Now that the 2021 Kansas Legislative regular session has stumbled to a close, what should we make of the political psychopathy of lawmakers like Aaron Coleman and Gene Suellentrop? These rough beasts arrived at public service from wildly different paths, yet the boorish and reckless behaviors of these cultural opposites have come to define a session that has left many of us gobsmacked with outrage.
Last year, then 19-year-old Coleman defeated a seven-term incumbent in the Democratic primary for a Kansas House seat. Coleman, a Kansas City, Kansas, dishwasher who lives with his mother, won the primary by just 14 votes. He went on to claim the general election on a “New Green Deal” platform that appealed to Wyandotte County liberals. It included defunding the police, making college tuition free and legalizing marijuana. None of these ideas is particularly alarming in the current political landscape, and a couple of them, if by some miracle they could be achieved, would at least make Kansas a little hipper, if not happier. There is also no shame in being a dishwasher; it is an honest job, and difficult. Living with a parent? Many young people do.
What is damning is Coleman’s history of violence against women, including alleged incidents of spreading revenge porn in middle school, choking an ex-girlfriend, bullying, harassing and threatening rape. We can and should forgive mistakes that young people make while still in middle school, but Coleman has exhibited a disturbing pattern of behavior, going up to 2014, that is unacceptable in any circumstances. Oh, did I mention he once proposed a political “hit” on Gov. Laura Kelly?
Coleman refused calls for his resignation. A special House committee eventually dismissed a complaint and opted instead for a public letter of admonishment. After his caucus stripped him of committee assignments, Coleman declared himself unaffiliated, but rejoined the Democrats three weeks later.
Suellentrop, the 69-year-old majority leader of the Kansas Senate, was stripped of his leadership role in a secret meeting of his caucus after being charged in Shawnee County District Court with a felony account of fleeing police. That and lesser charges, including drunk driving, stem from an early morning escapade in March during which Suellentrop, a Wichita businessman, allegedly drove his white SUV the wrong way on Interstate 70, narrowly missing a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper and other motorists. Refusing a breathalyzer, he was arrested and taken to a local hospital where, while waiting for his blood to be drawn, he called a KHP trooper “donut boy” and mused that, as a former high school athlete, he could take the officer. His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit.
Suellentrop owns a company called, no kidding, “In the Sauce Brands.” It includes Gambino’s Pizza, which operates the kind of place that Coleman might have once worked as a dishwasher.
The now-former majority leader’s antics made national news, further burnishing the image of our state as the natural habitat for lunatics.
Some years ago, Suellentrop had received national ink in The New York Times Magazine in a piece about the “Kansas Experiment” written by his nephew, Chris Suellentrop, a former story editor for the publication. Chris described his uncle as an ally of Sam Brownback and a brainstormer with Dave Trabert, head of the radical pro-business Kansas Policy Institute. He also said Gene Suellentrop was a bit goofy. The 2015 piece starts with Chris recalling how Uncle Gene would sometimes do a silly dance move called “the worm.”
On the whole, it is a nicely written piece, with partisan warrior Uncle Gene rendered as if in an old photograph and the nephew retaining a respectable amount of professional distance. But there is one line, introducing the story’s nut paragraph — the part that tells you why, dear reader, you should care about the story — that is oddly prophetic.
“But when you think of Gene Suellentrop — and you do think of him, even if you don’t know it yet — you just might regard him as a blight on the Republic.”
Even before Uncle Gene’s encounter with the Kansas Highway Patrol, he was a national political metaphor just waiting for a name. Now, he is not just the name but the face — no, the mugshot — of the long-controlling party of the Kansas Legislature. He’s a hardshell Brownbackian who represents the fossilized thinking that nearly sank the state five years ago and just might manage it this time. Suellentrop lost his leadership position but clings to his Senate seat. He and his colleagues operate as if Donald Trump were still in power, and they spend their time solving nonexistent problems by persecuting transgender student athletes and pursuing crackpot legislation that would sanction government entities for competing, somehow, with the private sector.
The image of a white SUV — and yes, the color does matter — speeding the wrong way down a Kansas interstate with a drunken and belligerent Suellentrop at the wheel is the perfect political cartoon symbol for this legislative session. As a leader of the party that touts “personal responsibility,” Suellentrop exhibited a selfish personal irresponsibility that endangered himself and others. We’re all in the path of that white SUV barreling toward us in the wrong lane, we can see the white knuckles and the bloodshot eyes of the angry driver, but there’s damned little we can do about it.
The Kansas GOP has repeatedly endangered all of us with its anti-science and anti-public health stands on masks, contact tracing and Medicaid expansion; its members have encouraged the Trumpian lies about a stolen presidential election; and it bullies by passing legislation that vilifies vulnerable populations.
Now, back to Aaron Coleman.
Faced with the lack of political will in the Republican-controlled House to oust Coleman, Democrats may have felt helpless to do more with their troublesome colleague. That he was given a stern letter and told to find a mentor by a bipartisan committee, however, just isn’t enough. His behavior should have been enough for all lawmakers, no matter their stripe, to want him gone. Coleman’s pattern of abuse toward women and casual threats of violence should summarily disqualify him for holding any kind of elected office. In most businesses, it would disqualify him from even washing the dishes.
Both Suellentrop and Coleman should resign. Immediately.
Neither will, of course. Shame is no longer part of the political calculus.
But ultimately, it isn’t their colleagues in the Kansas House and Senate who bear responsibility for keeping these clowns in public office. It’s Kansas voters. We must vote with more care, and aim toward the center, to select candidates who are better aligned with the values most of us hold. Those values include, but are not limited to, respecting women and not driving drunk and threatening to fight police officers.