Opinion

A year ago, I started a journey as Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Here’s what I’ve learned.

August 18, 2022 3:33 am

After a year on the job, Kansas Reflector opinion editor Clay Wirestone says he has learned several truths about the state. (Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism)

A year ago Tuesday, I came aboard the good ship Kansas Reflector as opinion editor. While my first column on the job promised big goals and lofty aspirations, I’ll admit that doubts lingered in the cobwebbed recesses of my mind.

Would the work make a difference? Would readers pay attention? Would they and I find it satisfying, both journalistically and creatively?

Thankfully, the answer to all of those questions has been a resounding yes. No, I don’t believe this section and my columns have changed the course of Kansas history, but I think they did a good job of reflecting that history over 12 months. In turbulent times like these, that counts for something.

According to my tally, this is the 123rd article I’ve written from Kansas Reflector’s opinion seat. Here’s more of what I’ve learned over the course of those columns.

 

Visitors to the Kansas Statehouse could be glimpsed at the bottom of the rotunda on the last regular session day of the Legislature. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)
Visitors to the Kansas Statehouse could be glimpsed at the bottom of the rotunda on the last regular session day of the Legislature. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Legislature is more badly broken than you imagine.

I thought I knew about the dysfunction at the Kansas Statehouse. I worked in nonprofit advocacy for four years before joining Kansas Reflector and had seen how seldom the needs of everyday Kansans were considered by legislators.

But I didn’t have the full picture.

Watching the full body over the past session taught me difficult lessons. Legislators obscured what they were doing, repeatedly and willfully. The worst derailed hearings and grabbed headlines by attacking the powerless. Worst of all, perhaps, leadership repeatedly ignored good policy and pursued their own power-hungry ends.

Medicaid expansion? Forget about it. Lowering barriers to public assistance? Nope. Not when there’s a Democratic governor to demonize.

 

Rep. Cheryl Helmer, right, and Rep. Michael Houser respond to having their picture taken during House action April 27, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Extremism has taken root in state politics, and we all have to be wary.

This doesn’t have to do with Democrats or Republicans. This has to do with the loudest voices in the room and how they manipulate the public.

You could see this happen in the debate over health measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Outspoken residents and legislators spread disinformation that put their fellow Kansans at risk. That’s just the start, of course. We also endured lies about critical race theory and transgender folks.

While outside groups have tried to quantify that extremism, they have fallen short. The news media and public at large have much work to do in shining a light on those who would breed hate and anger for political advantage.

 

Attendees at the Kansans for Constitutional Freedom watch party in Overland Park applaud after Kansans vote to keep abortion a constitutional right on Tuesday. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

When the stakes are high, Kansans come through.

With all of the above being said, I have to recognize the surprise abortion-rights victory Aug. 2.

Freedom contended with fundamentalist repression on the ballot. Our state chose freedom. That vote, and the nearly 20 percentage point rejection of extremism, suggests that Kansans are fully capable of grasping the stakes when fundamental rights are on the line.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote: “A state that was once known for its moderation and temperance has become, too often, a wannabe member of the confederacy.” For most of the last year, those words rang true for me.

After the vote, I have re-evaluated. Perhaps that moderation and temperance endures, slumbering somewhere underneath the plains, roused only by a genuine threat.

 

Columnist and documentarian Dave Kendall sent along this image of a crowd singing along with “Home on the Range” at the end of the 2021 Symphony in the Flint Hills concert. He wrote a piece about the event, and then shared video after a storm cut it short this year. (Dave Kendall)

So many of you have so much to say. Please keep doing so.

Kansas Reflector has been lucky to publish so many talented writers in the opinion section.

Max McCoy held down the Sunday column slot for much of the first year, until he decided to step aside. Since then, we’ve welcomed weekend work from Kansas poet laureate Huascar Medina, documentarian Dave Kendall, Mark McCormick, Inas Younis and Brenan Riffel, among others. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

But that’s not all! University of Kansas instructor Eric Thomas has held down the Friday columnist slot, first writing about podcasts and then widening his gaze. Throughout the rest of the week, we’ve welcomed contributions from throughout the state.

Interested in adding your voice to the mix? Send me an email at [email protected].

 

The Ad Astra statue aims high atop of the Kansas Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2022. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
The Ad Astra statue aims high atop of the Kansas Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2022. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector readers are the best.

The biggest surprise this past year has been the support and feedback I’ve received from readers. Two decades in journalism had prepared me for a chorus of catcalls and barrage of brickbats.

Instead, the Kansas Reflector’s opinion section has been welcomed. I’ve heard from so many readers who appreciate a different, people-focused take on news and politics. And while many progressives have gotten in touch, so have libertarians and conservatives. I might lean left, but I also value the honest and open exchange of ideas.

So, thank you. Thanks for the kindness you’ve shown me, and thanks as well for pointing out any missteps via Twitter. Thanks for following along throughout the last 12 months. I’m still learning, and I hope to keep learning until the primordial seas that once covered Kansas return.

Here’s to the next year and beyond.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.

MORE FROM AUTHOR