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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Political Tornado in Kansas

Phill Kline, the state's attorney general, often preaches from pulpits as he pushes a conservative agenda aimed at curbing abortions and gay rights.

April 11, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

TOPEKA, Kan. — Atty. Gen. Phill Kline predicts a more righteous future for this nation. A future shaped in Kansas.

In his future, women facing unwanted pregnancies would receive support, not abortions. Gay couples would not defile marriage by exchanging vows. And citizens with God in their hearts would stand up as one to insist that their government reflect their morality.

These are Kline's values. They seem to him essential Kansan values too. And so he promotes them at every turn, hoping to light a fire.

"Study Kansas history," he said the other day, words tumbling out in an eager rush. "We were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, the women's suffrage movement, prohibition.... Then we got conservatism and recognized the importance of faith."

Kline beamed. "In many ways," he said, "Kansas leads the nation on social issues. And always will."

Endorsing a key element of Kline's vision, Kansas voters last week overwhelmingly approved a far-reaching ban on gay marriage. Kline had promoted the amendment as a way to rein in "activist judges" who would "deny you the right to define family."

That troubled state Rep. Jeff Jack, a fellow Republican, who said Kline seemed to go out of his way to bash the courts. "It seems to me," Jack said, "he's gotten into some areas that you just wouldn't expect the attorney general to get into."

Clearly, Kline, 45, is no ordinary attorney general.

He travels the state preaching from church pulpits, with a firebrand charisma that has earned him a reputation as the state's best orator. He declares that some of the laws he's sworn to enforce are repugnant to him -- especially a woman's right to abortion. He says he will uphold that right, but he interprets it narrowly.

Kansas law permits abortions late in pregnancy only if the woman would otherwise face "a substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." To Kline, this means her physical health must be gravely threatened.

That interpretation is at odds with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that restrictions on abortion must include exceptions for the woman's mental as well as physical health.

Nonetheless, Kline is weighing criminal charges against doctors who may have terminated advanced pregnancies out of concern for the mother's psychological state. Seeking evidence, he is demanding access to dozens of patient medical records; the abortion clinics are appealing.

Kline pushes against legal precedent in the schoolroom as well.

A federal judge in Georgia recently ordered the removal of stickers in biology textbooks telling students that "evolution is a theory, not a fact."

Soon after, Kline told conservative members of the Kansas Board of Education that he would back them if they put similar stickers on textbooks -- a move the board had not even considered when the attorney general brought it up.

Kline is vague on how he would overcome the legal objections raised by the Georgia judge, but he insists he could.

That confidence has long been one of his defining traits.

Kline and his four siblings were raised by their single mother in a rough part of Kansas City, Kan., "in oh-my-God-lock-the-doors land," according to a longtime friend, state Sen. Phil Journey.

Money was tight. "They struggled and struggled," Journey said. And when Kline's mother got a successful business going -- referring parents to day-care centers -- her children watched in frustration as state bureaucrats burdened her with red tape.

After answering questions about his policies, Kline said he did not have time to discuss his background.

But his high school friend Jeff Sharp remembers a few moments that had a deep effect on Kline -- especially a church trip to Haiti, where he was stunned by the poverty and inspired by the missionary work.

Sharp, who remains a close friend, says Kline's most impressive trait is his tenacity. Even as a teenager, Sharp said, he was "very determined, very driven."

And very calculating: When he joined the high school wrestling team, Kline scouted the competition statewide and decided he would do best in the 119-pound class, Sharp said. He worked out relentlessly to make the weight, putting himself through punishing runs to drop about a dozen pounds.

The pain paid off when Kline won a wrestling scholarship to Central Missouri State University. He graduated with degrees in political science and public relations, then enrolled in the University of Kansas School of Law. While still a student, he launched a long-shot (and losing) campaign for Congress.

His political philosophy, then and now, was drawn straight from his own life.

"He really pulled himself up by his bootstraps," Journey said. And Kline expected others to do the same. "He knows not to count on government being there for you because government just seemed to get in the way for his family," Journey said.

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