Blue caves?

Valley Voice

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The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the map of the state’s four congressional districts is constitutional. Wyandotte County is sliced in half, north and south, a community consigned to separate districts. Lawrence of the metro northeast is scooped from northern Douglas County in the Second District and tucked into a far east corner of the rural First, a 59-county bloc that extends through central and western Kansas to the Colorado line.
Here in central Kansas, the new First District seems a gerrymander masterwork. Lawrence, our fresh cousin, is home to the University of Kansas, the state’s senior Regents institution. It’s now the biggest city in the First District. With Lawrence, Manhattan (K-State) and Hays, the district is home to three of the state’s six universities. Residents of Lawrence, within touch of metro Kansas City, are now constituent cousins with Kanorado and Coolidge, a stone’s throw from Colorado.
This shotgun wedding was blessed by the Kansas Supreme Court last month after a lot of arguing about racial and political gerrymandering, a governor’s veto, a legislative override, bickering in the lower courts, passion and haggling before the High Court.
The Republicans, who have veto-proof majorities in the legislature, sponsored the map but will not say who drew it. An attorney for the state said the Kansas Constitution does not explicitly ban political gerrymandering. After all, he said, congressional redistricting is political by design.
The Supreme Court dug into attempts to define “gerrymandering.” At what point does moving congressional district boundaries – to ensure a political outcome – become unconstitutional or violate voter rights?
The Court said in a summary ruling that the plaintiffs made no convincing argument that the map violated the state constitution. Reasoning for the decision will come this month when the Court’s full ruling is published. Meanwhile, liberal, mostly Democratic Lawrence is notched into a conservative, mostly Republican and largely rural congressional district.
In the east, hand-wringing is widespread. Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, of Lenexa (Johnson County), said that the map may be legal, but it remains “unacceptable”.
Republicans insisted the map was drawn to place KU in the same district as Kansas State University. (What of Hays?) People in Lawrence said it was a blatant power grab, punishment for the progress of a growing city that continues to vote blue.
Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat and strong critic of the map, said it was time to convene a nonpartisan voting commission to oversee future reapportionment in Kansas. This was a frequent plea during hearings last summer.
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Now what? Likely, not much.
Martin Hawver, who has observed the Capitol and its politics for decades, reports that the Democratic leadership “off-record was generally happy” with the overall process to set legislative districts for the next decade. Republicans ruling the House and Senate could have drawn maps to threaten or eliminate many Democratic seats. Said Hawver: “It could have been a lot worse, Democrats say quietly.”
Capitulation. Staying cozy in blue caves. This is why Democrats have been dropping from the legislative ranks since 1991, when they held a majority in the House and nearly half the 40 seats in the Senate. Democrats may have lost their appeal, but across most of Kansas they have lost their presence.
The Democratic state chairman is from Johnson County. The Democrats’ strength in the northeast is middling. Only seven of the state’s 105 counties send Democrats to the legislature: Reno, Riley, Johnson, Douglas, Wyandotte, Shawnee and Sedgwick.
Democrats are rarely heard and seen outside the metro northeast and the Wichita area. They rarely venture from their blue caves. Elsewhere, moderates and liberals are bootless.
In another time, Democratic leaders – John Carlin, Joan Finney, Kathleen Sebelius among them – crossed the state for their own campaigns and for local candidates. They realized that Kansas was a conservative place, that Republican votes were crucial for their election, and that if they took time to show up and to listen, rural citizens would appreciate the effort and listen back. A lot of them returned the favor with votes.
Today, college and university towns and farm cities are busy out in the Big First. Lawrence might step out, head west even so far as Manhattan. From there, take in more of the First, meet the cousins who hold strong potential in centers for political inclusion, Salina to Hutchinson, Hays, Dodge City, Garden City, Liberal – and landscapes in-between. Listen, and wait for them to listen back.
Balance in the legislature today is not about maintaining liberal bubbles and wringing hands in the northeast. It comes when leaders leave their comfort zones and engage Kansans from corner to corner.

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