In Johnson County and Emporia, a sheriff and college president unravel the fabric of Kansas

September 19, 2022 3:33 am
Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden gives a speech in June about election fraud. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden gives a speech in June about election fraud. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Watching Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden from afar, I can’t shake the suspicion that he’s actually a 19-year-old anarchist from Lawrence — coated in old-age makeup and destroying a law enforcement agency from within.

How else could I possibly explain Hayden’s descent into right-wing fever dreams and seeming endorsement of “slippery” actions? Kansas Reflector senior reporter Tim Carpenter wrote about a meeting between the public and sheriff on Aug. 30 that has to be read to be believed. Looking through it, I counted one wild tangent after another.

Lawrence arrests. Hayden apparently wanted “nothing more than go down Mass. Street and arrest them all,” referring to protesters in Lawrence.

For reference, Lawrence sits in an entirely different county that’s not under Hayden’s jurisdiction. Yes, yes, he was referring to a mutual aid request, but I for one would love a law enforcement official to be excited about defending the First Amendment, rather than shutting down those exercising the right to peaceably assemble.

IRS ire. “They’re going to have to have every IRS agent in the United States come to Johnson County, Kansas, before they start doing the crap they’re doing,” Hayden proclaimed in response to the IRS finally being funded and able to hire new personnel. “We’re going to be 500 strong, and we’ll do what we need to do.”

In other words, the sheriff wants to deploy his forces to defend a bunch of Johnson County tax cheats.

Polling place photos. “Be slippery about it,” the sheriff told someone asking about the legality of taking photos of suspicious documents at polling places, “if you do it.” He noted that officials would be “touchy, crazy if they see you doing it.”

He later told the Shawnee Mission Post that he wasn’t encouraging the audience to violate the law: “Oh, gosh no, not at all. That would be wholly inappropriate.” Good to know Hayden understands what to say after being caught on video, at least.

You couldn’t invent a persona more likely to erode public faith in the institution of law enforcement.

As the Kansas City Star editorial board noted earlier this month, no wonder Hayden can’t manage to attract employees for the sheriff’s office. He’s trashed the reputation of his county and embraced theories that undermine the rule of law — just as those hated hippies of Lawrence would want.

Hayden and his defenders would claim he’s simply representing the people who elected him. But I can’t recall the last hotly contested county sheriff’s race. Folks don’t think about the position often.


Emporia State University president Ken Hush, right, received approval from the Kansas Board of Regents to deploy a policy designed to expedite personnel and program reform. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Emporia State University president Ken Hush, right, received approval from the Kansas Board of Regents to deploy a policy designed to expedite personnel and program reform. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Meanwhile in Emporia

To the west, Emporia State University president Ken Hush has raised my suspicions as well.

Does the college leader actually have the Koch Industries-affiliated background he claims, or is he secretly a 22-year-old Noam Chomsky fan in elaborate drag? How else could he botch more thoroughly or completely the work of higher education?

Hush has managed to discredit his former employer and the college for which he works, tossing out tenure and firing dozens of beloved faculty in supposed pursuit of fiscal sustainability.

Anyone who has bothered to think about the situation for more than five minutes understands just how ruinous such actions are. Yes, they exact a horrific toll on the college and local communities. But they will make it difficult to recruit new staff, not to mention new students. No one wants to go work at an institution where administrators can fire faculty at random, and no one wants to study at an institution where your degree program could vanish tomorrow.

Earlier this summer, Hush seemed to understand the challenge.

“We have professors that are also leaving and going into higher paying jobs elsewhere,” he said, according to Kansas Reflector coverage. “We have a talent drain.”

To put it plainly, Hush has shown himself to be almost cartoonishly oblivious, produced by a culture that values extracting planet-killing chemicals from the earth over investing in our shared social good.

As Kansas Reflector columnist Max McCoy wrote last week, the president’s previous employment history includes running “a Koch company that specialized in bulk commodities of coal and petroleum coke, and contributed heavily to a PAC that funded candidates who were often climate change deniers.”

Hush sounds like a character in a satirical play written by our Chomsky-loving twentysomething.

Her graduate English professor would send back the piece with a notation to rework the “college president” role into someone a bit more believable. The professor would also note that the play’s depiction of a university destroying entire humanities departments was too on the nose in this age of corporatized higher education.

Before any corrections could be made, though, Hush would fire that professor.


The Kansas Flint Hills stretch out near Matfield Green. For the purposes of the proposed North American Grasslands Conservation Act, “grasslands” includes tallgrass, mixed grass, and shortgrass, native prairie, sagebrush shrub-steppe, savanna grasslands, glades, and other related grassland ecosystems. (Shawna Bethell/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Flint Hills stretch out near Matfield Green. (Shawna Bethell/Kansas Reflector)

Not conservative, not liberal

If we take Hayden and Hush at face value — if they’re not actually characters created by youthful socialists trying to score ideological points — then we see two men who exemplify the limits of our current political rhetoric.

Both claim they’re preserving moral and social goods. Hayden stands for law enforcement, while Hush stands for education. Traditionally, committing oneself to such preservation of long-valued principles would earn you the label of conservative.

Yet each man, in their zeal to pursue extreme ends, has ended up threatening the very thing they profess to serve.

Hayden can’t hire enough officers. He’s embroiled in a cold war with other Johnson County officials while pursuing nonexistent voting fraud. If residents of the increasingly blue-hued county don’t believe he’s representing them, the sheriff’s department risks losing legitimacy.

Hush has dismissed 7% of Emporia State’s professors and plans to transform the institution with his business knowledge. Yet, to state the blindingly obvious, a public university doesn’t have the same structure or goals as a private business. Everyone in Emporia will suffer.

You can call these men’s actions many things. But they aren’t conservative.

Both Hayden and Hush have become reactionary radicals, together working to unravel the shared community fabric of our state. And as long as they hold their current jobs, that unraveling will continue.


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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited 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, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent 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.