Friday, January 27, 2006

Take Back Kansas

Yesterday I mentioned that a forum was going to be held that night at the Plymouth Congregational Church. Since I was feeling a bit of cabin fever after my bout with the flu, I decided to check it out.

Carol Sader starts things off
The organizers all commented that they expected a few dozen people to show up, so the crowd that I estimated at no less than 250, and which Dave Ranney of the Journal-World put at 350, was encouraging to them all.
I was encouraged by the fact that I had barely walked in the door when I ran into Don Weiss, Democratic candidate for the Board of Education seat currently held by John Bacon. He reads regularly enough to have been worried about my flu, and we chatted a little about his race as the event started up. Harry McDonald, the Republican challenger in that race was at the next doorway down, standing between State Senators John Vratil and Marci Francisco. It wasn't hard to spot a handful of other local politicians and candidates for office. A surprising number of strangers recognized your humble author and came over to chat.

Photos of the event are available in this Fotki album.
The event was organized by MAINstream Coalition, a group founded after the 1999 creationism debacle as a "Moderate Alliance of Informed Neighbors." They've worked hard at electing politically moderate voices of both parties to the Board of Education and other positions, and have been a powerful force for grassroots activism, especially in northeast Kansas. MAINstream has a PAC, a 501(c)4 nonprofit and a 501(c)3 tax deductible non-profit.

Carol Sader, a former legislator and a MAINstream board member emceed. She started off with a description of the genesis of MAINstream, and with a call for sensible, moderate leadership.

Sue Gamble, the moderate Board of Education member representing Kansas City, Kansas (District 2, not up for re-election this cycle) spoke about her work on the Board and the importance of moderation there. She discussed her dissatisfaction with the hiring of Bob Corkins to loud applause, but emphasized the importance of working with him for the benefit of the schools and the children.

Sue Gamble addresses the crowd
She touched on the evolution issue, but kept her focus on the big issues facing education in Kansas today. The squabble over a tiny part of one standards document took time away from the important work of improving the Kansas schools. In the 1960s, 60% of jobs were low-skill work, that percentage is dropping rapidly, and schools have to improve to keep up. While she sees improvement, it is not rapid enough to catch up and keep pace with the changing world we live in.

The key, and a theme others returned to in their own presentations, was "informed, moderate leadership." Focussing on evolution has made Kansas a laughing-stock, and has let rural Oregon and Iowa steal the economic high-ground.

She finished with another point others emphasized, that primaries matter. Given the bizarre politics of Kansas, many races will be guaranteed to go to a Republican, so people were encouraged to register, declare a party affiliation, and vote in a primary.

Lori Messinger of KU's School of Social Welfare lead the crowd through a few simple ways to get involved. Letters to the editor, especially in smaller papers out in western Kansas, can have a huge impact. Public officials read those letters to get a read on public opinion. She also encouraged people to contact their legislators, emphasizing the small number of communications most legislators get, and the fact that most of the noise is often generated by extremes. Your concerns as a moderate voter may cut through the rants from the wings. She also reminded the audience that legislators do check that people who say they vote actually did, so honesty matters, but more importantly, voting matters.

One suggestion that you don't hear often enough is to organize a few friends. Get together with a handful of people, talk about the issues that matter to you, and decide on a project. Maybe letter-writing, maybe a visit to Topeka, a petition drive, or a simple book club. The key is to bring people together for a purpose. You don't have to agree on everything, but getting together and talking is the first step towards any real change.

There's a real hunger for opportunities for action. This was best exemplified when the people not from Douglas County were asked to raise their hands (Lawrence is in Douglas County). Well over half the crowd put their hands up. When people heard about a chance for the middle ground to assert itself, huge numbers were ready to travel substantial distances to hear about it.

I'll add as an addendum that something like TfK is a great way to link together local groups into a statewide organization. If you have a little group, or if you put one together, TfK would be glad to offer you a little free attention.

The panel
There was a panel discussion involving representatives from MAINstream, the Kansas Alliance for Education, Kansans for Lifesaving Cures, Kansas Action for Children, and Kansas Families United for Public Education.

The number of education groups was intriguing, and I think it reveals something important about what moderation means in Kansas today. It means you may not want all sorts of government programs, but you recognize that education is vital, and anyone who messes with it is playing with fire.

There was discussion of TABOR (which seems to be DOA, praise Jeebus) and "TABOR-lite," which would require a supermajority vote to increase spending. While it may not pass, Gary Brunk of Kansas Action for Children warned that some such proposal might be used as an election year stunt to force moderate Republicans into a corner. Brad Kemp of Kansans for Lifesaving Cures described a bill proposed last year which would have made it illegal to do research using human embryonic stem cells, to produce pharmaceuticals using them, or to receive any treatment based on them. His group is not trying to expand funding for that research, merely to ensure than any research, medicines, and practices regarding stem cells that are legal at the federal level would also be protected at the state level.

Kathy Cook of KFUPE was asked about the pros and cons of vouchers, paused, and admitted she couldn't come up with any advantages of vouchers. There was much applause.

The event ended with the introduction of several candidates and public officials present, including Janet Waugh, incumbent moderate Board of Education member from the 1st district (including part of Lawrence). As mentioned previously Don Weiss and Harry McDonald were there and seemed to agree that the best outcome would be a general election between the two of them. State Senators John Vratil and Marci Francisco were in attendance (Vratil is vice-chair of the Education Committee). Kent Runyan and Jana Shaver, candidates in the general and primary elections respectively in the 9th Board of Education District, currently represented by Iris Van Meter. As I posted earlier, Shaver had announced her candidacy that day.

A spokesman (who introduced himself as a TfK fan) was there to represent Paul Morrison for AG. Morrison had a family commitment and couldn't attend. A spokeswoman for Boyda for Congress was there to assure us all that Nancy Boyda is planning on a rematch with Jim Ryun. More on that later.

There was tremendous energy in the room. The overflow crowd excited the speakers, and the speakers were there because they see a need for a new direction in Topeka. Usually, when people are talking about a new direction, they want to yank the wheel to one side or the other, but this crowd was excited about straightening things out. Always turning in one direction works for NASCAR, but I it doesn't get you anyplace new. For more on that, check out stories like this about the upcoming Republican party platform, rumored to be intended as a wedge to alienate moderates, and the professed willingness of the party to lose seats in the legislature to bring the Republican caucus further to the right.

On a personal note, it was really cool putting faces to some names, including Silver from In This Moment, but also John Martellaro (JMart from the comments), and various Board members and candidates, and especially meeting some readers who haven't introduced themselves here.