Since we’re already enduring the final days of a godforsaken election with kidnapping plots and Civil War fears and other danger signs for democracy, we might as well revisit one of the most grotesque moments of the year in Kansas.
It was the 4th of July weekend when Dane Hicks of the Anderson County Review published his cartoon of Gov. Laura Kelly wearing a Star of David mask against a blurry image suggesting Jewish people being herded onto a train: “Lockdown Laura says: Put on your mask … and step onto the cattle car,” read the text.
Like many Kansas embarrassments, this made international news. Within a couple of days, saying he’d had “heartfelt and educational conversations with Jewish leaders in the U.S. and abroad,” Hicks apologized and removed the cartoon, and the media — my industry — moved on.
I’ve been thinking about it ever since. So this week I called up the Republican and the Democrat who are running against each other to represent this slice of Kansas in the state House of Representatives to see what they had to say about it all.
The Anderson County Review is published in Garnett. With about 3,200 people, it’s one of the larger towns in Kansas House District 5 (which in addition to Anderson County includes parts of Franklin, Linn and Miami counties).
The Republican who’s running to represent that district is Rep. Mark Samsel, a lawyer and high school sports referee from Wellsville who just finished his first term. He does not fit the current Kansas GOP profile.
Though he’s voted consistently with the Republican — and often bipartisan — majority, he sometimes joins a healthy minority of dissenters on various issues or is among only two or three naysayers on bills he said might be “good underlying products” but the process has been bad, such as end-of-the-session, middle-of-the night votes on bills few legislators have actually read.
But despite his “yea” for letting Kansans vote to amend their state constitution to make it clear that women don’t have the right to an abortion (other legislators narrowly prevented that from going to a statewide vote), the Kansas Chamber targeted him for a primary challenge. Samsel was one of the few moderates to survive in August, which he did with 60% of the vote.
“A lot of people don’t like me because I’m not conservative enough,” he told me, “but at the end of the day, that’s not who we are.”
Samsel described the people of District 5 as “good hard-working people” and “good humans.”
“I honestly believe they want us to work together and get along in the Kansas fashion like we always have,” Samsel said. “All this labeling of ‘extremist,’ all that type of stuff — the younger folks have zero appetite for most of that.”
The Democrat he’s running against is Roger Sims, a former newspaper man himself. He worked for the Miami County Republic and its offshoots, serving as editor at the Louisburg Herald and as a freelancer for the Osawatomie Graphic. Since 2005, he’s taught journalism and English at Prairie View and West Franklin High Schools.
Hicks’ cartoon reflected poorly on Garnett, but “they’re not that kind of people,” Sims said.
“However, when you have an editorial slant like that, I think it basically starts poisoning the community,” he said. “And you have the worst element step forward and say, ‘Yeah I agree with him.’ And that’s very unfortunate.”
This is his first run for an office as high as the Legislature, though he’s served on the Prairie View Board of Education for 20 years. He knows the odds are not in his favor.
“There are people who run the gamut from very conservative to very liberal in Anderson County,” he said, “but by far the larger number are Republican.”
Sims, who lives on a farm in Parker, described Garnett as a strong rural community.
“Whereas a lot of communities within driving distance to the Kansas City area tend to become commuter cities, Garnett has a good economy and a lot of things going for it,” he said. “I think it’s a nice town.”
He seems to think highly of Samsel.
“It would have been easier for me to run against an alt-right candidate than another moderate,” Sims said.
Here’s the shocking news, folks: The people in Kansas House District 5 would be equally well-served by either candidate.
“Although I don’t know him well, I do appreciate my opponent and believe he would bring a level-headed approach to Topeka that reflects positively on our district,” Samsel wrote of Sims a few days ago. “Unlike choices in some parts of Kansas, he is a good and decent man, and has invested heavily in our public schools. I deeply commend him for that.”
It’s not the kind of Kansas story that makes international news, but the least I can do is give it a home state headline.