It’s almost never good when Kansas makes the national news.
That’s definitely been the case as the New York Times recapped the story of alleged girlfriend-abuser Aaron Coleman’s primary defeat of Kansas Rep. Stan Frownfelter, who’d held his seat in the Legislature since 2007. As Democrats who had widely condemned Coleman’s behavior pivoted to supporting a Frownfelter write-in campaign for the general election and a Republican also threw in, this week Coleman flirted with dropping out, which got him back in the New York Times.
I’m going to say most people in Kansas House District 37 would be surprised to hear any of this.
Seeking a reality check, I headed out one afternoon to the disputed territory.
With its rolling hills and farmhouses surrounded by white horse fences, District 37’s pastoral southwestern corner looks more like Vermont than the stereotype of Kansas City, Kansas. I drove through a lot of neighborhoods where houses were sealed shut to preserve the A/C and nobody was outside.
The first man-on-the-street I encountered looked to be in his mid-30s, walking a chill dog. He didn’t want to be interviewed but engaged anyway. Never having heard of Frownfelter or Coleman, he skimmed headlines on his phone before shrugging off the worst allegations against Coleman, saying someone could have probably said the same thing about him when he was that age.
I crossed the Kansas River, a wide path of nature running through rail yards and heavy industry, on my way toward State Avenue, the district’s northern boundary. I saw few pedestrians along this arterial of chain stores, chain-store knockoffs and abandoned or occasionally reclaimed strip malls, but there was motion in the parking lot at Top Spot Liquor.
The first person who came out of the store said she’d be happy to talk but she didn’t vote in the district. That was my introductory question to everyone: “Do you vote in this district?”
“I think you can,” said Person #3. “I’m not real sure because I don’t vote.”
Deidre Sneed, who said she only voted in presidential elections, had never heard of Frownfelter. Same for the next person: “Not aware of the name.”
A few blocks east, all five people I caught coming out of Retail Rebel said they didn’t vote in the district, including a guy whose “Dotte” T-shirt suggested his civic pride. I began to suspect some really were voters who just didn’t want to talk to me.
People were chattier at Save A Lot.
“It’s been 20 years since I’ve voted,” said one woman. “It doesn’t make any sense to. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.”
Chris Ball said he’d been focused on the U.S. Senate race and hadn’t heard of Frownfelter or Coleman.
John Ragsdale said he’d been waiting for his mail-in ballot to arrive. Did he know the name Frownfelter? “Nope.” Coleman? “Nope.”
Same for Roscio Acosta.
In a neighborhood near Wyandotte High School, Kathy Mangelsdorf was in her front yard.
“Frownfelter, that sounds familiar. I think I voted for him in the primary,” she said, and called over her husband, Ed. They’d just returned from a camping trip and hadn’t been following the news.
“He won, didn’t he?” Ed said of Frownfelter. I brought them up to speed. “Oh that kid,” Ed said. “Jeez, he won?”
The Mangelsdorfs were lovely, but I had to keep moving.
At a Dollar General in the district’s southeastern corner, a Democratic voter named Dereck Harrison was not familiar with either name. Cynthia Michalski, a Republican, wasn’t either.
Ed Downes wore a fun mask with a mustache graphic. His eyes looked regretful when he heard my question.
“Unfortunately, I voted for the 19-year-old kid,” Downes said. “I didn’t hear his backstory until after I’d voted. I assumed he was a progressive rising star. His website indicated as much.”
Downes said he would write in Frownfelter, but lamented Frownfelter’s lack of outreach to voters.
“He’s been in there a long time,” Downes said. “He’s taking stuff for granted.”
Looking at my notes later, I saw that I’d interacted with 19 people, five more than Coleman’s 14-vote victory. He won 823 to 809, which meant 1,632 people voted in a primary to represent 22,494 people. (Other districts had even lower turnouts.)
My unscientific survey was nowhere near a statistically valid sample, but the trend seemed clear. People in District 37 were going about their lives unburdened by Kansas Legislature politics. Who could blame them? It was time to go home and brace for whatever fresh hell was in the next day’s news.