Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at the invigorating Texas Monthly magazine, reminded us recently that Texas has, almost over night, lost its seat at the power table of American politics.
Only recently, Texas was where deals were incubated, war plans hatched, princes groomed for coronation. The land of king makers. The seat of power. Territory and home to Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, George W. Bush and, even, George H.W. Bush ‒ multi-term presidents, decades-long rulers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. In earlier days, Texas ran the show, or most of it.
In addition to its grip on political power, oil-rich Texas had held enormous economic force: until the OPEC cartel seized control in the 1970s, the Texas Railroad Commission, through its oil and gas division, effectively set the world price of crude oil.
For Texas, Swartz says, the power era is finished. The state that once held such great force is now step-father to $40 oil and home to Rick Perry and Ted Cruz, an ex-governor and an absentee senator, both fallen into disfavor even in their own state.
“Then the cuckoos took over,” Swartz writes. “It’s astounding that a state so modern in many ways has moved so far backward when it comes to taking care of its own people ‒ for example, curtailing poor women’s access to birth control while refusing to take a cent in Medicaid expansion. Is it cynicism or plain old ignorance that makes our legislators appear oblivious to the damage that cuts to public education and health care will do to our future work force?”
And then it struck us: Swartz was also reciting the story of Kansas. Today’s egregious failures in Topeka have obscured ‒ even undone ‒ the state’s prominence as a place that led the nation in many sectors of governance and leadership. We had been a state that set standards in labor law, in medicine and social welfare, in civil rights, in public education, transportation and agricultural research. National leaders from Kansas included former governors Harry Woodring and Alf Landon; President Eisenhower; Frank Carlson, a former governor, U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator; former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, and his contemporary, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum. Kansas was foremost in the ascension of women in politics, having elected in 1887 the world’s first woman mayor, Susanna Salter, of Argonia. Full suffrage for women in Kansas was granted in 1912, eight years before ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We were the sixth state (1972) to ratify the ERA. And in 1994, two Kansans became the first women to head standing congressional committees. Rep. Jan Meyers, of Kansas’s 3rd congressional district, became chairman of the House Committee on Small Business; and Kassebaum was named chair of the Senate Labor Committee.
The story continues, but that was then. Texas and Kansas are now a miserable lot, flailing amidst budget deficits while their Republican super majorities babble about schoolhouse bathrooms, gun rights and abortion.
Our similarities can be traced, predictably, to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing, crackpot think tank that writes legislation and marching orders for red state legislatures. Every dim-witted bill, every scrap of nutbag legislation on our books was drafted by ALEC’s legal eagles;
Red state lawmakers do little, if nothing, unless on directive from ALEC.
Meanwhile, Democrats in both states have developed a severe case of learned helplessness, and an aversion to gutters, where the sewage flows and the fights are incubated. Can’t whip ‘em if they don’t go get ‘em where they live and breed.
Is there hope? In Texas, Ms. Swartz writes, few see a quick way to restore the state to national relevance, if not respectability.
“Maybe the long-predicted Latino surge at the polls will save us (thanks to Donald Build-a-Wall Trump). Or maybe, as the aged white voters of the religious right pass to their rewards, they will be replaced by more open-minded millennials,” she said. Fat chance. The Latino, or minority, voter surge is nothing to anticipate in Kansas. Our Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, also our chief election officer, has convinced lawmakers to bring Jim Crow and a two-tiered, Byzantine maze of voter registration hurdles back on the books. This will keep minorities and other displaced voters away from state and local elections.
In this thrilling race to the bottom, who wins? Size is of no matter, in this case merely a measure of dirt. Texas leads in boisterous boneheadedness, but Kansas is master of the creative pratfall. (Who else could lure investors with $400 million in phony highway bonds and palm off a billion dollars in
KPERS paper ‒ and still leave no dents in a budget deficit?) Mimi Swartz continues: “Mary Beth Rogers, the author of the optimistic ‘Turning Texas Blue,’ summed up our collective frustration: ‘The conventional wisdom is we are just a bunch of crazies down here.’”
With that, the Lone Star State is hardly alone.