Opinion

The ‘blue dot’ of Lawrence, Kansas, will soon have a new congressman. No one’s talking about it.

October 31, 2022 3:33 am
A view of downtown Lawrence, Kansas

Downtown Lawrence shimmers with fall colors as the campaign season rushes toward Election Day. The city will soon have a new congressman representing residents in Washington, D.C. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Lawrence, a vivid blue dot in the sea of red that is Kansas, could soon be represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by a Republican who opposes abortion rights and voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

If the Democrat in the race wins, he would have to drive more than five hours from his home in Garden City to visit Lawrence.

Such are the real-word implications of gerrymandered redistricting.

With so many high-profile races contested next month, a vitally important one has been going on underneath our noses. Incumbent GOP Rep. Tracey Mann is running to retain his 1st District seat against Democrat Jimmy Beard. Their district, which already bordered Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma, now extends to Lawrence. Even though the redrawn map clearly intends to dilute the college town’s political influence, the Kansas Supreme Court approved it back in May.

Lawrence now faces a remarkable situation. The city and county in which it’s located will make up 13% of the 1st District beginning next year. It’s the biggest municipality in the district. Yet we have seen little of either candidate.

Mann appears to have not campaigned or made an official visit since the map change. Few in Lawrence seem conscious of the race, focusing instead on contests for governor and attorney general. The voices of nearly 100,000 Kansans are being silenced, partly through sheer lack of information.

Such an oversight threatens the city and its flagship institution, the University of Kansas. Both hold vital social and economic roles for the state of Kansas. The congressman who represents Lawrence, regardless of his party, will have an outsized influence on federal resources and owes constituents here time and attention.

 

A map produced 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)
The new Kansas congressional map place Lawrence in the 1st District, which stretches to the Colorado border and reaches from Nebraska to Oklahoma. You can see the inclusion of Lawrence in the light blue notch to the upper right. (Submitted)

Quiet candidates

I couldn’t establish that Mann has visited Lawrence in his role as a candidate or U.S. representative since the state’s congressional maps were changed.

I reached out to Mann’s campaign, to his office in Washington, D.C., and even to his social media channels. I had two simple questions. First, I wanted to know if he had come to Lawrence as a candidate this cycle. Secondly, I wanted to know if he would be dropping by more frequently once the city becomes part of his district.

No one responded.

I then asked Mackenzie Clark of the Lawrence Times if she or her staff had been contacted by Mann’s campaign or were aware of any visits he made in the city. Clark wrote back that, to the best of her knowledge, he hadn’t shown up.

Internet and Facebook searches didn’t turn up anything either. From what I could tell, Mann’s only mention of Lawrence on his official congressional Facebook page is of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

As for Beard, in an interview on WIBW-TV on Oct. 12, he told anchor Melissa Brunner that he had traveled from Topeka to Lawrence and back to Topeka that day. His Facebook page includes photos from a Douglas County Democratic forum. So at least he knows the town exists.

I also reached out to Beard’s campaign through multiple avenues. He didn’t respond, either.

Listen, I’m sure that both men could make good cases for why they should represent Lawrence in Washington, D.C. Mann also appeared in a WIBW-TV interview a couple of weeks after Beard and answered Brunner’s questions.

 

Signs for a variety of candidates running in Douglas County are displayed in a neighborhood yard. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Cross-town research

With congressional candidates scarce on the ground in Lawrence, I wondered how residents felt about the campaign. Did they know who might represent them? Did they know they would be voting for a congressmen at all?

I conducted an exceptionally informal and unscientific survey on Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence. Between the local music store and bookstore, I spoke to six folks, all of voting age.

Not one of them could name Mann unprompted.

Three of them had heard of Lawrence moving into the 1st District, suggesting that coverage from earlier this year reached those who follow politics. Surprisingly, two of them had heard of Beard. Given the city’s blue dot status, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Driving around town, I’ve seen no lawn signs promoting Mann, while Beard’s name has popped up rarely. You can spot plenty of Laura Kelly placards, along with a handful of Derek Schmidt ones. Folks here have followed the governor’s race intently. You can even see signs a block or two from my home advocating a range of Democratic candidates: attorney general candidate Chris Mann, secretary of state hopeful Jeanna Repass and incumbent state Rep. Boog Highberger.

This town follows politics and cares about it. But not, apparently, a U.S. congressional race.

 

Rep. Tracey Mann, who represents the 1st District, speaks to a crowd in September 2022. He’s running for reelection. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

How we got here

All of this seems to be intentional.

Not on the part of Lawrence residents, but on the part of GOP state legislators who supported the gerrymandered map. They figured that breaking off Lawrence from other more suburban districts would not only silence voters here, but make competing for those voters unimportant. A Republican candidate like Mann could safely ignore the blue dot.

Frankly, Mann looks to be taking his reelection for granted. The Tracey Mann: Republican for Congress campaign website and accompanying Facebook page don’t appear to have been updated this year. His website has an entire section about standing with then-current President Donald Trump.

Beard has done more recent posting through his website and Facebook page (it has 113 followers), but the Kansas Democratic Party has committed money and time to other races. That may be the correct decision, but it still leaves Lawrence on its own.

Back when the state Supreme Court upheld the state’s new congressional districts, Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, Vice President Rick Wilborn, and Majority Leader Larry Alley issued a statement that shows just how cynically they view the entire process.

They wrote: “In this case, following a lengthy and deliberative process, the Legislature listened and took input from Kansans and enacted a set of maps that are fair for all and are consistent with the historically recognized redistricting guidelines.”

What’s happened to Lawrence is hardly fair.

The size of the district, the approach of the Republican candidate and the political context of the year have all combined to saddle this city with a barely visible race. Regardless of the outcome next month, the 1st District representative owes Lawrence more than condescending nods.

Garden City teacher Jimmy Beard, a Democrat, said public education, responsible taxation and legalizing marijuana are among his top priorities should he be elected to represent Kansas’ 1st Congressional District. (Noah Taborda/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. 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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