What Six Terms in the Kansas Legislature taught me
One day, a guy walked up to the counter at my used record store in Wichita, Kansas. He told me about all the evils of the nuclear power plant being built in Kansas and wondered if I could help him and others that opposed it. Since protesting is one benefit of our democracy, I joined a merry band of women and men working to stop the construction of the plant.
I soon found myself on the front lawn of the Missouri State Capitol demonstrating against a nuclear plant being built there. It was a fine day, perfect for throwing frisbees. Sometime that afternoon, I looked up at the Capitol building and thought ‘maybe I could do more to stop nuclear power inside that building than outside here on the lawn’.
A nudge is all it took
The next January, one of the ringleaders of our Kansas no-nukes group said I ought to think about running for the Kansas Legislature. I said I’d think about it, and I was soon hooked on the idea. And after doing a minimum amount of research, I was off and running in one of the hottest summers on record in Wichita. It was a trial by fire.
I didn’t win that year though I was successful two years later and became a member of the Kansas Legislature. I was young. I was green. And I loved every minute of it. It was like getting a master’s degree about Kansas. It’s one of the smaller states as to population, and thus one of a manageable size. Big for this newcomer though.
Learning the ropes of a democracy
The machinery of Kansas state government is complex just on its own. Added to that is the State government is the middle ‘man’ between the Federal government, counties, and cities all over Kansas. Learning about all of this was daunting. And I had just 90 days, the length of our annual session.
The first step was getting to know 125 people who have a seat in the House of Representatives. I made my first political enemy on the first vote I made as a legislator. The first order of business was for the House of Representatives to approve its own House rules. The most contentious issue was whether to allow smoking on the House floor.
How to make an enemy on Day One
One of my fellow Democrats who sat right behind me on the House floor really wanted to smoke on the floor. We had discussed this, and he thought that I had committed myself to allow smoking. When I voted no, he never trusted me after that. I didn’t find out for about six years that this was the case. Ironically, we agreed on stopping the nuclear power plant on which I had few other enthusiasts to join me.
While there are public issues which people read about in the news, there is a whole ‘seamless web’ of personal relationships in the legislature. This phrase was coined by a woman legislator, also a Democrat and a smoker. While she was also against the smoking ban, we agreed on pretty much everything else and she was a mentor during my tenure. Learning to maneuver through these relationships was the first order of business — every day.
I got along better after that
As noted above, Democrats had their differences. About half of our caucus represented rural areas and small towns, quite different from the district I represented within a city of 300,000 people. There were these same divides in the Republican caucus, though the rural interests were more dominant.
While Republicans outnumbered Democrats, Kansas had a long history of progressive politics starting with Alf Landon who was the Governor of Kansas. He was a pro-labor Republican. Unfortunately for him, he ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936. However, those progressive views were still alive and well into the mid 1990’s.
When faced with issues, we did our best to work together even though there were strong differences on utility issues, labor issues, and of course taxes. When that failed, we resorted to strategizing and then finally voting. That could be a brutal and agonizing step in the process.
That didn’t stop us though from working on the other 95% of the issues we faced where the parties were not so entrenched, mostly helping the state government, the counties, and the cities better carry out their responsibilities. It was public service at its best.
A walk down memory lane
For those of you too young to remember these days of bipartisanship and compromise, and for those of you who lived through these times but didn’t notice or have forgotten this era of bipartisanship, it did exist. Elected officials at all levels believed in government. They didn’t agree, of course, on what the best thing to do was. They did agree on doing what it took, including compromise, to do what was best for Kansas and then go home after 90 days. It was a working democracy based on a diversity of views.
I know that sounds like milk of magnesia for the masses, yet it was how it was. We did get steamed at each other from time to time, but it was for something said or done. But we never hated each other. We never made personal attacks against each other.
As legislators though, we were not without our faults. We drank way too much. And on some mornings, after drinking the night before, one commonality we sometimes had were the knowing glances between legislators of both parties about the night before. A strange method of team building, I know. Though, it was more than the drinking itself that built collegiality. It was the fact that we were personally together the evening before letting off steam, having a little fun, and talking some legislative business as well.
We have some work to do
In today’s cultural and political divides, I see people comparing and contrasting people all the time ‘on the other side’ with no mercy. With no effort at insight. We do all this while talking about the huge divide that separates us.
My assignment to all of us is to compare ourselves to others with more open minds. Without that, our democracy will continue to risk going over the brink.