Sunday, June 25, 2006

House candidates from Iola

Joe Myers, who contributed a report on the forum with Board of Education Candidates Kent Runyan, Jana Shaver and Brad Patzer, sends this account of the forum for the House candidates that took place the same day. Bill Otto is the incumbent, and represents the far right wing of the Republican Party. Sheila Lampe is taking him on in the primary, while Bill Shirley is the presumptive Democratic nominee (though Myers notes that Roger Mills filed to contest the primary at the last minute.

I'll let Myers speak for himself below, but I don't want this passage to get buried. "Iola is Shirley's home turf and he's highly-respected here. Many of the people at the Forum were surprised to hear he's a lifelong Democrat; I mean, they *like* him! How did that happen?!" I heard the same thing from John Doll (out in Western Kansas' big 1st Congressional District) and Nancy Boyda has stories about similar experiences. She talks about a conversation with a Southeastern Kansas paper's editor suddenly turning a lot more amiable when a friend pointed out that she is a Christian. "But I thought you were a Democrat!" was the off-the-cuff reply. Running good, smart, respectable candidates does great things for the Democratic party, even if they don't always win. A few people each cycle learn that Democrats don't actually eat that many babies, while the Republican propensity for quaffing puppy-blood is well and amply documented. Over time, more and more people are willing to consider a name with a (D) next to it, and that's good not just for the Democratic Party, but for Democracy.

The Kansas Democratic Party has candidates running in nearly every seat, a whopping 100 out of 125 seats. Check out your local house candidate, and tell TfK what you learned.

Joe writes:

Incumbent Bill Otto is hanging his campaign on the constitutional amendment to "rein in the Supreme Court." He's pretty good at blaming others - the Supreme Court, the House Leadership, anybody - for just about anything that makes him cranky.

Eventually, someone in the crowd said, "the government isn't 'them,' the government is supposed to be 'us,' and you're supposed to be representing us."

Otto said, "We need new direction in Topeka," which was interesting since he's the incumbent.

"It's time for a change" is one of those political tropes that always seem to click with voters. It's odd to hear it from an incumbent. But I suspect Otto, whose religious-right connections are solid, is talking out of both sides of his mouth. The villains in the Legislature, it seems, are the traditional Republican moderates - country-clubbers, bankers, and business interests - who stand in the way of Otto's efforts to carry (holy) water for the extreme far-Right agenda.

Otto mentioned Kansas is $4 billion in debt (not mentioning that all of it is bonded until someone in the crowd noted the state's cash-basis law prevents deficient spending).

"I don't want credit cards," was his response. He railed against bureaucracy - until later, when he advocated selective increases in regulation - never quite realizing the contradiction between his panderings. "I want to reduce government," Otto continued, "and one term is not enough to get things done."

Republican challenger Sheila Lampe seems like a reasonably intelligent, if a bit naïve, farm wife; which she was until the high cost of health insurance led her husband to lease out the family homestead and work in town. She has a background in eco-devo and stressed the need for better communication between District 9 constituents and their Rep in Topeka.

Lampe has pretty good instincts for running churning out the tropes of Republican politics, saying stuff such as "taxes can be stabilized if Kansas stays within its budget, just as you do at home."

Lampe said she wanted people to tell her what they thought and "not what they think I want to hear." For this rock-ribbed traditional Republican district, Lampe seems a worthy contender for the seat. But if the Radical Right turns out the vote in August, chances are Otto will stand for reelection.

His opponent should be Bill Shirley, a sitting Iola City Commissioner who's got a primary opponent (who was a no-show until the candidates' forum in Iola was over), in Roger Mills, of Richmond. Mills is a character; a crank, most likely. He came in wearing a Casey Jones choo-choo engineer's cap, leaning on his cane. He, apparently, suffered a debilitating workplace accident and got into the race to carp about Workers' Comp in Kansas. It's a worthy issue to address, mind you, but he's on a personal vendetta, not a representative one, I suspect. Someone who might be able to access funding and Mills' voting records might be able to uncover whether or not Mills is a stalking horse secretly backed by Otto or his cohorts. Shirley was assured of no primary opponent until Mills filed for office virtually at the last second. Now, with another name on the Democratic ballot in August, some of Shirley's resources will have to be committed to the summer campaign. This is an old Republican tactic in Kansas. I've been there, seen that, and have the t-shirt. Or maybe I'm just a jaded, paranoid Democrat in GOP country.

Iola is Shirley's home turf and he's highly-respected here. Many of the people at the Forum were surprised to hear he's a lifelong Democrat; I mean, they *like* him! How did that happen?!

Shirley was career military before retiring to Iola where he was a well-liked teacher. When he retired from that, he ran for Iola's city commission and has been a voice of reason and service. (He noted that his family have all been Democrats, that his military service pretty much made him a political non-participant, and his service on the city commission has always been, according to the city charter, non-partisan).

Shirley was decidedly low-key in this forum in Iola. I think he realized that nothing he could say could add or detract from his record serving Iola. Shirley noted differences, some extraordinary, in state aid to school districts led to the lawsuit that prompted the Supreme Court order to make funding more fair and equitable.

He noted that funding beyond this year hasn't been identified for the three-year, $566 million package legislators sent to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, which she signed.

Without prompting, Shirley said he wouldn't pledge never to raise taxes. It's almost as if he were hanging red meat in front of the right-wingnuts. "It'd be foolish to sign a pledge not to raise taxes," he said. "We have to do what's best," and that might mean having to raise taxes.

I admire his candor and integrity, but it also felt like the ghost of Walter Mondale's challenge to Reagan in 1984 wafted through the room.

Like my Mom used to tell my sister, "You don't have to tell everything you know."

What most-certainly will not be revealed when the Republican Party trots out their annual "S/He'll Raise Your Taxes!!!" screeds is the fact that Kansas schools are supported by a statewide property tax levy of 20 mills. That levy was reduced from the original 35 mills when state income was robust and the levy raised more than was needed to meet annual obligations. The Kansas economy might just be immune to Bush/GOP federal policies which are strangling many states' tax base; thanks to Governor Sebelius' stewardship, the need for raising the 20 mill levy somewhat might, just might, be possible. No candidate, though, should be attacked by special interest groups who'll bray the "S/He'll Raise Your Taxes!!!" if future realities might cause an adjustment in rates. As Yogi Berra noted, "Predictions are dangerous, especially when they involve the future."

Lampe listened to Shirley's logic and agreed that a tax increase might be the only answer. Otto said the problem is, "the dollars are going to education because of the Supreme Court."

Lampe floated the concept of statewide pools for teachers, farmers, small businesses to help with the cost of health insurance.

Otto was elected - by a hair - to the Legislature two years ago largely due to an under-the-radar effort by right-wing Christian evangelicals. Now that he has a record, he's running toward the middle in a district that has traditionally been represented by moderate Republicans. The key to Mills' candidacy in the northern part of the 9th District is that he's closer to northern precincts of the 9th and he has avoided having to talk about issues outside his comfort zone. He may sap a lot of votes from Shirley in the areas outside of the Iolan's natural constituency.

Lampe is qualified (as if "qualifications" ever really mattered in the Kansas Legislature) but I suspect she'll not survive the Republican Primary.

"Onward 'Christian' Soldiers!
Marching to the polls!!!!..."

Otto has, I suspect, been tutored by the right-wingnuts. He just might be able to parlay "It's time for a change" with the inherent power of incumbency.

Go figure.