This Kansas Senate candidate is telling a new story about flyover country

September 9, 2020 3:59 am

Wendy Budetti speaks at the first Johnson County Pride picnic in June 2019. At left is Westwood City Councilman Jeff Harris. At right is U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids. (Submitted)

A couple of years ago, an extraordinary wave of activism flowed through northeast Kansas. It began quietly in Kansas City, Kansas, and then spread to Johnson County, starting in Prairie Village and cresting in Olathe this past December.

I’m talking about local governments passing ordinances protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. After the Unified Government of Wyandotte County passed such an ordinance with no controversy in June 2018, activists in Johnson County began pressing for similar ordinances at their own city halls. This often sparked weeks of contentious testimony, but ultimately cities embraced these ordinances one by one, like loved ones in a receiving line. Then, last month, the Kansas Human Rights Commission essentially extended those same protections to everyone in the state.

Hundreds of people in Johnson County showed up for this effort. At the heart of it all, though, were Brett Hoedl, chairman of the Metro Kansas City Chapter of Equality Kansas, and Wendy Budetti. Of their five kids, two identify as LGBTQ.

The year-and-a-half-long saga in northeast Kansas followed that of earlier struggles in Manhattan, Salina and Hutchinson, before Roeland Park planted the flag for Johnson County in 2014, all of which I wrote about in my 2018 book, “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas.”

I recap all of this not to promote that book but, partly, to promote a new one, “Midland: Reports from Flyover Country.”

Out this week, is a collection of essays by journalists written in response to the 2016 election. While shaken coastal media outlets sent reporters out to cover their newly discovered Trump country, a few writers who were already here began strategizing about how to tell our own stories. “Midland” is one result of that effort.

The chapter I contributed is a profile of Hoedl and Budetti. It’s called “The Coolest Parents in Johnson County, Kansas.” (Sorry, all other parents.) Here’s how it begins:

My essay was due late last year. I had just enough advance warning to include one line about what would be happen between my deadline and whenever the book came out: In January, Budetti announced she was running for a seat in the Kansas Senate, challenging Sen. Robert Olson, a Republican from Olathe.

Budetti decided to run because she’d determined through all of her activism that Olson’s votes in the Legislature “were not in alignment with the views of people in this district,” she says.

“Being so involved with the Democratic Party, but also with the fight (for a non-discrimination ordinance) at the Olathe City Council, getting to know people in Olathe,” she says, “there’s a lot more people who disagree with him than agree with him.”

We’ll see about that on Nov. 3. As a Democrat in Senate District 23, Budetti is up against decades of legacy Republican voters and is running directly into the chainsaw of Kansas Chamber/Americans for Prosperity negative advertising.

I left a couple of voice messages for Olson but he didn’t respond, so I’m left to know three things about him: 1) his sponsored bills and legislation and voting record; 2) his desire for all Kansans to be able to gamble on sports; and 3) this immortal quote, in an email justifying his “no” vote on Gov. Laura Kelly’s nomination of Carl Folsom to a seat on the Kansas Court of Appeals: “My district would have been better served — if I had not even attended the session.”

For that statement alone, Olson deserves a challenge.

The reason I’m a fan of Budetti, though, is because of her challenge to something else: an entire plank Republicans have been running on, disingenuously, for decades now. They bleat about “family values” and people like Jerry Falwell Jr. (to use only the most recent example) end up pulling levers of power.

Budetti, meanwhile, has advocated relentlessly not just for her own kids but for all of Johnson County’s kids, especially those whose parents, let’s just say, haven’t yet learned how to love their LGBTQ children.

Budetti doesn’t need to talk about family values. She’s lived them, out in the open for all of us to see, at no small risk to herself. Any state legislature would benefit from that sort of bravery.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.