Kelly Kultala is in a hit man's cross hairs. Kultala, a Democrat running for Kansas state Senate, isn't paranoid. She has proof: a $3.05 check from Stephen Marks and Kingfish Consulting. Marks is a nationally known Republican political operative and author of Confessions of a Political Hit Man, a tell-all of the tricks he has used to torpedo Democratic candidates.
"Oh, my God. It's scary," says Kultala, who defeated three-term incumbent Mark Gilstrap in a Democratic primary. In an unprecedented move, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley backed Kultala against Gilstrap in the primary; at a debate in July, Hensley reportedly called Gilstrap "a Democrat in name only," according to The Kansas City Star.
Now, Kultala is in a heated race with Republican Steve Fitzgerald for the 5th District seat, which includes Lansing, Leavenworth and parts of Bonner Springs and Kansas City.
In mid-October, Kultala discovered that someone had made an open-records request for the minutes of the Piper School District's board meetings from 2000 to 2003. Kultala served as a school board member from 1999 to April 2001. The timing of the request, three weeks from the election, made Kultala think that Marks was out to get her.
The request to Piper Schools originated from an Executive Economy Lodge in Pompano Beach, Florida. The requester used the name "Nanker Phelge," a pseudonym that the Rolling Stones used in the 1960s to share song-writing credits.
"That even freaked me out more, that someone's making up a name to send a check," Kultala says.
Whoever made the request paid for it with a check from Marks and Kingfish Consulting in Antioch, Tennessee.
"I don't know what they're looking for," Kultala says. "Maybe they're checking attendance to see how many meetings I attended."
Perhaps, she speculates, the request was made in an effort to dig up information about a plagiarism controversy in December 2001, when a biology teacher accused 28 high-school students of copying their class project from Internet sources. The controversy divided the town, and the school board overruled the teacher, who had given her students failing grades. The teacher then resigned.
By the time that controversy erupted, however, Kultala had been off the Piper Board of Education for months.
"I lead a very boring life," Kultala says. "I'm just a grandma."
Kultala, who served as a Unified Government commissioner in Kansas City, Kansas, from 2001 to 2005, also checked to see whether Marks and Kingfish had made any records requests to the UG. They had not.
The Pitch called the Economy Lodge, trying to track down Marks' hired gun. The reporter left a message with the hotel's front-desk clerk, who said she had a good idea who should get the message. But no one ever called back. Marks also didn't return a call from The Pitch reporter.
In Confessions, however, Marks describes his work in a way that seems to justify Kultala's fears. "The weapons I use to defeat targeted politicians each Election Day are provided by the politicians themselves: their own records as public officials, their records as professionals in their chosen field, their financial records, their personal lives, and so on. Anything in their background that would cause citizens to vote against them, I use. In other words, I assassinate them with their own words and deeds, digging dirt wherever I can find it."
In January, Marks told The New York Times Magazine that he was retiring from opposition research, but his political consulting firm would continue mudslinging. Now Marks has re-emerged in the presidential race, and his 527 political action committee, PHForAmerica.com, is attacking Barack Obama for supposedly mocking the Bible.
PHForAmerica is hoping to become the 'Swiftboat' 527 organization of 2008," Marks' Web site says.
Kultala didn't know anything about Marks' history as an opposition researcher until she Googled his name.
"I was just floored," Kultala says. "This is just a little state senate seat."
Fitzgerald, Kultala's opponent, denies hiring Marks.
"I don't have anything to do with this guy," Fitzgerald says. "Never heard of the guy.... I don't have any idea what he's doing or why."
But, Fitzgerald adds, "I gotta say, I hope he finds something."Click here to write a letter to the editor.