‘Representation matters’: Kansas candidates hope to bring diverse voices to office

Stephanie Byers, a Democrat from Wichita, is poised to become the first transgender person in the Legislature. She was motivated to run for office "to be that voice for education and for expanding Medicaid." (Screenshot from live video)

MANHATTAN — Stephanie Byers sits in her living room, surrounded by her collection of guitars, to participate in one of the many Zoom calls on her schedule.

The Democratic candidate for the Kansas House said the COVID-19 pandemic has forced her to change the way she campaigns. In March, she walked the Wichita district’s streets, knocking on doors, talking to people and introducing herself.

Now, she is embracing digital tools to reach voters because she doesn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

“There are so many unknowns with (COVID-19) that it’s just simply not good interest to do that,” Byers said. “(I want) to take care of the people who I want to represent.”

Byers is one of several candidates for local and state government positions who continue to break diversity barriers in Kansas. If elected, she will be the first transgender person in the Kansas Legislature. 

“Kansas is kind of looked at as the big ceiling to break through because of its reputation of being extremely conservative,” Byers said. “But I also am running in a district that has voted Democrat for the last 20-plus years, and tends to lean blue. … You know, representation matters, and so seeing the trans person in office opens doors for other trans people in other places to consider the possibility of running for office.”

Candidates in other eastern Kansas communities also are running to represent historically underrepresented groups.

In Lawrence, Democrat Christina Haswood is running unopposed for the 10th District seat in the House. A member of the Navajo Nation, she also said representation matters, which influenced her decision to run for office.

“When we look at our current state Legislature, I see people that don’t look like me,” Haswood said. “I have thought for the longest time … why do these people not care about my history or tribal history? We have tribal sovereignty, we have treaty rights with the United States government, and we’re in the (Declaration of Independence) as (merciless) savages.”

Fanny Fang decided to seek office after a Riley County commissioner said the community wouldn’t need to worry about COVID-19 because there weren’t many Asian people there. (Submitted)

In Manhattan, Riley County Commission candidate Fanny Fang started her campaign after Commissioner Marvin Rodriguez said the community doesn’t need to worry about COVID-19 because there aren’t many Asian people there.

Fang, whose family owns and operates the Asian Market in Manhattan, initially called on Rodriguez to resign. He refused, and she eventually decided to run for his seat as a Democrat. Rodriguez lost in the Republican primary in August.

“I felt that someone needed to step up and do something,” Fang said. “The idea of running was rolling around in my head for a couple months. I was like, ‘You know what? It’s my time.’ ”

Byers said she thought about running for a long time before actually jumping into the race. The retired teacher said she often felt voiceless, especially in education funding talks.

“I’m in Washington, D.C., speaking at this ACLU rally, with the U.S. Supreme Court at my back and in front of me is the U.S. Capitol Building, and it kind of all came together,” Byers said. “I said, ‘This is something that I should try to do. This is a once in a lifetime chance, and the doors are open for me to possibly do this, to be that voice for education and for expanding Medicaid.’ ”

While Byers does most of the campaigning herself, Haswood said a few college and high school students volunteer for her. Fang also uses volunteers from the community and goes door to door to campaign. 

“We have decided to continue door knocking and canvassing,” Fang said. “But to do that, we wear masks, and when we knock on a door, we take huge steps back to make sure that people feel safe.”

Fang said her campaign has 50 volunteers and six staff members.

“This has been a campaign that many people have embraced, that many people feel represents them,” Fang said. “All it has taken is being very vulnerable with the public and also saying, ‘Hey, I’m here to represent you as well.’ ”

The three candidates all said it takes a lot of work and people from all backgrounds to make decisions.

“With Native American issues, it’s bipartisan or no partisan, because we need both sides of the aisle to come together and vote — vote for what we believe in,” Haswood said. “So I carry this practice with me to the state Legislature, and I’m so excited to learn and to build relationships.”