A 7-county party

Valley Voice

1
455

Many years ago, a young man at an Overland Park car rental agency, trying to be congenial, asked where I was headed.

“Hutchinson,” I said.

His face turned to a grimace. “Why?” he said. He could not fathom how anyone in that area could be concerned with anything or anyone west of, say, Topeka.

I found then, as an editor in Olathe in the mid-’80s, that Johnson County seemed to mirror the cultural boundaries and attitudes of the state. Many who lived in northeast Johnson County – Prairie Village, Mission Hills, Westwood  (the police in Westwood drove Cadillacs) – looked down on those who lived south and west, in places like Olathe or Gardner.

At the time, Gardner and Edgerton were still rural towns, or trying to be. Olathe, the county seat, had grown from a town of 11,000 to a city of 40,000. In Johnson County, agriculture had given way to a new row crop – houses with rooftops to the horizon.

In the 40 years since, Olathe has added 100,000 to its population. Growth in Johnson County has not subsided and the attitudes have not much changed. The northeast is with it, where things are happening. Elsewhere, crickets.

*

The 2020 census tells us that the northeast remains the incubator of Kansas population growth and Johnson County (pop. 609,863) is the wellspring. Around it four adjacent counties – Douglas, Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Shawnee  – add to a surge; while Kansas’ 2020 population ( 2.94 million) grew by 84,762, the five northeast counties grew by more than 92,000. Those counties have a combined population of more than 1.15 million.

There are pockets of development elsewhere, for example Riley (Manhattan) and Geary Counties, and small gains in a few western places. But overall, expansion was in cities and suburbs. Sedgwick County (623,824) and neighboring Butler (67,380) are up a combined five percent to 591,204.

*

Legislators are sifting the numbers for a reapportionment, looking to draw new boundaries for districts that send representatives and senators to Topeka and Washington.

The U.S. population, 331,449,281,  divided by the number of U.S. House districts (435), comes to 761,950 constituents ( give or take a few thousand) for each member of the U.S. House.

According to Kansas’ population, each of 125 state representatives should serve roughly 23,500 constituents and 40 state senators, 73,450, give or take a few hundred. The metropolitan areas will gain voice in Topeka and rural regions will lose.

Johnson and Wyandotte Counties currently elect 10 of Kansas’ 40 state senators; Douglas, Leavenworth and Shawnee Counties elect another seven. Sedgwick and Butler Counties elect nine senators. Combined, the seven counties elect  26 senators. Given their population gains, at least one more senator will represent territory in the northeast and perhaps another in the Wichita area.

Western Kansas –  46 counties from Highway 181 west –  sends four state senators to Topeka from the 33rd, 38th, 39th and 40th districts. Population losses are not likely to cost the area a senator but the size of those districts is bound to increase. (The 40th district alone, 13½ northwest counties, already covers roughly 100 miles by 140 miles.) According to the census, the four western senators need to find at least 18,000 more constituents to meet minimum reapportionment goals. Western districts must shift east;  Colorado is out of bounds.

Republicans may again draw new borders to their liking unless, as happened in 2011, a court intervenes and crafts more equitable and practical boundaries.

*

But attitudes and inclinations are rarely corralled by a map line; they shift like the weather, blowing in and out with the times. Life changes, moods are altered.

Reapportionments in the past half-century have coincided with a decline of Democrats in the Legislature. Even as boundaries were shifting, in the 1970s, that party kept a strong presence in Topeka and across Kansas. The metro areas sent Democrats to the House and Senate. In the west, they were a force in Reno, Rice, Ellsworth, Ellis and Thomas Counties.

This happened because Democratic candidates engaged with Republican voters in conservative Kansas. John  Carlin, as House speaker and later as governor, crossed the state to speak for local candidates. So did State Treasurer Joan Finney, a popular Democrat who later became Kansas’ first female governor. They connected with conservatives, listened to them, convinced them to help elect Democrats.

Today, another story. The Democrats seem to believe, as that young man at the car rental agency, that nothing of significance lies beyond the urban northeast or metropolitan Sedgwick. They think the census tells them they can campaign in seven populous counties and win elections. Why bother with anything or anyone else?

1 COMMENT

  1. I ran in the 40th Senate District last year as a proud Democrat. I was beaten nearly three-to-one. I don’t care about the margin. All I cared about is bringing a different message, a message of renewal that rural Kansas counts. That it matters that education from pre-K to college be properly funded and that Medicaid be properly funded. The other stuff Republicans care about is simply red meat.

    I later ran as National Committeeman for the Kansas Democrats. Unless we become a 105-party county, instead of what’s really a five-county party (WyCo, JoCo, Douglas, Shawnee, and Sedgwick) our aims for rural Kansas will be ignored.

    John, I’m tired of our part of the country being ignored as “why care” region. I’ve dug myself in here over a 40+ year career as a reporter. That’s why I care.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here