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Wichita-area activist expected to lead Kansas Democrats after furor over rebranding talk


TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas Democrats expect to pick a longtime Wichita-area activist as their new state chairman this weekend to concentrate on fundraising and boosting their numbers in the Legislature after the abrupt resignation of a leader who suggested rebranding the party.

Prominent Democrats have said for several weeks that Lee Kinch, a Derby attorney, emerged quickly as the favored candidate for the job. The party's state committee plans to meet Saturday in Salina to select the new leader.

"I think a lot of people agree he's the right person for the job," Tom Witt, a Democratic activist and executive director of the gay rights group Equality Kansas, said Wednesday.

Kinch said during an interview that he would focus as chairman on recruiting candidates and picking up legislative seats so that Democrats could work with disaffected GOP moderates to slow or reverse conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's agenda.

"That's not going to happen in a year or two years but that's the long-term goal," Kinch said.

Democrats set the state committee meeting when former Chairman Larry Meeker resigned in August after less than six months on the job. Meeker, a former Federal Reserve Bank vice president from the Kansas City-area community of Lake Quivira, was the only candidate for the chairmanship in early March but soon upset activists and other party leaders with talk of rebranding the party.

Meeker suggested publicly that Kansas Democrats needed a new message that distanced them from President and other national party leaders. He also said the party needed to welcome members who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, which rankled progressive activists like Witt who worried that Meeker wanted to backtrack on the state party's liberal platform planks on social issues.

Democrats also mentioned , a former Manhattan mayor and the party's unsuccessful nominee in the 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas last year, as a chairman candidate. Sherow said Wednesday that he would not be inclined to accept the job because its duties would create conflicts for him at Kansas State University, where he is a history professor.

Meanwhile, prominent Democrats are talking up Kinch as a potential chairman. Kinch, 76, has been a Democratic activist since the 1970s, and he's served as party chairman in both Sedgwick County and the 4th Congressional District of south-central Kansas. He served eight years on the Democratic National Committee and completed four years as party vice chairman in March.

"He's one of the pillars of our party," said Susan Fowler, the party's Lyon County chairwoman.

Senate Minority Leader , of Topeka, said he's confident that Kinch will increase the number of registered Democrats and build a strong get-out-the-vote effort for 2016.

"Plus, he doesn't take any prisoners," Hensley said.

Clay Barker, the Kansas Republican Party's executive director, called Kinch "a safe choice" for Democrats because as a longtime activist, he "knows the players."

Barker noted that State GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold is only 37, adding, "It has some implications about which party is the party of youth and the future."

Democrats haven't won a statewide or congressional race in Kansas since 2008 and hold only eight of 40 state Senate seats and 28 of 125 state House seats.

Kinch said the party has higher priorities than worrying about how its relationship with Obama and other national party leaders is perceived and, "Democrats don't believe the party needs to be rebranded."

"We support the president," Kinch said. "I don't think that's going to inhibit building coalitions with moderate Republicans."


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