It was a popularity contest of sorts on Monday at the Capitol when Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature decided who will be their leaders when the session starts next month.
This means a couple of things for Kansans. They’ll keep seeing some familiar names in the news, for example. Ron Ryckman, the Republican from Olathe, will still be Speaker of the House, and Dan Hawkins, the Republican from Wichita, will still be House Majority Leader.
But some things will be different. No longer will the words “Senate President Susan Wagle” appear in Statehouse news stories. Instead, Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, will be filling those big shoes.
Let the record show that everyone in the Republican leadership group is a white man.
Among Democrats, Dinah Sykes of Lenexa replaces long-serving Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka, who was ousted in a November surprise. Let the record show that Sykes was originally a Republican. The Democrats’ slate was diverse in other ways as well.
Kansas Democrats made history yesterday by electing the first Asian American and the first openly-LGBTQ representatives to leadership positions within the KS Legislature. Congrats to Rep. Rui Xu and Rep. Brandon Woodard. #ksleg @RuiXuKS @Woodard4Kansas
— Laura Kelly (@LauraKellyKS) December 8, 2020
My Kansas Reflector colleague Tim Carpenter did a good job summarizing why these leadership positions matter: “Republicans holding positions of House speaker and Senate president control committee appointments, assignment of bills to committees, the calendar of legislation debated on the floor and have a larger platform to advance a legislative agenda.”
Most Kansans favor legalizing recreational marijuana. Good luck even getting a hearing, even if some brave soul introduces such fantasy legislation. Long-suffering advocates of Medicaid expansion can offer a shoulder to cry on.
But besides the winners of Monday’s mini-elections, there are two even more important names each Kansan should know: their own senator and representative.
I’d lay down money that most Kansans don’t know those names.
It pains me to say that. It’s my job to try to make the machinations of state government interesting, after all — and sometimes the drama really does approach popcorn-worthy junior high soap opera levels.
Politigeek entertainment aside, the stakes are high. Decisions made by state representatives and senators arguably touch more people’s lives on a daily basis than those made by presidents and mayors.
I have no data to back up my sad theory and would be happy if someone proved me wrong. But I’m betting I could walk around any town in one of the state’s 105 counties asking people over 18 who represents them in the Kansas Legislature and more than half would not know.
I already did that once this year, in Wyandotte County, where most people on the street stared blankly or apologized for not being familiar with the names Stan Frownfelter and Aaron Coleman, despite heavy local and even national news coverage of the same two candidates running for the same office twice, including one who’d been there for more than a decade.
Let’s back up for a moment and consider some math.
Each member of the Kansas House represents roughly 22,000 people; senators represent around 71,000 (not all of these constituents are of voting age).
The Dumpster-fiery Frownfelter-Coleman race for Kansas House District 37 was decided by a grand total of 5,491 voters, out of nearly 16,000 people of voting age who live in that district.
More than 15,000 people of voting age live in the adjacent House District 32. Just 3,780 of them weighed in on who should represent them in the Kansas Legislature (2,822 for the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Pam Curtis, and 958 for Republican challenger Greg Conchola).
I’m being hard on Wyandotte County here, but chalk that up to tough love. Admittedly, most House races saw higher vote totals. But not high enough to make me lose any money walking around asking people who represents them.
We could do the same exercise for Senate races. To be fair, last month saw chart-toppers like the one in Johnson County between Democrat Ethan Corson and Republican Laura McConwell for Kansas Sen. Barbara Bollier’s old seat, where more than 47,000 people voted in a district with more than 56,000 people over 18. (Corson won.)
If you’ve read this far, chances are high you’re an engaged, high-information voter who knows your state senator and representative. That’s great.
But we’ve just been through an election that might represent a reprieve for our threatened and fragile democracy. More important and difficult work lies ahead.
If you made sure your friends and neighbors voted in November, it’s time to make sure they know who represents them in Topeka and that they’re writing letters and making phone calls to those senators and reps (arguing with them and their supporters on their official Facebook pages might be cathartic, but it isn’t enough).
Of course this might seem futile. But don’t take it from me. Take it from departing Rep. Don Hineman, a Republican from Dighton, who once held the job of House Majority Leader.
“Pay attention,” Hineman told me in August. “There are a lot of issues that touch the Kansas Legislature that the average citizen is really not aware of, and that’s unfortunate. It’s supposed to be a representational form of government, but if the people aren’t paying attention and in active communication with their representatives, that representational aspect is diminished.”
And someday, I’d like to lose my person-on-the-street-doesn’t-know-who-represents-them bet.