Posted on Sun, Sep. 11, 2011
BY TIM POTTER
The Wichita EagleThe 2012 race for Sedgwick County district attorney is starting early, and may pit two Republicans with extensive experience in the District Attorney's Office.
Friday night, Deputy District Attorney Marc Bennett announced that he is running as a Republican for the position held by his boss — Nola Foulston, a Democrat who has been district attorney for 22 years. Bennett, 41, is the first to file for the job.
Foulston, 60, hasn't said publicly whether she will seek re-election. But Bennett's candidacy — while he works for her — is seen by observers as a sign that she may not run again.
"I'm making an announcement soon," Foulston said Saturday. "It will clear up any confusion."
Meanwhile, Kevin O'Connor, a 47-year-old former deputy district attorney in the office, said he is giving serious consideration to running after receiving encouragement from the county Republican Party leadership.
O'Connor said Saturday he found it puzzling that Bennett is a candidate while working for Foulston and while "the Republican Party has been recruiting me, not Marc Bennett."
"Mr. Bennett apparently agrees with me that fundamental changes need to occur in that office," and needs to spell out what those changes should be, he added.
"How's he going to do that if he works for her? He needs to be able to criticize Nola Foulston. If he doesn't, he's just a status-quo candidate, and we've had enough of the status quo.
"He needs to resign. ... I had enough guts to leave," said O'Connor, who resigned from the District Attorney's Office in January 2010.
Bennett responded: "I have a wife and three kids to support. I'm not going to resign just to throw rocks at Nola. I'm proud of the office I've worked for, proud of the job I've done."
As for O'Connor, Bennett said, "He's got his own reasons for not announcing (his candidacy), and I'd like him to respect the choices I've made."
O'Connor said that he's not ready to say what changes should occur in the office. "If I run, I will" spell them out.
Bennett said that as district attorney he would call for a "renewed emphasis" on dealing with financial crimes and identity theft, saying those crimes directly affect many people. Financial crimes will have an even bigger impact as the baby boom population ages and becomes more vulnerable, Bennett said.
After "a great deal of reflection," Bennett said, he decided last week to file as a candidate. He told Foulston he wanted to run, and she said something like "that'd be fine, go for it," he said.
It is his first run for public office.
Bennett acknowledged that he had not talked with Republican Party leaders but had met informally with some Republicans to get their feedback.
"I finally decided I was going to make a decision on my own," he said.
Bennett said he considers O'Connor a friend and noted that the two have worked together prosecuting some high-profile murder cases, including the killing of pregnant, 14-year-old Chelsea Brooks of Wichita.
Bennett, who grew up in Goddard and west Wichita and graduated from Washburn University School of Law, has a reputation for being assertive without being combative.
He has played bluegrass music, on acoustic bass and guitar, since he was a child.
He and his wife, Tamara, have three daughters.
O'Connor, the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in a suburb north of Chicago. He is a former college rugby player —"mainly known for my tackling ability" — who has a reputation for combativeness in the courtroom. As his boss, Foulston publicly referred to him as the "Fighting Irish" on her staff.
He now does contract work on criminal cases around the state as a special assistant attorney general.
Party backs O'Connor
The chairman of the Sedgwick County Republican Party, Bob Dool, said last week: "Kevin O'Connor is certainly the person that we are encouraging at this point" to run for district attorney.
"We think he's very well qualified, and we have encouraged him to pursue this race.
"He is highly respected by law enforcement, which is obviously important," Dool said. The district attorney is the chief law enforcement officer in the county and the gatekeeper — deciding whether charges are filed in cases presented by law enforcement. The office prosecutes everything from misdemeanors to death penalty cases and consumer fraud and juvenile custody cases.
O'Connor is well-suited for the job, Dool said. "I think he has a reputation of being tough but fair," said Dool, president and owner of Wichita-based Mid-Continent Safety, which sells industrial safety products.
Dool said he didn't know Bennett and had not been contacted by him.
"If he's working there (in the District Attorney's Office) now, it might indicate that Nola's not going to run, but we don't know that."
There could be other Republican candidates besides Bennett, Dool said.
"Right now, I would certainly support Kevin (O'Connor)," he said.
As the incumbent, Foulston has proven herself, said Betty Arnold, chairwoman of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party.
"I don't know if it's her intent to seek re-election, but if it is, we certainly will support her," Arnold said.
The fact that Foulston has been repeatedly re-elected shows "that Sedgwick County has confidence in her ability to run the office," said Arnold, also a member of the Wichita school board.
Sizing up the race
Even before Bennett announced his candidacy, Ken Ciboski, a Republican and Wichita State University associate professor of political science, said he wondered if Foulston might not run again.
"If she thinks that somebody like Kevin O'Connor can defeat her, she may very well step down," Ciboski said. "You kind of want to go out with grace. You don't want to go out as a defeated person."
Ciboski said both O'Connor and Bennett have strong resumes and extensive experience in the District Attorney's Office — about 17 years for O'Connor and about 14 years for Bennett — and either would be a sound candidate, he said.
After years of being in office, Ciboski said, Foulston is "politically vulnerable ... For one thing, she's been in there a long time. But after a while, things begin to wear a little thin. You're bound to make enemies ... you can't make everybody happy."
Ciboski agreed that Bennett's candidacy, while working for Foulston, indicated that she will not seek re-election —"although it's not out of the realm of possibility."
Bennett's early announcement — coupled with the fact that he has a strong resume — could help him keep potential opponents from entering the race, Ciboski said.
Ciboski said he has wondered whether Kim Parker — the chief deputy district attorney, the No. 2 position — might run if Foulston doesn't. But Parker said Saturday that she has no desire to be a candidate, and that although she is "a committed Republican ... I think politics is a hard and nasty business. It doesn't suit me."
O'Connor graduated from the University of Kansas Law School and went to work for Foulston. During part of 2001 and 2002, he worked in the U.S. Department of Justice as a trial attorney in federal death penalty cases, then was rehired by Foulston.
As a prosecutor working under contract with the Kansas Attorney General's Office, he is involved in the capital murder case against Adam Longoria, charged in the killing of 14-year-old Alicia DeBolt of Great Bend.
If O'Connor runs, it will be his second campaign. In 2000, while living in Hutchinson, he lost the race for Reno County district attorney.
With next year's election, he said, he'll make the decision on whether to run "based on what's best for me and my family, without regard to whoever else is running."
He and his wife, Jennifer, have four children, ages 9 to 15.
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or email@example.com.