It was September 11, 2003, and Kobach's campaign was just 2 months old as he addressed the mostly gray-haired crowd of more than 200 people at the Rev. Jerry Johnston's First Family Church in Overland Park. Kobach appeared to have ideal qualifications: a bachelor's degree from Harvard, a law degree from Yale, a short stint on the Overland Park City Council, a spot in Attorney General John Ashcroft's Department of Justice.
Kobach wasn't shy about touting that last one. He had served as Ashcroft's point man on immigration policy, he said, and had helped design the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Kobach had been going on for almost 30 minutes when he seemed to remember why he was there. He was supposed to introduce the main speaker, Phyllis Schlafly.
For four decades, Schlafly has reigned as the Iron Lady of ultraconservative politics. Golden blond and vigorous at age 79, she could count stopping the Equal Rights Amendment on her purse string of victories. Her Eagle Forum Political Action Committee has remained small but potent; long associated with Pat Buchanan's wing of the Republican Party, she has written favorably about his argument that declining "European" birthrates and increasing Mexican immigration pose a demographic danger to the United States. She has continued to manage a formidable propaganda operation from her home outside St. Louis in Alton, Illinois, and she led the "immigration reform" caucus during Republican Party platform negotiations this past August.
Schlafly spent the evening scaring the crowd with a long list of woes brought about by immigration -- both legal and illegal. The "illegals" brought drugs, crime and disease into the country, she claimed. And those on proper visas were stealing middle-class and white-collar jobs from Americans like those who had joined her Eagle Forum. At times, her attack on free-trade treaties and cheap-labor-loving multinational corporations made her sound like a militant trade unionist. "Powerful people want open borders," she said.
Early in the race, political observers believed that Kobach was too far from the center to be electable. As he campaigned, though, Kobach gained credibility and steam. His platform grew to include opposition to taxes, gay marriage and abortion rights. After he upset the less aggressive Adam Taff in a tough August 3 primary, the party flew in Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, considered a moderate by most, and Vice President Dick Cheney to give Kobach their seal of approval.
Yet the immigration issue that first defined his candidacy and the gun lobby support that he picked up along the way remain the most salient aspects of his campaign -- and the ones that may be most troubling to moderate Republicans and crossover Democrats in November.
This past January, Kobach took part in a debate on Bush's proposed immigration policy changes. The event was sponsored by the University of Missouri-Kansas City's chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Federalist Society (an organization of conservative-movement attorneys), and the newly created Mid-America Immigration Reform Coalition. Bush had proposed an accelerated visa-application process for low-wage workers entering the country and possible amnesty for those already here without documents. The other main speakers, Michael Cutler, a retired Immigration and Naturalization Service agent; Mira Mdivani, an immigration lawyer; and Dolores Arce-Kaptain, director of UMKC's Program Alianzas, argued the technicalities of identification cards issued by the Mexican government and whether illegal immigrants should be able to apply for American driver's licenses. The Overland Park Police Department had supported this plan, arguing that it was better to have drivers on the road with proper registration and proof of insurance.
Kobach easily commanded the conversation, however, and he opposed consular IDs, driver's licenses and Bush's amnesty plan.
In the audience of 125 that night sat a group of seven people who had met before the larger forum. Called together by Susan Tully, the Midwest representative of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the group had little direction at that point and had spent its time complaining about matters such as Mexicans who cross the border simply to access American hospital care. Tully lives in Wisconsin, and she was beginning a FAIR organizing drive in the area.
Started in 1979 by John Tanton, FAIR has been mired in controversies over its own funding sources and the beliefs of its founder. Though the group itself refrains from race-baiting, it has not escaped the shadow of Tanton. In 1986, Tanton published an article in which he argued: "To govern is to populate ... Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile? ... As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?"
FAIR didn't endorse those words, but Tanton remains on its corporate board of directors. FAIR's political action committee, the U.S. Immigration Reform PAC, takes money from Tanton and his wife. The couple has donated a reported $4,000 already this year. And between 1979 and 1994, FAIR received more than $1.2 million from an obscure foundation known as the Pioneer Fund, founded in 1937 to advance causes such as scientific racism (the theory that social problems and solutions are rooted in biology and genetics). The Pioneer Fund dropped its open admiration for Hitler's Third Reich after World War II, but it still bankrolls outfits such as American Renaissance, which promotes the idea that the United States is a "white nation" and that brown-skinned immigration should be completely stopped. Other recent grants have gone to the American Immigration Control Foundation in Virginia, according to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
As the Pioneer Fund's objectives became a center of controversy, FAIR dropped it as a funding source. But it kept Tanton on its board.
To date, Kobach has received the maximum amount permissible, $5,000, from FAIR's related political action committee, the U.S. Immigration Reform PAC. (Tanton's wife is its president.) And Kobach has been paid substantial fees by FAIR for legal work done on its behalf -- such as filing a lawsuit against the state of Kansas. The suit aims to overturn new legislation that allows immigrant students to pay in-state tuition rates at Kansas colleges and universities, regardless of whether their parents are fully documented or have yet received citizenship. There are provisos to this legislation: The students must either have graduated from Kansas high schools or lived in the state for 3 years and earned equivalency certificates, and they must formally declare their intentions to become American citizens (see KC Strip, page 10).
Kobach and FAIR announced their lawsuit at a press conference on the steps of the Capitol in Topeka this past July. Susan Tully was back, shepherding a group of students and their parents who served as plaintiffs. FAIR had also flown in Ira Mehlman, its Los Angeles-based media director. Mehlman placed a phone call so that this reporter could speak to the organization's Washington, D.C., attorney, who said that of the eight states with similar legislation, FAIR had filed a lawsuit only in Kansas. Why? Because it was the only place they could find both plaintiffs and an attorney. Kobach was central to the group's lawsuit.
When reporters from Kansas City and Topeka dailies asked Kobach about the controversies surrounding FAIR, he replied that the charges of racism were "blatantly unfair" and called them "arguments that are made by three or four degrees of separation."
But questions about FAIR and Kobach's other campaign contributions did not end there. Last Monday, his Democratic opponent, incumbent Rep. Dennis Moore, questioned Kobach's $3,000 contribution from Gun Owners of America after KCUR 89.3 aired a story about it. (Editor's note: The KCUR story included information provided by the writer of this article.)
Kobach has certainly raised plenty of money from other sources, more than $340,000 by the end of June. But it's a contribution from the NRA's militant cousin, Gun Owners of America, that may dog Kobach's campaign.
Gun Owners bills itself as a "no compromise" organization opposed to all forms of gun control; it's eager to find "political leaders" to express its will in Congress. Its most visible figure is Executive Director Larry Pratt, who met candidate Kobach in Washington, D.C. Pratt is not your average walk-the-halls-of-Congress lobbyist, however.
In 1992 Pratt spoke at a Colorado meeting of Aryan Nations leaders; former Ku Klux Klansmen; and adherents of so-called "Christian Identity," a doctrine in which Jews are literally considered Satanic and persons of color are referred to as "mud people." Pratt had accepted the invitation from Pete Peters, author of a pamphlet called "The Death Penalty for Homosexuals." Although Pratt has said he does not share those organizations' views on race, he attended the meeting to promote his version of the Second Amendment -- which included the necessity of citizen-formed militias. "The Second Amendment is not about duck hunting," he told the Aryans in Colorado.
Pratt spent much of the mid-1990s promoting the militia movement at survivalist expos and political meetings. Using the examples of Guatemala and the Philippines, he wrote a 70-page booklet (Armed People Victorious) that argued in favor of militias assuming the powers of law enforcement: "The history of the United States ... was the history of an armed people with functioning militias involved in civil defense (or police work, if you will)," he writes. "It is time that the United States return to reliance on an armed people."
Critics described this as a prescription for vigilantism and death squads, and after his views and associations became public, Pratt had to resign as Pat Buchanan's Republican Party campaign cochair in 1996.
"Larry Pratt is not giving me campaign contributions. Gun Owners of America is giving me campaign contributions. That's an important distinction," Kobach told the Pitch outside a Saturday pancake breakfast in the parking lot of Dynamic Life Baptist Ministries in Kansas City, Kansas, on September 11, 2004.
The pancake breakfast helped kick off that day's Central Avenue Parade, promoted by the city's Central Avenue Betterment Association and other groups. A Kobach sign was posted at the entrance to the church basement. Michael Aguilar, Wyandotte County chairman for the Kobach campaign, said Kobach owed his growing support in Wyandotte County primarily to his stand on the issues of marriage and taxes. Five Democrats had already taken home Kobach yard signs, Aguilar said. "After all, a lot of the Wyandotte County Democrats are Catholic," he explained to the Pitch, "and those that aren't are Christian."
"I support the core principles of Gun Owners," Kobach said. But, he added, "Larry Pratt's past conversations do not speak for me."
When the Pitch asked about Schlafly's statements, Kobach endorsed her and the Eagle Forum, whose PAC has given Kobach's campaign $3,000. "Although we may have differences here and there, we are essentially on the same page," he said. "There are many corporations that want to follow the law and are not encouraging illegal immigration. There are, however, some who do benefit from illegal immigration and do apparently turn a blind eye to it. And one example might be the arrests that were made at a Wal-Mart not too long ago."
Regarding his payments from FAIR, Kobach said he had received "the going market rate" for his work on the organization's lawsuit. And FAIR's political action committee isn't racist, Kobach said. "That organization stands for enforcing immigration law regardless of one's ethnicity, regardless of one's race, regardless of one's nationality, and so that is crystal clear and those are the objectives I agree with."
Besides, Kobach said, "The smear campaign that some people have made against FAIR is utterly ridiculous. It's five degrees of separation [between FAIR and racism]."
That's at least one degree more than the "three or four degrees of separation" he described to reporters who asked the same question in July. He also said he would vote with FAIR and against Bush's amnesty plan for guest workers if it came to Congress. And he said he opposed the assault-weapons ban, which Congress recently allowed to expire. In this election season, political money speaks volumes about the Republican Party's 3rd District candidate.
Leonard Zeskind covered the gun lobby and militia for Rolling Stone in 1995. He is now finishing a book on the history of the white nationalist movement.