Dinah Sykes is a member of the Kansas State Senate.
Compromise, common sense and listening to all sides of an issue don’t seem like countercultural values. Certainly, in the home I grew up in they weren’t. My parents belonged to separate political parties, and those values were part of the air I breathed.
But in my state’s Republican Party, such values have become increasingly difficult to find. And that’s why I’ve decided to leave the party.
I ran for office because I strongly believe that elected officials should serve the people they represent. They should take the time to hear from those on all sides of an issue and consider how people's lives are affected by policies. I didn’t see this from the incumbent, so I ran for a seat in the Kansas legislature.
There, I identified with and developed friendships with moderate women in both parties who embodied this kind of principled compromise and common sense. Despite the work of then-Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, to purge state government (and the Republican Party) of moderates, I believed the best way to fight for my state was to work with my moderate friends to try to reverse those changes; in fact, that’s what I had been elected to do. It’s what the people wanted. However, I quickly discovered during my own service what many of my moderate friends already knew: The changes were deeper and much more pervasive than I thought. To many in the Republican Party, “bipartisan” had become a dirty word.
I witnessed party bosses reinforce this message numerous times by punishing caucus members who disagreed with their leadership. I was even threatened early in my first session for advocating an end to Brownback’s failed tax experiment, a key issue in my campaign and one that the people of my district supported. When a fixed ideological position was put ahead of the people I serve and their wishes, I knew that was unacceptable.
Making matters worse were almost daily emails from constituents asking if I agreed with the latest absurd tweet by the president or a racist statement made against newly elected Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) by a local Republican precinct committeeman. I did not.
Furthermore, I watched the 2018 elections in Kansas where the Republican Party nominated Kris Kobach, a man whose whole career is built on weaponizing fear and blaming his failures on others, for governor. I also watched as party allies attacked moderates in both the primary and general elections. The message was clear: Pragmatic moderates are unwelcome and unnecessary. Yet, those were the very leaders who helped push our state forward from the failed Brownback experiment.
While I tried to be a rational voice, speaking up more and more within the party, my attention to these matters diverted me from working to help those who I serve on the issues that affect them the most — access to health care, fully funded schools, strong infrastructure and good-paying jobs. These are all issues that also happen to be at the heart of the Democratic Party platform.
If Kobach embodied the direction the state and national party were headed and ultraconservatives continued to dominate the platform, I knew my values no longer aligned with the Republican Party, and I no longer wanted to be a part of it.
I want to work with other moderate, pragmatic leaders on policy that helps remove bureaucratic hurdles and helps government better serve Kansans rather than having to constantly disavow rhetoric designed to divide people. I can do that in the Democratic Party.
I want to dedicate my time to serving the people in my district and working for the good of all Kansans in the party of Gov.-elect Laura Kelly — a dedicated, hard-working public servant who, in her own words, saw the results of the 2018 election as a “wave of common sense” and civility.
My change to the Democratic Party has already shown me reasons for optimism. I have found that I am respected, my opinion is valued, and open discussions are encouraged. I see a future in which sound policy is valued above scoring cheap political points.
Many in our country and the state of Kansas desire a future in which common sense and common decency are the rule rather than the exception. As Americans, we are at our best when we put aside fear, put aside the kind of viciousness that comes when we ignore our better angels and work together for the benefit of the state. It is my hope that someday these qualities are valued equally by both parties, but now I look forward to working for Kansans as a Democrat.