Mike Bruner wants voters to have choices.
And when it comes to the 12th District Kansas Senate race, he says the differences between the candidates couldn’t be more clear.
Bruner, a Democrat from Humboldt, is running against incumbent Republican Caryn Tyson of Parker. He said his views are the opposite of Tyson on nearly every aspect of government, from Medicaid expansion to education to budget issues to his support of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s actions regarding the coronavirus crisis.
Bruner is a retired history teacher with experience in teacher negotiations, and a lifelong love of politics. He also serves as the chairman of the Allen County Democratic Party.
It was his role with the party, as well as his concern for issues facing that state, that prompted him to run for office.
It comes back to giving voters a choice.
Bruner’s role as party chairman comes with the responsibility of recruiting candidates for office. That’s difficult enough in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1. It’s even harder when you consider the sacrifices someone has to make to serve as a part-time lawmaker in Topeka, where senators earn about $12,665 per year.
“It pays less than being a substitute teacher,” Bruner said. “It’s very inconvenient unless you are retired or have a certain kind of job that gives you flexibility, or you are well off enough to not need the income.”
Bruner could not talk a Democrat to run for the seat, which Tyson has held since 2012.
So, he filed.
“Voters should always have a choice,” he said.
BRUNER’S interest in politics dates back to the third grade, when he was about 9 years old growing up in Scott City and watching the 1960 presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
His parents were Democrats who encouraged reading newspapers and discussing issues of the day. His father was a welder who didn’t have much education, so he emphasized the importance of education to his only child. His father also enjoyed history, and passed that interest down.
“Politics and history sort of go together,” Bruner said.
After graduating from Emporia State University with a teaching degree and as he became more active in teaching-related organizations and negotiations, Bruner’s interest in politics grew. He served 25 years as either the head of those types of associations or as lead negotiator.
That experience taught him a lot about education at the state level, including how to manage a budget, but also gave him a greater understanding of the various perspectives different people bring to the negotiating table.
“You find out pretty quickly the other side isn’t wrong about everything, and you’re not going to get everything you want,” he said. “That give and take is very positive. It’s a wonderful thing for government to be conducted by those with different ideas and different aspirations, in good faith and in the spirit of compromise.”
He worries about the divisive partisanship in government today. Yes, politics has always been tough, he said, but it truly does seem to have gotten worse in the past few decades.
“Too many reject the idea of compromise and cooperation.”
ON THE ISSUES, Bruner highlights his experience in education as a priority.
He wants to focus his attention on issues surrounding education, particularly shoring up public education through the state budget and making college more affordable.
“Schools are very important. They are the lifeblood of a community,” he said.
He’s also interested in increasing broadband internet services, particularly in rural areas, to make it easier for people to attend school remotely.
Improved broadband also can help from a health and economic perspective, he said. Workers can live in rural communities and telecommute. It also will improve access to telemedicine.
He’s also concerned about health care, particularly Medicaid expansion. Kansas has lost millions of dollars as well as jobs by not expanding Medicaid, he said, and hospitals have been left vulnerable. Low-income workers would have access to health care that would improve their ability to stay healthy and be productive, he said.
“It’s an economic service. It’s a public health service. And it’s the compassionate thing to do,” he said.
“That, more than anything, is what made me want to get in this race.”
THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic also illustrates key differences between Bruner and Tyson, among other Republicans.
He disagrees with efforts to limit the emergency powers of Gov. Kelly, for which Tyson was a leading GOP voice. The resulting compromise legislation gave counties more local control and lawmakers final say over whether to renew emergency declarations, and how to spend federal relief money.
But when Gov. Kelly issued a mask mandate, many counties voted to opt out. Allen was one of the few that upheld her order.
“I think it’s responsible leadership to ask people to wear masks. It’s just sound public health policy,” Bruner said.
“I don’t see it as infringing on rights. To me, it’s more a symbol of freedom. It’s an important tool that frees us to go to work and go about our daily lives.
“I’m more worried about the impact on small businesses.”
Bruner said he believes some area residents are afraid to go out and patronize businesses because so many others refuse to wear masks. They aren’t willing to risk infection, even if they are taking precautions, because so many others don’t.
“Viruses don’t pay much attention to our political boundaries or our county boundaries,” Bruner said. “I would like to see our elected officials roll up their sleeves and work together on this. Maybe fewer people will get sick and fewer will die.”
He is challenging incumbent Sen. Caryn Tyson. Read her story here.