Past disagreements in Iola might be factor in Toland debate

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -

Disagreements and personality clashes in the small southeast Kansas town of Iola might be a root cause of a current battle over Democratic Gov. Laura Kelley’s nomination to lead the Kansas Department of Commerce, according to some residents of the town.

Some Republicans and the state’s most influential anti-abortion group are fighting David Toland’s nomination, citing two grants totaling less than $20,000 to Thrive Allen County, an economic group he previously managed in Iola. The grants came from a fund in memory of the late abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, although neither grant was used to fund abortions.

While he was CEO of Thrive Allen County, Toland often clashed with Virginia Crossland-Macha, the newly-elected vice-chairwoman of the Kansas Republican Party and the daughter of the founder of Crossland Construction, one of the nation’s largest general contractors, The Kansas News Service reported .

Crossland-Macha said in emails to former Iola Mayor John McCrae that she opposes Toland’s politics and what she called his attempts to punish her and other Iola business owners who criticized Thrive initiatives, such as a successful campaign to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco products in the city from 18 to 21 in Iola. Crossland-Macha said the change cost a truck stop she and her husband, Larry, own $100,000 in sales during its first month.

In a statement on Friday, Toland did not address the conflicts with Crossland-Macha and said he was focusing on rebuilding the Department of Commerce. He said in 10 weeks, the agency has added or retained more than 3,000 jobs in Kansas, provided support for employees of hospitals that closed and totaled more than $200 million in capital improvement projects in the state.

“That’s what the Governor brought me here to do, and it’s what I intended to continue doing,” Toland said.

McCrae, current president of Iola Industries, a business development group, said many of the Iola’s 6,000 residents are shocked by the campaign against Toland.

“They’re kind of stunned that Virginia is leading the charge against the hometown boy who has done so much and so well,” McRae said.

He said residents also are surprised that abortion has become an issue in the confirmation controversy.

Kansans for Life charged in a letter to senators Monday that Toland wasn’t fit to lead the commerce department because of his “ties” to Tiller, citing the grants to Thrive Allen County.

The first grant, a $9,380 award received in 2015, went mainly to a campaign to reduce the smoking rate among pregnant women in Allen County. The second was a $10,000 grant in 2018 that Thrive transferred to the SEK Multi-County Health Department based in Iola. It funded a program to reduce premature and low-birth-weight babies.

Lisse Regehr, Thrive’s incoming CEO, said using those grants to connect Toland to abortion politics shows that Crossland-Macha and Republican legislative leaders are “desperate” to “take him down.”

“It’s a personal vendetta,” she said. “It’s despicable.”

The Kansas News Service said Crossland-Macha didn’t return several requests for comment.

McRae, a lifelong Republican, said he believes most Iola residents aware of the battle support Toland. He said under Toland’s leadership, Thrive enabled public-private partnerships to develop a new apartment complex, recruit a new grocery store and build miles of hiking and biking trails.

But Crossland-Macha told The Topeka Capital-Journal that Toland’s “version of economic development has displaced local small businesses and jobs in Iola.”

McRae said politics also are a factor, both to stop Toland’s promising political future and “trying to slap Governor Kelly in the face.”

Some Republicans have also criticized him over a few social media posts and comments he made criticizing some GOP politicians. Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Republican from Hiawatha, said if the vote had occurred Monday, he would have voted for Toland’s confirmation.

“Now,” Pyle said, “I don’t think I can.”

However, business leaders and local chamber-of-commerce officials across the state signed a letter supporting Toland, and even some GOP senators consider him well-qualified.