I know that there are not many people who consider themselves conservatives who read this blog. Largely, this is because there are not very many people who read this blog altogether. So nothing I say is going to surprise anyone, nor is it likely to change any minds. Still…
I moved to Kansas in 2002. I knew it was a conservative, Republican state. While I’d grown up in New York and lived much of my adult life in Chicago, I’d spent a number of years in Texas before coming here, so it wasn’t as if I was unused to conservative, Republican states. I also knew that there were a lot of good, hard-working, progressive people in Texas and there were certain to be those in Kansas, particularly in the Kansas City area. In Texas I lived in San Antonio, a Democratic city with a series of Democratic mayors, many of whom were progressive young Latinos like Henry Cisneros (before my time), Ed Garza, and now the dynamic leader Julián Castro. While the Governors, since Ann Richards, and Senators, since Lloyd Bentsen, were Republicans, my Congressman, who live in my neighborhood, was the venerable Henry Gonzáles, followed after he died by his son Charlie. While there were conservative Congressmen from the area, Gonzáles was not the only progressive; Ciro Rodríguez maybe was more so.
And my state legislators made me proud. Also Latinos and Latinas, mostly young, they were unafraid to take on the big issues. In 2003, shortly after I left, Democratic members of both the Texas House and Senate left the state to try to block a redistricting plan that would favor Republicans. In each house, they were led by the people who represented my district, Leticia van de Putte in the Senate and Mike Villarreal in the House. While Texas as a whole has continued to move so far to the right that Governor Rick Perry’s pick to succeed him was defeated by a Tea Party candidate, and the Republican state platform calls for an end to the teaching of “critical thinking” in the public schools, good things continue to happen in San Antonio. When the Arizona Department of Education recently closed down the Tucson Unified School District’s Hispanic Studies program (Tucson is another place I’ve lived, a relatively progressive part of a very conservative state), it banned the poetry of Carmen Tafolla. Mayor Castro named Ms. Tafolla the first Poet Laureate of San Antonio. His brother, Joaquín Castro is running for Congress. The state representative from the district next to mine, Trey Martínez Fisher, is leader of the Democratic opposition in the state house.
When I moved to Kansas, I chose to live in Kansas City, KS. The “other side of the tracks”, it was not only near work, it was not the suburbs where most of my colleagues lived. In Johnson County, the wealthy county to the south of “KCK”’s Wyandotte County, everyone had to register Republican to have a say in the election. Wyandotte was, and still is, one of only two Democratic counties in the state (the other being Douglas, where Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas, is located). We even had a Democratic congressman, Dennis Moore. A “blue dog” Democrat, yes; he was from Johnson County, but at least not breaking my until-recently string of never living in a congressional district represented by a Republican. In 2010 Moore retired, and was replaced by a conservative Republican.
When I first voted in Kansas, in 2002, I was shocked to find that there was no one running against then-and-now incumbent senator Pat Roberts. Knowing little about Sen. Roberts but strongly favoring the democracy that requires contested elections, I wrote in the name of a colleague. In 2002, Kansas was pretty conservative. It was led by Republicans, but had a history of support for core government functions such as education. The legislature was about 1/3 Democratic, 1/3 moderate Republican, and 1/3 “conservative” Republican. When I visited the Capitol the morning after the end of the longest-running legislative session to date as part of a KU-sponsored tour, we were addressed by a panel of commentators. One was the Lieutenant Governor, a “moderate” Republican, who, obviously exhausted, was strongly critical of the right wing of his party. Yes, he called them “the black helicopter crowd”. He noted that “moderate” were moderate because sometimes they liked to do things like go to their kids baseball games, or fish or hunt or do something besides “plotting in basements”.
Things have not gotten better. While that year we elected a Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius (Kansas had a history of electing a Democrat every 3-4 governors, while never ever turning over control of the legislature), the legislature became more conservative. Thomas Frank published his popular book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” in 2004 while Sebelius was still governor giving his perspective on the rightward turn of the state, which included the replacement of long-time liberal, Jewish Congressman Dan Glickman from Wichita, named by President Clinton to be Secretary of Agriculture, by a string of very conservative congressmen. It has become much more so now. Conservatives replaced moderates as Speaker of the House, and later were replaced by more conservative challengers. In 2010, Sam Brownback, the very conservative US Senator and former Presidential candidate, was elected governor. The House strongly supported his agenda, but the Senate, in a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, blocked several initiatives. With his support, and the support of lots of money from Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers’ (they are from Wichita) funded group Americans for Prosperity (indeed, much of the COC money comes from AFP), conservatives ran against virtually every moderate Republican incumbent in the Senate.
The primary was yesterday, and it looks like most of them won. They only needed 3-4 Senate seats and got a lot more (presuming, of course, that the winners from yesterday are not beaten by Democrats in the general election, a pretty safe assumption). Even the long-time Senate President, rancher Steve Morris of Hugoton in the far SW corner of the state, looks like he is headed to defeat. Governor Brownback, the COC and the Koch brothers win. Health care and education, the two big items on the state budget, look like they will lose. Republicans sometimes accuse Democrats of “never having met a tax they didn’t like”; in Kansas this is untrue, but that the current Republican majority never met a tax cut they didn’t like is true. No matter how Draconian. After years of recession and state budget cuts stemming from inadequate revenue, projections were for a rise this year. The governor proposed, and the legislature passed new big tax cuts, especially (surprise!) for the wealthy. (The Senate also; word is that they thought they were “calling the House’s bluff”, but wrong. No bluff!) So this year’s and next year’s cuts in education and Medicaid funding will be even worse. And, of course, the Governor will not take federal money for Medicaid.
Why? Part of it is probably the trend that Thomas Franks pointed out is true and Kansans are getting more conservative (although at this point, the group elected are not “conserving” anything; they are simply destroying). A lot of it is likely that the big money contributions are effecting voters through their dominance of the voters’ main source of information, TV (and make no mistake; despite the media’s efforts to portray contributions by unions to the moderates as balancing, the funding from AFP and COC and others for the conservatives was several times higher). And a lot of it is that there are not many people voting, probably less than 20% in this primary according to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (himself an arch “conservative”, author of the Arizona immigration law). Voter turnout in this country is low, turnout in primaries is lower, and turnout among more “Democratic” constituencies such as the poor and minorities is lower still. The efforts to disenfranchise these folks by techniques such as photo-ID requirements (falsely sold as a counter to the non-problem of voter fraud) and decreasing the number of polling places (from having less state money) are likely to increase the problem.
I admit I didn’t vote; as a Democrat in Wyandotte County there were no races being contested for me. But I still usually would make a symbolic appearance, and this year, with no Democratic candidate running in the primary for Congress to oppose the Republican incumbent, I could have, as in 2002, written in my colleague. But my polling place, moved from the church down the street to farther-away-but-still-on-the-way-to-work a few years ago, has now moved a couple of miles in the opposite direction. I have a car, and even after a long workday would have definitely gone if there was any chance that my vote would have mattered. But a lot of folks don’t have cars or ways to get to the polls, or photo ID for that matter, and these are major obstacles to a large voter turnout.
I believe in democracy. If the majority of people want to vote for folks I disagree with, that is their right, even if it is not in their interests. It is too bad if they are convinced to do so by misleading-to-lying attack ads funded by billionaires. But efforts to restrict voting by any means, ID, or fewer polling places, or making it more difficult to register, or not having advance voting, is absolutely wrong.
Back in San Antonio, there was advance voting, and we could vote at the supermarket weeks before Election Day. Anything that gets more people to the polls is good, and a true expression of our democracy.