By Mary Clarkin, Hutchinson News
An opinionated watchdog will enter the Kansas House of Representatives.
Nine Reno County Democratic precinct committee members chose Jason Probst in a 6-3 vote Wednesday evening to fill the vacancy created by the recent death of Rep. Patsy Terrell, D-Hutchinson. Jim Clark, 65, a former union steward who knocked on 2,500 doors during Terrell’s 2016 campaign, received three votes. Attorney Luann Trummel Wellborn, 59, drew no votes.
Probst said he will resign Thursday morning as Opinion/Sunday editor at The Hutchinson News. Although he has been largely a registered Republican before becoming a Democrat this month, Probst has written critically about Republicans Governor Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach and their policies.
“Tough decisions require leadership, but the state won’t find it in the governor’s office,” Probst wrote less than a month ago.
He also took two members of Reno County’s delegation in the House to task for siding with Brownback against Medicaid expansion. After a spring legislative forum where Republican Reps. Joe Seiwert, Pretty Prairie, and Jack Thimesch, Spivey, spoke, Probst wrote: “I heard two men talk about something it seemed they didn’t really know, or even want to know about. They seemingly would rather regurgitate the talking points the governor and the house leadership have told them to say.”
Probst indicated to the 60 to 70 people attending the Democrats’ nominating convention at the Hutchinson Public Library that his views have not changed.
“I am still waiting for Joe Seiwert and Jack Thimesch,” he said, to explain their opposition to Medicaid expansion.
Hutchinson attorney Jan Pauls was chosen in the summer of 1991 to fill a vacancy in the 102nd District. She was a Democrat at the time and would hold the seat for about 25 years. Her views on social issues led her to become a Republican in 2014, and she fell to Terrell, a self-employed writer, in November 2016.
The 102nd District covers middle-class and lower-income neighborhoods in Hutchinson.
Probst considered his life story as not dissimilar to that of others living in the 102nd. The 1992 Nickerson High School graduate said he “had kids too young” and struggled to make enough money to raise them. He married in 1994 and had various jobs, including an early-on unsuccessful restaurant venture. He was a machinist at Mega Manufacturing, and had a job at Home Depot. He attended Hutchinson Community College before earning a bachelor’s degree from Baker University. Divorced, Probst has a two grown children and a granddaughter, age two and a half.
In 2002, he started on the copy desk at The News. He subsequently covered the cops-and-courts beat and later was promoted to management. He was news editor prior to becoming the Opinion/Sunday editor.
“I’ve lived in this district for 21 years. Raised my family in it. Went to its schools. Played in its parks. Worked in its businesses. And I think that my life’s experience very closely matches the experience of most people in this district,” he said. “I think that I really have an understanding of what people in this district face,” he said.
The lobbyists are all over Topeka, representing industries or various sectors, he said. Lawmakers are supposed to lobby for people, he said, but that hasn’t happened so much in recent years. Probst said he would start the discussion on issues by asking: “What is good for people?”
“If I cannot do good, I can at least not do harm,” he said.
The number of eligible voters – five women and four men – was small, because they were the only Democrats in the 102nd to run for precinct committee slots in the August 2016 primary. The nine were: Homer Gilson and Elizabeth Gilson, Sandy Gustafson, David Mulford, Nancy Self, Michael Woods, Kurt Beaver, Candace Dixon and Gina Long
Originally, five people expressed interest in running for the open seat, but Charles Johnston and Glenn Owen withdrew before Wednesday. Long, vice chairman of the Reno County Democratic Party and a committeewoman, was elected chairman of the nominating convention. Among those observing the process were State Democratic Party Chairman John Gibson and Vice Chairman Vicki Hiatt, and Reno County Democratic Party Chairman Cole Rush. Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, also watched.
Mulford nominated Clark, and Woods nominated Probst. When no one rose to nominate declared candidate Wellborn, Woods nominated her, too. All three candidates spoke and took several questions.
Self, as the convention’s secretary, counted the paper ballots after they had been placed in a wooden box. Her count was monitored for verification.
Rush will send the paperwork by certified mail Thursday morning to Gov. Brownback. He can make the formal appointment, which is standard practice. If he opts not to act, the appointment “will automatically happen in seven days,” said Bryan Caskey, director of elections in the Secretary of State’s office.
Probst will serve the remainder of Terrell’s term, ending in January 2019. He plans to run for a full term in the 2018 election cycle.
Clark said he worked hard to swing the 102nd from Republican to Democrat in 2016, and now that Probst is headed to Topeka, Clark said he’s on board with Probst’s bid in 2018. “Jason will have me 100 percent,” Clark said.
A Probst friend, Rep. Steven Becker, R-Buhler, also attended the convention. “I’m here to support a personal friend,” Becker said.