Opinion

Hey, Kansas Democrats: Your internal strife distracts activists when you can least afford it

June 2, 2022 12:45 pm
The Kansas state Democratic Party is grappling with allegations, published in the Kansas City Star, that its executive director created a toxic work environment. (Getty Images)

The Kansas state Democratic Party is grappling with allegations, published in the Kansas City Star, that its executive director created a toxic work environment. (Getty Images)

The headline in the Kansas City Star was the kind that no political organization of any stripe wants to see: “ ’He was a bully.’ KS Dems director made toxic workplace, ex-employees say. Party stands by him.”

Kansas Democratic Party executive director Ben Meers has been accused by four former employees of creating that aforementioned toxic environment. According to reporter Katie Bernard, the party commissioned an internal investigation that at least partly affirmed their claims. Party chairwoman Vicki Hiatt told the Star that several changes had been made in response.

But Meers remains head of the state party.

I know because I reached out to the Kansas Democrats, asking two questions. First, did they have anything to add to their responses in the Star? Second, was Meers still employed as executive director?

Hiatt confirmed he remained on the job (despite the party’s “KDP Team” staff page returning a 404 error) and offered the following statement:

“The Kansas Democratic Party worked swiftly to address these allegations, conducted an independent, third-party investigation, and has implemented multiple policies to improve the organization and workplace environment for all employees. Although this is an internal personnel matter, we remain committed to being a welcoming and inclusive workplace for our employees, and KDP’s current leadership team is eager to move forward together and continue to grow as a Party.”

The Kansas Young Democrats, who one might expect to be especially interested in the treatment of young staffers, closed ranks with a statement on Twitter: “The party has taken measures,” they wrote, “to ensure a situation like this does not occur in the future.” They did not specify what changes had taken place. Given the allegations of bullying recounted in the Star story, I struggle to imagine what those measures could be, short of hiring a new executive director.

I understand being a Democrat in Kansas isn't easy. It isn't fair. But with all of the headwinds that you face this year — attempting to keep the governor's office, fending off an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, clawing back seats in the Legislature — why waste time with internal infighting and vague assurances?

– Clay Wirestone

The state party could use some tough love right now.

Listen, guys. I understand being a Democrat in Kansas isn’t easy. It isn’t fair. But with all of the headwinds you face this year — attempting to keep the governor’s office, fending off an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, clawing back seats in the Legislature — why waste time with internal infighting and vague assurances? The young and politically involved throughout the state have read the news. They want to see a coherent response.

If you don’t believe the former staffers or think they overstated their complaints, say so.

If you believe the future of the party in our state depends on current leadership, say so.

If you believe Meers was disciplined sufficiently, say so and explain what you did.

Beating around the bush makes it seem as though you’re trying to shove something unpleasant under the rug. You might see it as an “internal personnel matter,” but when four people talk to the news media about their experiences, it becomes a heck of a lot less internal. It becomes a matter of concern for progressive voters across the entire state.

You don’t get the luxury of playing the same game as state Republicans. They have their sights set on power at all costs. They have money and voters motivated by lies pumped through the right-wing infotainment ecosystem. You have to play better, and at a higher level, to even compete.

Or as the Kansas Democratic Disability Caucus wrote in their Twitter statement: “Ignoring the issue and hoping that it goes away is not a path that the party should take as the party heads into the next 5 months of campaign season.”

I understand. Politics, public service and activism can take a profound toll.

I’ve known folks who worked for campaigns, state parties and elected officials in multiple states. They either burn out or build up a hardened carapace to withstand incessant abuse. Long-suffering Kansas Democrats have the most to gain by changing that depressing equation, though. What if people joyfully wanted to serve and contribute? What if Kansans flocked to the political arena and were excited about the prospect of being involved?

The Kansas Democratic Party could lead the way. It might take a different executive director.

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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. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years 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.

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