Reader vs. Hawk, tax are top local draws

By Bill Felber

Will the 22nd District join an expected statewide conservative Senate tide?

Can Democratic House member Sydney Carlin hold on to her seat against a second consecutive challenge from Republican Lee Modesitt?

With two incumbents retiring, change is clearly coming to the Riley County Commission. But will that change be fundamental or incremental?

Is the arranged marriage between economic development and infrastructure sales tax initiatives headed for a January breakup?

Area voters will answer those questions Tuesday in an election headlined by the contest for the presidency between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. While Romney is the expected winner of Kansas’ six electoral votes, the national contest is considered substantially tougher to call.

County clerk Rich Vargo did not offer a prediction about turnout, but he did tell county commissioners Monday that about 7,000 persons had voted as of Saturday. He said a line of advance voters was waiting out the door when county offices opened Monday.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The county political parties are gearing up for Tuesday by encouraging people to vote.

Mel Pooler, director of volunteers for the Riley County Democrats, said workers at the headquarters will be making calls and driving residents to the polls if needed. She said poll watchers would maintain a list of who has voted already, so the party can contact the rest of their base that hasn’t voted.

Other than the presidential contest, the most closely followed action here will involve the battle between Reader and Hawk for the state Senate seat. Hawk, a former state representative, has campaigned on a theme of thwarting Gov. Sam Brownback’s effort to construct a conservative Senate majority that would impose what he views as crippling reductions in state support for various programs and services. Reader has said he would vote to reduce the impact of tax cuts passed by the Legislature last year that Reader agrees go too far.

In the August Republican primary, Reader ousted incumbent Sen. Roger Reitz, one of eight GOP moderates who went down to defeat. Reitz has since endorsed Hawk. In the general election, Reader may benefit from redrawn Senate boundaries that replaced most of Geary County with more conservative Clay County and northern Riley County.

Redistricting could also benefit Carlin in the reprise of her 2010 race against Modesitt, a race Carlin won by 180 votes. The redrawn 66th House district lost one of its most reliably Republican precincts on the city’s northwest side, replacing it with traditionally more Democratic precincts on the city’s south side.

In the 67th House District, Rep. Tom Phillips, chosen by Republicans in January to complete the unexpired term of Susan Mosier, is running against Democrat Aaron Estabrook.

The surest outcome Tuesday night is a new majority on the County Commission, since incumbents Karen McCulloh and Al Johnson both chose not to seek re-election. As with House districts, the commission districts were substantially redrawn, and the impact of that on Tuesday’s contests is as hard to define as the specific locations of the districts themselves. In the second district, Republican Bob Boyd is pitted against Democrat Scott Seel. In the third district, Republican Ron Wells is matched against Democrat Rod Harms.

Barb VanSlyke, chair of the county Republican Party, said she had “high hopes for many Republican victories, all the way from the White House to the county commission races.” She thinks Reader has several important advantages in the contest with Hawk. “He had a primary race and has been out door to door consistently for probably about a year,” VanSlyke said. “The registered Republicans in Riley County and Geary far outweigh the registered Democrats,” she asserted, adding that Reader’s message “resonates with the voters.”

Not surprisingly, her Democratic counterpart, Kathryn Focke, had a different view. “We are confident that Tom Hawk will pick up the support of moderate Republicans and a major portion of the unaffiliated voters,” Focke said. She asserted that Hawk “also has strong support in Clay County - so we are pretty confident of his success.”  Overall, Focke said, “we have great candidates ... and believe we will have successes in all of the races.”

Voters will also determine whether to extend the half cent sales tax that was approved by voters in 2002. Part of the proceeds of that tax would go toward improving roads and bridges in the county, while the other half would be used for various city purposes, including debt reduction, infrastructure and economic development.

They will also settle the fate of a constitutional question that would give the state flexibility in how to tax watercraft, and they will vote on whether to continue Magistrate Judge Sheila Hochhauser on the district bench. 

Bryan Richardson and Maura Wery also contributed to this article.

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