“Politics ain’t beanbag,” the famous saying goes. But Kansas lawmakers hope it doesn’t have to be mean, either.
Some legislators would like to brush up on how to be kinder to one another. Republican and Democratic leaders plan a Friday workshop on civil discourse, where legislators will discuss how to shrink instead of expand the political divide.
The event aims to “provide lawmakers with an opportunity to build relationships,” according to a December email to legislators from House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican.
Organizers say the workshop – a kind of civility summit – is well-timed. Just two weeks into 2020, lawmakers have already exchanged sharp words, even as they have struck big compromises across the aisle. But examples of incivil conduct stretch back months and years.
This fall, Rep. Michael Capps, a Wichita Republican, was linked to a false smear campaign against then-Rep. Brandon Whipple, who was a candidate in the Wichita mayor’s race. The campaign involved a video falsely accusing Whipple of sexual harassment. Whipple won the election.
In 2018, Rep. Steve Alford was stripped of his committee chairmanship after he made comments linking African Americans to marijuana use. And in 2011, Rep. Virgil Peck suggested people in the country illegally could be shot like feral hogs, a comment he described as a joke. Neither Alford or Peck are currently in the Legislature.
“I think the atmosphere has become a little more charged every year I’ve been up here, quite frankly,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City Democrat who is one of several lawmakers organizing the event. “And I think the national lack of civility … has been what has trickled down to, I think in some sense, the state legislature. So if there ever was a time to do this, it’s now.”
Ryckman told reporters that the event will talk about “how we can maybe remove some of the emotion inside of our debates so we can listen to each other better.”
The groundwork is set for an especially combustible session.
Kansas is entering a sprawling election year in which every legislative seat is up for grabs and voters will choose a replacement for U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who is retiring. The Legislature is also expected to debate issues that go to core values, including a constitutional amendment on abortion, which abortion opponents will unveil Thursday.
As the Legislature kicked off on Monday, Wolfe Moore and Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican, pitched lawmakers on attending the civil discourse workshop.
“It’s just an event where we’ll have a chance to talk about, ‘How do we want to talk about things?’” Johnson told reporters.
In a joint interview on Tuesday evening, the two lawmakers said some 70 legislators have expressed interest so far.
Friday’s event will involve Next Generation, a program from the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which has held more than two dozen workshops in 16 state legislatures since 2012. Next Generation works with legislatures “to address hyper polarization and incivility at the state level,” according to the program’s website.
“In today’s political world, it seems there are only two sides: left and right. However, things get done in the middle,” the site says.
Potentially at stake is the degree to which Republicans and Democrats will be able to compromise during a fraught election year. Last week’s deal on Medicaid expansion, struck by Kansas Senate Republican Leader Jim Denning and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, has attracted significant attention. What’s unclear is whether it’s a harbinger of more compromise or a one-off accord.
This is the first time in eight years that lawmakers are going into an election year with the governor’s office and Legislature controlled by different parties. Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, said legislators are realizing the importance of working in a bipartisan fashion, but warned that they shouldn’t compromise on their basic values.
Different lawmakers have different moral compasses, she said, making compromise on values and morals-based issues “particularly hard.”
“I think when we’re talking about values and we’re talking about those deep-seated beliefs and orientations that people have held their whole lives and you very rarely step out of those,” Lynn said. “So that’s where I think the division takes place.”