If Kansans have any hope for party politics, there are a couple of guys in Wichita they should know.
Dalton Glasscock, 26, is chairman of the Kansas Federation of Young Republicans and, until a couple of weeks ago, was chairman of the Sedgwick County Republican Party.
Joseph Shepard, 27, is chairman of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party.
Both men are gay, which is notable only because Glasscock’s membership in the generally LGBTQ-unfriendly party is a reminder that reality is complex. Also notable: Despite their leadership in ever-more hostile parties, they’re friends.
The two met in student government at Wichita State University. Shepard ran for student body president and Glasscock ran for vice president on the other ticket. Shepard won, but asked Glasscock to join his cabinet.
Shephard said he wanted Glasscock to help him make sure everyone — people who voted for him as well as those who didn’t vote for him — had a voice.
“We had different political beliefs,” Shepard said, “but truly I believe he was someone who wanted the best for Wichita State and its students.”
Seeking models of mutual respect, I got them together on Zoom and asked them to explain themselves.
“I believe the best government is the one that governs locally and closer to your control,” Glasscock said. He spent a couple of years working in the federal bureaucracy, he said, and trusted his neighbors to make better decisions than something coming “top down” from Washington, D.C.
He’s fiscally conservative and believes market competition leads to innovation.
“And I’m pro-life. I believe life must be protected from conception to natural death, but individuals should make decisions about their own life,” Glasscock said.
“I’m proudly Democratic because of the people we say we represent,” Shepard said. “There are many people who don’t have access to the same opportunities and resources to advance at the same rate but still deserve opportunities to do so.”
Noting that COVID-19 and other health problems disproportionately hurt Black and brown communities, Shepard said Democrats believe health care is not a privilege but a right for everyone, that union workers should be paid fairly, that women should have autonomy over their bodies, that there’s value in the unique experiences of diverse people.
To listen to them explain their affinities is to hear different approaches that could be crafted into decent policies if only both sides acted in good faith. But there’s not a lot of that going around right now.
I asked each what advice they had for members of their own party.
“If you look at American history, any meaningful piece of legislation that has positively impacted America has passed bipartisan,” Glasscock said.
“My argument to my party is: Be consistent on the issues,” he said, noting that his pro-life views overlap with Democrats when it comes to his opposition to the death penalty.
“People can disagree with you on the issues,” he said, “but when they see hypocrisy, they lose faith not only in the party but the entire system as a whole. When you lose faith in systems, you have the entire breakdown of institutions and countries. That’s what we’re seeing on both sides now, which is very dangerous.”
Shepard said Democrats need to “lean in” and recognize that the party is not monolithic and has room for degrees of progressiveness. While U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might be “an amazing congresswoman for the area she represents,” he said, Democrats in Kansas might not yet be receptive to farther-left ideals.
“The fact that I’m willing to work with Republicans doesn’t mean I’m a bad guy or that I don’t stand firm or deeply rooted in my values or political beliefs,” he said.
“If we say we’re the party of diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said, “that means all voices need to be included — diversity of philosophy, thought and ideology.”
Both of them said Kansas had a chance to set an example for the rest of the country.
“It’s a little bit cheesy,” Glasscock said, “but I sign off all my emails with our state motto because I truly believe that exemplifies Kansas: Ad astra per aspera, to the stars through difficulty. And I think we all know we’re in difficult a moment right now. But we have the opportunity to push through that.”
“You know, we are the heartbeat for America. And I think when Kansans thrive, America thrives,” said Shepard, the more talkative of the two.
“It starts by making sure that we are reaching across the aisle, leaning into discomfort with grace,” he said, “while also being open to hear where other people are coming from and their perspectives and opinions. And recognizing that your truth is your truth. My truth is my truth. Neither is the absolute truth. We have to be willing to include all these all experiences in the conversation when we’re crafting policy, when we’re making laws.”
The story of their friendship is one people need to hear “now more than ever,” he said.
“It’s just a testament to just how people can really be different but so much alike,” Shepard said.
Glasscock’s final thought: “Everything he said.”