TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's attempts to influence immigration policy and how the U.S. runs elections are expected to pull the state into two contentious political debates in the coming year, reinforcing his reputation as a polarizing political figure.
The conservative Republican and former law professor helped write laws in Arizona and Alabama that direct police to check the immigration status of people they detain. Kobach advises Kansas legislators looking to do the same.
Kobach said during an interview with The Associated Press that he isn't leading the push — but some officials think such issues wouldn't gain as much interest in the Sunflower State without him.
As the state's top elections official, Kobach pushed for laws that now require new Kansas voters to prove their U.S. citizenship and all voters to show photo identification at the polls. Next year, he said, he wants legislators to grant his office the power to prosecute election fraud cases and argues that his initiatives are models for other states.
Democrats expect to propose legislation designed to curtail his legal work on immigration in other states, though Kobach defended his outside work, saying he is sacrificing sleep, not shirking his official duties. The Kansas Democratic Party also has started a legal defense fund to combat his "anti-voter" agenda.
"Now, frankly, I think they should be paying me a commission since they're using my likeness and my reputation," Kobach joked. "They're using me as a fundraising tool, and so it suits their interest to make a caricature of me, you know, make me more threatening to their interests than I actually am."
Legislators convene their 2013 session on Jan. 14, and Kobach will likely be highly visible at the Statehouse. And although Kobach dismisses such talk, supporters and opponents alike believe the 46-year-old with academic degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford harbors grander political ambitions.
"He is an insidious figure," Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon said. "He is dangerous."
Kansas House Elections Committee Chairman Scott Schwab, a conservative Olathe Republican, scoffs at such comments, saying it's a testament to Kobach's big election victory in 2010, his effectiveness with legislators and his possible ambitions.
"It's just visceral hatred," Schwab said.
Nationally, Kobach is best known for his work on the anti-illegal immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama, and for serving as an informal adviser to Mitt Romney's GOP presidential campaign on such issues. He also has been advising Kansas legislators since leaving a two-year stint at the U.S. Justice Department and returning to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to teach law in 2003.
Kansas legislators anticipate reviewing proposals similar to Arizona's "check your papers" law, along with other illegal immigration-related bills. Those include requiring state contractors to use the federal E-verify system to check the immigration status of new workers; declaring that no state or local benefits can go to illegal immigrants; and repealing a 2004 law that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay the same tuition as legal Kansas residents at state universities and colleges.
"I don't drive that train, but I'm there as a helpful adviser if any legislator wants my assistance," Kobach said. "There's an open offer to legislators — if they need help drafting, I'm happy to help provide that."
Kobach's involvement in shaping immigration proposals "is a lot more than he might let on," said Eric Stafford, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce's senior director of legislative affairs.
The chamber is influential among Republicans, having helped elect conservative GOP majorities in both the House and Senate this year after backing an unsuccessful proposal last year to start a state guest-worker program for industries deemed to have labor shortages.
But such issues split Republicans this year, preventing passage of any immigration-related legislation in Kansas.
Inside Kansas, Kobach also faces strong criticism over initiatives rewriting election laws. Kobach contends that he is trying to weed out voter fraud, but opponents contend that by pushing the voter ID laws, he is attempting to suppress voter turnout among Democratic-leaning groups such as minorities and the poor.
So far, Kobach's office has identified no reported cases of possible fraud from this year's election — even as more than 500 voters didn't have their ballots counted in November because they lacked proper ID at the polls.
Kobach said local prosecutors are overloaded with other criminal matters, making election fraud a low priority. As for the lack of reported incidents this year, he said the laws he advocated prevent "90 percent" of past problems.
But some want those decisions to remain with prosecutors.
"It seems kind of dangerous that we would give him the authority to prosecute," said Louis Goseland, coordinator of KanVote, a Wichita-based advocacy group opposing Kobach.
Kobach dismisses such arguments are partisan politics.
"It's such a strange argument, the idea that we don't want to take election crimes seriously because the current secretary of state is a conservative," he said.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
Kansas secretary of state: http://www.kssos.org
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