The immense doors of the east and north wings opened and closed, bringing another rush of frigid air. The red-cheeked and frozen-cloaked begin to pour in. Then the drum of heels quick-clicking along the marble corridors, and the clatter of the elevator cage closing for the day’s first lift. In moments the building was alive – coffee in the air, lines at the concession stand, the first floor abuzz with busy greetings, urgent whispers, trifling chatter, promises, to meet soon, to have lunch.
Such was the Legislature’s opening long ago at the Statehouse. That first week of January was a time of reacquainting, of appraisal and renewal. Old friends regrouped, first-timers were introduced. Old-timers knotted their ties, varnished their connections. The in-between prepared to splice connections and refresh influence.
All the while, lobbyists circled and mingled as though they were hosts. The Capitol may be the people’s house but it is the lobbyists’ home.
In those pre-Internet days, cell phones and laptops were yet a faint glint in Bill Gates’ eye and Steve Jobs’ lab. Typewriters were the primary office tools. Later they would give way to Microsoft’s DOS and later, Windows.
Festivities were layered into the early January weeks of a legislative session. Liquor had not yet acquired its black eye. It lubricated the politics of access and inducement. Governors and power brokers were wined and dined at noon and evenings. Even the press was invited, took part. Lobbyists were persistent hosts; it was said that a legislator, without much effort, could navigate a 90-day session without ever paying for a drink or a meal. (Still possible.)
As governor, Robert Bennett was most open to the news media. He convened daily statehouse press conferences at 9 a.m. – news or no news – in his office when the legislature was in session and weekly when it was not. His press secretary, Leroy Towns was a veteran journalist. Gov. Joan Finney’s press secretary was Martha Manglesdorf, a former reporter for the Wichita Eagle and United Press International. The press access continued.
In the time of Democratic Gov. Robert Docking (1967-75) and Republican Bennett (1975-79), the two major parties worked to resolve disputes and head off trouble. State government was marked by historic reforms in governmental ethics and campaign finance, unification of the state courts, school finance reform. Workers’ compensation laws became more liberal, new consumer protection statutes were enacted and federal revenue sharing expanded into cities and counties. The state budget topped $1 billion for the first time.
Such programs as local property tax relief, city-county revenue sharing and motor fuels tax refunds can be traced to the influence of Johnson’s Great Society in the late 1960s and federal revenue sharing in the 1970s under President Nixon. The Legislature also enacted a 55 mile-an-hour speed limit and financed a new Fuel Allocation Office in anticipation of a U.S. oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
The sessions, often long and grinding, were with the long haul in mind. The work was substantial and bi-partisan with collaboration among rural and urban legislators.
In earlier times, most legislators believed abortion was a personal matter that did not belong in the political arena. What was taught in schools was left to state and local boards of education. Smoking was banned on the floor of the House and Senate and later in the building. People went outside to puff away for a moment; the idle and homeless harvested half-smoked butts from the ash cans.
Today the quickened click of heels has given way to the squish of rubber soles. The air of excitement is relinquished, promise subdued. Legislating is tuned more to the special chemistry of cause lobbies than to the broad throb of public pulse. The landscape presents thickets of complicated issues; propositions face the menacing cross-winds of tribal feuding.
Out beyond the yellow light of Capitol corridors, citizens are challenged more to save their communities than to improve them. On the high plains, farms grow bigger, the towns get smaller and their voice grows weaker in Topeka. Seven metropolitan counties now elect more than half the members of the House of Representatives and State Senate.
On the vast rural stretches, apprehension is not stoked by same-sex marriage or gun control or abortion, or covid masks. The talk is about persisting. In farm country the mission seems less about improving communities than keeping them. Ventures to provide promise for the future have become callings to fasten hope for the present.
Today the challenge has changed from overcoming hardship to outlasting disappointment.