Kansas women unite in bipartisan effort to defeat Brownback, Kobach, Roberts

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There’s a group of women in Kansas who are fed up.

They’ve formed Women for Kansas, a bipartisan, grass-roots initiative aimed at unseating conservative Republicans in the upcoming election: Gov. Sam Brownback, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.

These women have found inspiration from their Suffragette ancestors by organizing the “Taking Back Kansas Convention: A Weekend with Purpose.” Five hundred women from 88 towns and cities across the state — from tiny Kensington (population 461)  to Kansas City suburb Overland Park are gathering in Wichita on Friday and Saturday to learn how to effect the changes they want.

“If the Suffragettes could rally through word-of-mouth and letters, then think of what we can do with our 21st century technology,” Lynn Stephan, a retired advertising executive chairing the Women for Kansas convention, told me.

One of the founding members of Women for Kansas, Stephan said she and other “like-minded” women (moderate, independent and progressive) started discussing what they could do back in April 2013.

“Women in this state are scared,” Stephan said. “We’re going broke” under the leadership of Brownback’s tea-party fiscal ideas. Schools and hospitals in some small towns may have to close, she said, and then “the town will dry up and blow away.”

Although she considers herself a moderate Republican, Stephan said that “the Republican party abandoned me 10 years ago.”

The makeup of Women for Kansas seems evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, said community organizer and consultant Laura Dungan, who led meetings in numerous communities. “It became very clear that they were against extremism in state government,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat together, regardless of party.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that women could look beyond party affiliation at the issues. A 2012 YWCA survey found that 80 percent of U.S. women agree on 80 percent of the issues.

Dungan said she asked women the question, “If you could change one thing about Kansas, what would it be?” Those answers led the group to develop a mission statement that includes the need for a fair, progressive tax system to fund public education, health care and the arts; voting rights for all citizens; a court system free from political influence; and equal access for immigrant families. To accomplish those goals, they need to shake up state government, starting with the governor.

That may not be as difficult as one might think in a traditionally Republican state. Brownback’s tea party fiscal plan, described as “a real live experiment” has led to economic woes, with a revenue shortfall, downgraded credit rating and increased poverty rate.

In the Republican primary earlier in August, challenger Jennifer Winn took 37 percent of the vote, even though she had just $13,000 to spend on a campaign. More than 100 current and former Republican officials have endorsed Democratic challenger state Rep. Paul Davis, who’s chosen Wichita financial adviser Jill Docking as his running mate.

Women for Kansas has targeted Secretary of State Kris Kobach for promoting one of the most restrictive voter registration laws in the country. His political career began with a stint on the city council of Overland Park, the suburb where I live, but just two years later he was serving as then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s chief advisrr on immigration and border security. In 2010 he was elected secretary of state.

His claims that illegal immigrants are committing voter fraud led to a state law that new voters in Kansas must prove they’re U.S. citizens. That’s not always a simple task: Evelyn Howard, a 92-year-old born at a midwife’s house in Minnesota, doesn’t have a birth certificate. She appealed to the election board, using her family Bible as proof she was born in this country.

Nearly 20,000 voters have their voting rights “in suspense” until they can prove their case.

“That’s enough to swing an election,” Stephan pointed out. Women for Kansas has backed Kobach’s Democratic challenger, Jean Schodorf, a former Republican state senator who switched parties after she lost her bid for reelection in 2012 as part of a statewide purge of moderates.

Then there’s Sen. Pat Roberts, a 78-year-old Republican seeking his fourth term who faced strong opposition in the primary. There’s no doubt he’s vulnerable. Women for Kansas has endorsed Greg Orman, an independent, rather than Democratic challenger Chad Taylor, the Shawnee County district attorney who was criticized for his decision not to prosecute misdemeanor cases of domestic violence.

That’s led to some contentious discussions on the Women for Kansas Facebook page – as people express doubts about Orman’s allegiance, while others have called for Taylor to leave the race and increase Orman’s chance of a win.

Kansas was the eighth state to give women the vote, and though it’s been a Republican stronghold, it was a gentler, more moderate brand in pre-tea party days. The state has elected two Democratic women as governors and sent Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker to the U.S. Senate from 1978 to 1997.

Now Kansas women want their state back. Up to 1,000 are expected for Friday night’s rally, while 500 registered participants will be inspired and motivated by an impressive roster of speakers Saturday, along with a forum featuring Davis, Docking, Shodorf and Orman emceed by the former chair of the Kansas Republican party.

“2014 could become the year of the woman voter in Kansas,” wrote Mark Peterson in an editorial for the Wichita Eagle. He pointed out that there are likely 650,000 women voters who might not bother with a mid-term election, yet their “fates are often deeply affected by public policy” and they “could affect the outcomes of elections at the state and federal levels.”

Maybe women in Kansas will inspire the rest of the country.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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