Brett Parker seemed a little shocked.
Earlier this month, the Democrat from Overland Park announced he was resigning his seat in the Kansas House of Representatives to lead a Stacey Abrams-inspired statewide community organizing effort. Joining him is former Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier, whose run for the U.S. Senate last year raised high hopes but met a defeat deeper than that hand-dug well.
In his five years at the Capitol, Parker said, he’d seen a lot of cynical things. But watching the state’s anti-abortion organization, Kansans For Life, push for for bills that would make it harder to vote felt like a new low.
“I’ve seen them do other egregious things, but all of that was kind of revolving around, at the very least, the topic of health care,” Parker said, recalling how the organization had opposed Medicaid expansion by saying it would create taxpayer funded abortions. Which is not really true.
One of the Legislature’s first orders of business this year was to place a constitutional amendment on a statewide ballot so voters can make sure that Kansans don’t have the right to abortions. This was so desperately urgent that the election isn’t until August of 2022.
Another priority of the Republican supermajority was making it harder to vote. In April, Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed two bills imposing new restrictions on elections. One of them, HB 2183, had passed in the House four votes shy of the total necessary to override a veto.
“Then Kansans for Life employed lobbyists, sent emails and made phone calls saying an override was a pro-life vote somehow — that it’s pro-life to block pro-choice voters from voting, would be the justification? That really surprised me,” Parker said.
“The integrity of our elections in Kansas is more important than ever,” read the emails that began flooding lawmakers’ in-boxes when they returned to Topeka with intentions of overriding the governor.
“With the VALUE THEM BOTH Amendment on the ballot next year, abortion extremists will take advantage of current Kansas election laws in an effort to defeat the amendment and ensure that abortion is unlimited and unregulated,” they read. “Surely you can agree that private interest groups and the abortion industry should not be financing or unduly influencing the election process in Kansas.”
Perfectly fine, though, for anti-abortion groups to influence the election process in Kansas. The first week in May, four Republicans flipped to override.
Parker said he’s watched Kansans for Life “wield tremendous power” since he took office in 2017.
“My first year, we had to vote on 24-hour consent forms — we voted on mandating those forms be printed on white paper, in Times New Roman 12-point font, because Kansans for Life needed a vote to score for that year, so they could say who the people they support are,” Parker said.
A couple of years later there was “a toothless resolution shaming the state of New York for their abortion laws,” Parker said, characterizing that vote as another opportunity for Kansans for Life to keep “a scorecard.”
Countering the influence of Kansans for Life wasn’t the main reason Parker gave me for starting the new organizing effort, called Prairie Roots. But if they’re successful, maybe the balance of power in Kansas politics could shift to something that doesn’t feel quite so directly out of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Still, I had questions.
Shifting that balance of power seems daunting in a state with 856,026 registered Republicans compared to 499,699 Democrats (and 530,240 unaffiliateds, as of this month). And where Democrats have left a lot of territory uncontested.
“Most of the people who voted in Kansas in 2020 voted for the party in power right now,” Parker acknowledged. “But 29% of registered voters didn’t vote. What does it look like to reach out to that crowd in a longer-term way and have real conversations with those folks?”
He knows some might never turn out to vote and some might keep voting the same way.
“But I bet some care about affordable health care and public schools, and frankly oppose the kind of cynicisms we see in Kansas Republican politics or Kansans for Life,” he said.
And the point isn’t to knock on doors only when candidates are running.
“We wanted to look at what are things that we can do that will continue to bear fruit year in and year out regardless of whose name’s on the ballot,” Parker said.
They’ll start with training sessions for people who want to have these conversations in communities all around the state, big and small — a prospect that feels especially fraught when some former friends and relatives no longer speak with each other because of politics, or when the next-door neighbor who used to babysit you now flies a Gadsden flag.
“We’re teaching the sort of deep canvassing skills of engaging maybe not your lifelong neighbor but someone a few blocks away you’ve never met,” Parker said.
That investment in “people-to-people infrastructure” might not bring an immediate return.
“Would we like to see Kansas elect better United States senators down the road? Absolutely,” Parker said.
But that won’t be their only measure of success.
“It also matters just to get folks who aren’t involved in the civic process involved. I want Kansans to have ownership over what’s happening,” he said. “So much of what happens in the Statehouse or D.C. is off the radar for people, but they have a lot at stake in what’s going on.”
Because you know what would be really shocking? A world in which Kansans for Life isn’t the loudest voice in the Capitol.