Like Quantrill’s violent raiders, GOP legislators in Kansas aim to stifle Lawrence progressives

January 20, 2022 3:33 am

Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson’s eyes hover above downtown Lawrence. The city would be stripped of its voice in U.S. congressional elections under a new redistricting proposal. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, Masterson image Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Republicans in the Kansas Legislature are on the brink of accomplishing what pro-slavery forces in 1863 couldn’t quite manage: Silencing the progressives of Lawrence.

Back then, William Quantrill and his raiders set much of the town ablaze and massacred more than 100. Lawrence was a free state stronghold, fiercely opposed to slavery, and its residents were a threat to the South’s ambitions. Republicans these days see Lawrence as no less a threat to their political goals, but they’re not looking to burn it to the ground.

Instead, they propose to cancel the votes of everyone who lives there.

That was the takeaway from Tuesday’s redistributing hearings in the state House and Senate, where GOP leaders released their proposals for the once-a-decade redrawing of state congressional maps. Lawrence, which had been in the 2nd District, has been placed into an improbably gargantuan 1st District stretching all the way to the Colorado border. The greater Kansas City area also was targeted by partisans, with deep-blue Wyandotte County being split between two districts.

Today, though, I want to concentrate on Lawrence. The 2nd District saw Republican Jake LaTurner defeat Democrat Michelle De La Isla by 55.1% to 40.6% in the 2020 congressional race. Not a fabulous result for the Democrat, but not an embarrassment. Lawrence residents could at least envision a future where a different candidate might generate a different result.

The 1st District offers no such hope. In 2020, Republican Tracey Mann steamrolled Democrat Kali Barnett, 71.2% to 28.8%. Gerrymandering Lawrence voters into this district ensures their votes for U.S. representative won’t count for at least the next 10 years.

Quantrill would be envious.

A map proposed by Republicans in the House and Senate would place Lawrence in the 1st District, which stretches to the Colorado border, and split Wyandotte County between 2nd and 3rd districts. (Submitted)


Advance warning

This was all telegraphed in advance. Former Senate President Susan Wagle made it plain as day in her 2020 remarks to Wichita’s Pachyderm Club.

“So redistricting, it’s right around the corner,” Wagle said. “And if Governor Kelly can veto a Republican bill that gives us four Republican congressmen, that takes out Sharice Davids up in the 3rd — we can do that. I guarantee you we can draw four Republican congressional maps. But we can’t do it unless we have a two-thirds majority in the Senate and House.”

Wagle was emphasizing the importance of electing a veto-proof majority of Republicans. Her secondary message, however, was that Republicans wanted to defeat our state’s sole Democratic congresswoman through redistricting.

Her allies in the Legislature added another goal: teaching liberal Lawrence a lesson.

Historians have questioned Quantrill’s self-created legend, but there’s no doubt that his men killed many Kansans and set Lawrence ablaze. Today’s Republican legislators don’t want that. They enjoy visiting Lawrence for dinner or to watch the University of Kansas men’s basketball team play. They stroll along Massachusetts Street, visiting shops on a pleasant spring day. Some even (gasp) went to the University of Kansas themselves.

They’re perfectly willing to exploit the town for their own purposes. They just don’t want to allow its residents to choose U.S. representatives.

A simple look at returns from the last presidential election explains everything. Joe Biden won 68% of the vote in Douglas County, where Lawrence is the largest city by far. Donald Trump won just 28.8%. In the state as a whole, Trump received 56.2% of the vote to Biden’s 41.6%.

In 2020, Susan Wagle, a Republican who was then president of the Kansas Senate, said Republicans could redraw self-serving legislative and congressional districts as long as they have a two-thirds majority in the Statehouse to override a veto by Gov. Laura Kelly. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Massachusetts Street

Wednesday afternoon, I drove to Massachusetts Street, the heart of Lawrence. Given that the town was founded by New England abolitionists, this downtown corridor could scarcely be named anything else (New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island streets are nearby).

I was looking for a revelation, a convenient metaphor for what makes this community special. I’ve lived here longer than any other place in my four decades, so I’m an evangelist for the charms of Lawrence. Surely, I thought, I can find something here to show my readers how appallingly Republicans have treated this magical place.

Folks, it took awhile.

Perhaps a mid-January day in the middle of a pandemic wave wasn’t the ideal time. Precious few people walked up and down the sidewalk. The air was bitingly cold, with temperatures in the low 20s. Even the sky refused to cooperate, with gray clouds stretching from horizon to horizon.

Historic Massachusetts Street looked fairly ordinary, even a little bedraggled given the conditions. Maybe that’s the point, I thought as I returned to my car after snapping a few perfunctory photos. Every town is special — and ordinary — in its own way.

Every town deserves fair representation, regardless of party affiliation.

Quantrill may have only targeted Lawrence. But no town, in Kansas or anywhere else, deserved the violence wrought by his men. Likewise, no town deserves to be singled out for partisan punishment through the redistricting process.

Massachusetts Street in Lawrence was overcast and cold on Wednesday afternoon. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Clay spent 2017 to 2021 at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.