East and West (1)

Valley Voice

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It’s nearly two years since Lawrence became an urban foster child in farm country.

After the 2020 census, the legislature’s dominant Republicans were gripped by reapportionment fever. In February 2022, they carved Lawrence from northern Douglas County and the Second District and squeezed it into the far northeast corner of a rural 59-county congressional district.

Lawrence, a growing university city (pop. 95,000) in the five-county metropolitan northeast (1.16 million) was consigned to a western swath running nearly the width of the state. This arrangement, which has survived court challenges, is an impressive assembly of diversity, a 400-mile spread of politics, culture, lifestyle and landscape.

Lawrence is a nesting place for social progressives, free-thinkers, risk-takers, politics of the left. Republicans hoped to dilute its Democratic vote by sending it to a district that is mostly rural, socially conservative, and now elects the Republicans who give the party its veto-proof majority in Topeka.

The change has provoked uncertainty and agitation in the northeast and, in the west, doubt and dismay. Neither place is wild about it.

The census put new numbers to an old story, of metropolitan gain and rural loss. Lawrence is thriving, energetic. Out west, a sense of distance and isolation, of people who leave, especially the young, with no thought of returning, of people who are not attracted or invited to small places in big spaces.

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A large part of Kansas has lost energy. School enrollments continue to shrink, hospitals struggle ‒ or close. In many places the basics need fixing – roads, public utilities, telecommunication, health care, for starters. Plans and studies gather dust.

The contrast between Lawrence and the west unfolds along the changing terrain, frame of landscape and frame of mind. Popping Lawrence into farm country may be fine for a political map, but it does nothing for the needs and desires of different worlds in the same state.

This isn’t about trouble where we haven’t looked, but where we have found it, and how those empowered to act have looked away. Lawrence just might find that it shares intentions with its rural cousins.

Among them:

‒ Opportunity zones where enterprising communities qualify for government investment in infrastructure improvements, technology upgrades, housing programs and other aid;

‒ Immigration reform, where migrants are a source for employee hiring rather than alien targeting;

‒ Infrastructure, its opportunity for jobs and development. This includes investment in farm-to-market roads, protecting great heartland rivers, and development of rural (and urban neighborhood) broadband.

‒ Solar and wind power have taken root and widened their appeal. So has a process called “carbon sequestration” to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. Corrective farming, a big deal in Lawrence, includes planting cover crops, leaving organic matter in fields after harvest, rotating in additional kinds of crops and managing grazing.

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The Lawrence-rural connection holds strong in pitting conservation efforts against glorifying production. Policies that stabilize the farm economy cost pennies per meal. So would compensating farmers for environmental services. This would help all farmers. It would improve air, water and soil quality.

It might meld green Lawrence with its distant rural cousins. Both hold a love of the land, and a notion that current policy seems to favor those who skip conservation and punish those who try to be corrective.

(Next: Political power)

SOURCEJohn Marshall
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John Marshall is the retired editor-owner of the Lindsborg (Kan.) News-Record (2001-2012), and for 27 years (1970-1997) was a reporter, editor and publisher for publications of the Hutchinson-based Harris Newspaper Group. He has been writing about Kansas people, government and culture for more than 40 years, and currently writes a column for the News-Record and The Rural Messenger. He lives in Lindsborg with his wife, Rebecca, and their 21 year-old African-Grey parrot, Themis.

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