to law school at UMKC and became one of Kobach's best students.

This year, Kobach is taking on the Kansas Livestock Association and others, because he wants to change the state constitution to let voters place proposals for new laws and constitutional amendments on the ballot. The livestock group fears the change would open the door for animal rights groups to try to impose more stringent laws, as they have in other states.

Loomis, the KU professor, says these attacks on lawmakers is a pattern on Kobach's part. "There's no indication that the Legislature is unresponsive, that we are somehow bereft of a coherent policymaking body. In fact, the Legislature is not that unpopular in Kansas." He warns that allowing the initiative process would let well-funded interests, like Koch Industries , to pass anti-tax measures that currently cannot get through the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature.

Arizona, of course, also has used the initiative process to toughen its laws against illegal immigration. One of those, Proposition 200 from 2004, required voters to show photo IDs at polls and prove their citizenship when they registered, some of the same changes Kobach now wants to see in Kansas.

How well Kobach will appeal to Kansans in November, even with all the publicity he brings, is an open question. This is Kobach's third bid for elected office. He finished third in a four-way GOP primary for a state Senate seat in 2000 and then lost in the general election in 2004 against U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore.

"Speaking candidly, secretary of state races are often times not all that interesting," Kobach says. "The two candidates offer very little in the way of choice and very little in the way of distinction. But this year in Kansas, it's very different… it's actually an issue-driven secretary of state's race, which often times voters don't see."

Tags: Immigration