Candidate's anti-gay church ties stir schools race

Westboro Baptist Church protest sign

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Educators and political leaders in Kansas worried that a candidate with ties to an anti-gay Topeka church notorious for picketing military funerals could capture a State Board of Education seat in Tuesday's election.

Jack Wu, a Topeka computer programmer, made opposition to teaching evolution the cornerstone of his campaign as the Republican nominee in the 4th District in northeast Kansas against Democratic incumbent Carolyn Campbell, also from Topeka. Wu described evolution as "Satanic lies" and said on a website that public schools were preparing students to be "liars, crooks, thieves, murderers, and perverts."

Wu also raised eyebrows by saying that he was lured to Kansas from California in 2008 by Westboro Baptist. The Topeka church, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., is known internationally for picketing with anti-gay slogans and proclaiming that American soldiers' deaths are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Wu is not formally a member, but he's attended services regularly.

"I consider the people at Westboro Baptist Church good friends so it's a very friendly and very helpful relationship," Wu said in an October email, responding to questions about his affiliation. "I learn a lot from them, a lot of truth."

Republicans, including Gov. Sam Brownback, disavowed Wu in June, and Democrats worked to make sure that voters knew about his identification with Westboro Baptist. In an interview in late October, he called the GOP's snub "insulting," saying he was a registered Republican before he came to Kansas.

"I told them I am a Republican, and I don't need you to tell me who's a Republican," Wu said.

Campbell, a former Topeka school board member seeking her second, four-year term on the state board, acknowledged that she worried some voters in GOP-leaning Kansas would simply follow Wu's party affiliation, adding, "I don't take anything for granted."

The same possibility haunts educators, though Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said they're less worried about Wu shaping policy than they are about the publicity Kansas might receive or how Wu's pursuit of his agenda might distract the board from other issues.

"If people go in and vote for a straight Republican ticket, they're voting for Jack Wu," Desetti said. "It's a legitimate worry."

But even a Wu victory wouldn't alter the 10-member board's balance of power or revive chances that Kansas might adopt science standards for its public schools skeptical of evolution, as it has in the past. A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans was firmly in the majority.

Much of the board's work in setting education policy has been overshadowed since the late 1990s by debates about how evolution should be taught and the resulting national attention and ridicule. The state had five sets of standards in eight years starting in 1999, as evolution skeptics gained and lost state board majorities in elections. The current, evolution-friendly standards were adopted by the board in 2007, but state law requires them to be updated.

Kansas is working with 25 other states and the National Research Council on proposed science standards, and Kansas officials expect the state board to consider adopting them early next year.

In the 2nd District in the Kansas City area, former state Rep. Cindy Neighbor of Shawnee, faced Steve Roberts, an Overland Park Republican, a professional math tutor, and both favored evolution-friendly science standards.

In the 6th District of north-central Kansas, Republican incumbent Kathy Martin of Clay Center, an evolution skeptic in the past, was not seeking re-election. The candidates to replace her were former moderate GOP state Rep. Deana Horst and Carol Viar, an accountant and local school board member, both from Salina.

Two moderate Republicans from Wichita, Kathy Busch and Jim McNiece, were unopposed in the neighboring 8th and 10th Districts, and both favored preserving evolution-friendly standards.

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