Opinion

In 2022, Kansas Reflector staffers covered shocking upsets and indispensable public policy

These six stories sum up a year packed with politicking, elections and surprise

January 2, 2023 3:33 am
Dawn Rattan, right, cries and applauds Aug. 2, 2022, at the Kansans for Constitutional Freedom watch party after learning Kansans had defeated a constitutional amendment to remove abortion rights. (Lily O'Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

Dawn Rattan cries and applauds at the Kansans for Constitutional Freedom watch party after Kansans vote to keep abortion a constitutional right on Tuesday. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

I’m pretty sure that 2022 took the usual 365 days. Yet it felt like several callithumpian years packed into one.

We started by fighting a monstrous COVID-19 hangover, with the omicron variant tearing through Kansas and the Statehouse. We endured a nasty legislative session, along with redistricting and a subsequent court battle. But that was just a beginning. Roe v. Wade was overturned, and Kansas’ abortion amendment vote in August only brought us eight months along. We then swept into an epic midterm campaign season. Candidates’ hair-on-fire rhetoric accompanied us to Election Day and beyond.

That’s just the start! Did we witness culture wars over Black history and LGBTQ students? We sure did, in several different waves throughout the year. Did we boggle at a $4 billion dollar Panasonic megaproject announcement over the summer? Yep. Did Emporia State University suspend tenure and fire a bunch of professors? Indeed.

Also, and this actually happened, Dr. Anthony Fauci muttered, “What a moron. Jesus Christ,” after some particularly dumb questioning from Kansas’ own U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall.

Before the holidays, Kansas Reflector staff gathered in our Topeka office to record a podcast wrapping up the year. Editor Sherman Smith, senior reporter Tim Carpenter and reporter Rachel Mipro chatted with me about their most-read stories of 2022. They also highlighted stories that didn’t see the same traffic, but were still important for understanding the ever-so-paroxysmal 2022.

Add them all together, and we have six stories. They follow, along with links and pithy comments.

 

Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, gives a speech at a watch party after Kansans vote to keep abortion a constitutional right on Tuesday. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

1. Kansas voters defeat abortion amendment in unexpected landslide (August 2, by Sherman Smith and Lily O’Shea-Becker)

OVERLAND PARK — Kansas voters in a landslide Tuesday defeated a constitutional amendment that would have stripped residents of abortion rights, defying polling and political observers who expected a close result.

The ballot measure was failing by a 60-40 margin late Tuesday after voters responded to an intense and costly campaign marked by dubious claims by amendment supporters and the unraveling of protections by the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

The biggest 2022 Kansas story by the length of several football fields, the rejection of an anti-abortion amendment by Kansas voters shocked national pundits. It surprised me too, as I expected the vote to at least be close. It wasn’t, with voters rejecting anti-abortion extremism by nearly 20 percentage points. As I wrote at the time, it turns out that constitutional protections for bodily autonomy do pretty well at the ballot box. What does that mean for state politics going forward? I’m not sure anyone has seriously grappled with the question yet.

Additional coverage:

 

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)

2. Johnson County sheriff threatens to deploy ‘army’ of deputies against IRS agents (Sept. 9, by Tim Carpenter)

TOPEKA — Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden said a federal law allowing the Internal Revenue Service to add 87,000 employees posed a threat to people in Kansas’ most populous county and could require deployment of deputies to repel tax investigators.

Hayden, who described the IRS as a “spooky, spooky entity,” generated applause from a group of about 30 people during a two-hour open meeting at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department headquarters with a promise to protect their homes as if they were castles.

 

Hayden’s embrace of election conspiracy theories generated statewide headlines. But Carpenter noticed the sheriff’s bellicose rhetoric about IRS agents and whipped up the Reflector’s second most-read news story of the year. Despite touting egregious nonsense, Hayden notched a substantial win the November election. An amendment guaranteeing that sheriff posts like his would continue to be elected — as opposed to appointed by county commissions looking to tamp down controversy — sailed through.

Additional coverage:

 

A view of books inside the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library in St. Marys
The Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library’s lease may not be renewed by the St. Mary’s City Commission. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

3. Future of Kansas town’s library in jeopardy over refusal to remove ‘divisive’ books (Nov. 14, by Rachel Mipro)

ST. MARYS — Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library is decorated for the holidays, with a snow-filled tiny Christmas village placed in the center of the book stacks. There’s a princess mural on one wall, complete with a unicorn, and a dinosaur figurine over by the children’s nook.

All of it might be gone come January.

The city council is debating whether to renew the library’s lease with the city following the library’s refusal to accept a lease clause asking it to remove all material that could be viewed as socially, racially or sexually divisive, including all LGBTQ content.

 

I didn’t have “book banning becomes all the rage again” on my 2022 bingo card, but perhaps I should have. Tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons has gained newfound popularity, after all. Why not resurrect another moral panic from the early 1980s? The truly positive outcome of the St. Marys fracas was that more people heard about Alex Gino’s “Melissa,” a sensitive novel about a transgender student.

Additional coverage:

 

The Kansas Legislature discourages public involvement by obscuring the policymaking process. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Legislature discourages public involvement by obscuring the policymaking process. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

4. Analysis: How the Kansas Legislature avoids public scrutiny by hiding in darkness (May 8, by Sherman Smith)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature shields itself from public scrutiny through secrecy, confusing shell games and silenced opposition.

Republicans who control the legislative process conduct hearings with selective one-sided testimony and provide no advance notice of a committee’s plans to take action on significant legislation.

They refuse to acknowledge the authors or special interests involved in writing state policy. They may even delay the filing of a bill so that it can’t be reviewed by news reporters or opponents before holding a hearing on it.

 

Smith doesn’t often venture into analysis territory. When he does, watch out. This scathing summary of Kansas legislative leaders’ shortcuts, obfuscation and bad faith should be read by anyone interested in knowing how state government really works. It might come as an unwelcome surprise, and that’s the point. No matter your ideological beliefs or party, Kansans deserve better than its current, deeply flawed Statehouse and those who enable it.

Additional coverage:

 

Gov. Laura Kelly, flanked by family and Lt. Gov. David Toland, left, addresses supporters late Tuesday at her watch party in downtown Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

5. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly wins reelection over Republican challenger Derek Schmidt (Nov. 9, by Sherman Smith)
Democrat Davids wins reelection to U.S. House along with Kansas’ three GOP incumbents (Nov. 8, by Tim Carpenter)
Kobach wins Kansas AG race, vows to fight Biden administration (Nov. 9, by Rachel Mipro)

Carpenter grouped these three stories together during our podcast, and for good reason. All three of these election results came as at least a slight surprise. Pundits saw Democrat Kelly’s re-election race in deep-red Kansas as a stretch. Republicans redistricted the state’s congressional districts to make U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids vulnerable to Amanda Adkins. And Kris Kobach had lost two races in a row before tossing his hat in the ring for attorney general. All three won Nov. 8.

Additional coverage:

 

A "vote here" sign is displayed next to a tree outside the Shawnee County Election Office
Disabled voters in Kansas face barriers when trying to vote, advocates say. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

6. Kansas voters with disabilities blocked by restrictive legislation, voting rights advocates say (Oct. 20, by Rachel Mipro)

TOPEKA — Kansas voting rights advocates say legislation passed over the past two years hurts disabled voters and voters of color in Kansas, diminishing their ability to cast ballots in the November election.

Ami Hyten, executive director of the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center, said she was concerned about the effect of 2021 legislation on disabled voters, highlighting House Bills 2183 and 2332.

 

What does the right to vote actually mean? Rachel Mipro, who started at the Reflector in September, wrote about that thorny question in her 2022 pick. While battling nonexistent voter fraud, the Kansas Legislature ended up making it more difficult for disabled people and people of color to cast ballots. Add the congressional redistricting mentioned above, which split Wyandotte County, and you have a state where votes were diluted and obstructed.

Additional coverage:

We’re about to find out what comes next for Kansas.

The Legislature returns next week, full of vim and vigor and eager to match wits with Gov. Kelly. Reflector staff will be on hand to report what happens and find out what they don’t want you to know. This opinion section will put politicking in perspective and champion transparent, representative government.

Thanks for following along with us in 2022. Please join us for all the wild and wooly escapades and imbroglios of 2023.

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. 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.

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