Governor Sam Brownback's "real live experiment" to brand Kansas as the nation's "red-state model" ignores residents who do not consider themselves red-staters. Many of us are just plain red-faced at the political state of our state. I want my state back.
The red-state/blue-state political shorthand panders to the human tendency for polarized thinking and assumes one can neatly divide states into liberal and conservative. But each state has internal contradictions. Humans are complicated, nuanced and layered. So is politics. At least, politics at its best.
But working from his "red-state model," along with the infusion of a million dollars into legislative races by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce's political action committee, Brownback swept moderate legislators from the Kansas legislature, many from his own party. The 2013 session began with a 92-33 Republican majority in the House and a 32-8 Republican majority in the Senate.
This Republican supermajority started popping out bills faster than the little numbered balls at my late grandma's bingo parlor. While the legislature was in session -- it adjourned after 99 days in the wee morning hours of June 2 -- hordes of Kansans had trouble digesting the news with their breakfast. I often felt like the character C.D. Bales, played by Steve Martin in the movie Roxanne, who puts coins in a newspaper vending machine, pulls out a paper, reads the headlines, screams, and pays money to shove the newspaper back.
The bills ranged from the dangerous to the merely wacky, many of them solutions in search of problems. Two of the more disturbing regard babies and bullets. HB 2253 bans abortions performed for gender selection, among other things, surely not a wide enough practice for legislators to spend time proposing and debating, much less banning.
SB 102 makes it illegal for the federal government to regulate or confiscate Kansas owned or manufactured ammunition or guns. The idea of such confiscation is paranoid fantasy. In a newspaper article about the legislation, which has been challenged by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the president of the Kansas State Rifle Association reportedly said: "We are not only supporting the Second Amendment, but we're supporting state sovereignty here." In a letter to Holder defending the so-called "Second Amendment Protection Act," Brownback wrote: "The people of Kansas have repeatedly and overwhelmingly reaffirmed their commitment to protecting this fundamental right."
The people of Kansas I talk to don't entertain fears about federal agents confiscating guns or ammunition. In fact, they question stretching an amendment written during the era of muskets to protect semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.
The people in Kansas I've been talking to have been throwing up their hands in despair at the bills produced by the legislature weakening unions, chipping away at a woman's right to control her reproductive life, and giving the governor the power to nominate appellate judges, formerly the purview of a panel of attorneys and private citizens. The governor has refused to reveal the names of applicants, despite his claim that the change would increase the accountability of the process.
Some Kansans are so desperate they consider leaving the state they love. But I don't want to leave. I want my state back.
Because politics is cyclical, a proverbial pendulum, we can assume that at some point our state will return to its centrist history. But how much of Kansas will be left after Brownback and the current crop of fringe-right legislators leave office? I resonate with the words of a former state official who expressed worry that Kansas is being "eviscerated."
In early summer my teenaged son, husband and I were evacuated from our rustic New Mexico cabin because of a forest fire raging in the Pecos Wilderness. Amazingly, this massive fire caused no injuries and burned no structures. Two and a half weeks after our hasty retreat, we were allowed back into the Santa Fe National Forest for one hour -- accompanied by a Forest Service ranger -- to retrieve our belongings from the cabin. On the way up to Grass Mountain, we saw trees still standing that were scorched and burned.
This familiar, but unfamiliar, scorched landscape reminds me of what has happened to our Kansas political landscape. Brownback and his supermajority have adopted a slash-and-burn politics. Rather than working to shore up existing structures, they have gutted them. Much of the legislation introduced in this past legislative session did not grow organically out of Kansas' unique mix of rural/urban, agriculture/business, public school/higher education political interests. Instead, it originated from boilerplate statutes offered by conservative think-tanks. I want my Kansas back.
I want to quit feeling ashamed of the amateur antics of legislators who do not believe in the expertise of the State Board of Education and who challenge Common Core educational standards adopted by 45 states, who, after all, developed them in consortiums. Fortunately, the bill repudiating the educational standards failed, but a weaker bill passed establishing a committee to review academic standards. Rep. Allan Rothlisberg was reported as saying during the debate: "We are a sovereign state. No matter what is said, this is a federal law, a federal requirement."
We may be a sovereign state, but we belong to the United States of America and are guided by the federal government. We are not a conservative confederacy, "red-state model" notwithstanding. The governor and this current band of rabidly conservative legislators do not represent or speak for me, although they presume to. I want my state back.
We need to unbrand Kansas. Red state? Temporarily. Red-faced? Let's make that temporary, too.