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Rogue State: How Far-Right Fanatics Hijacked Kansas

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As viewed from the Senate balcony, the distinguished body is a sea of older, predominantly white men in navy blazers, their shiny bald spots forming an archipelago of pink desert islands. Ty Masterson, a freshman senator from the Flint Hills, presides over today's debate. Unlike many of his colleagues, Masterson has a sharp suit and a full head of hair, and he speaks in an odd, husky purr, making even bland statements like "Senator from Wyandotte has the floor" sound more like he's getting ready to whisper, "Turn over on your stomach now." A realtor with six children and an A+ rating from the NRA, Masterson was made budget committee chair upon his election – despite the fact that he'd filed for bankruptcy in 2010 after his home-building business went under, ultimately only paying about $3,000 of the $887,000 owed his creditors. "Who better to lead out of the forest than somebody who has seen a lot of the pitfalls?" he told the Wichita Eagle at the time. Today, while Democrat Anthony Hensley, a public school special education teacher for over 30 years, thunders about how the union bill is an effort to silence the loyal opposition, Masterson fiddles with his iPhone. It turns out he's checking college basketball scores, which he periodically announces to the chamber.

In the end, the bill passes, 24-16. Meanwhile, over in the House, they're debating guns. A bill allowing public schools and universities to arm teachers, principals and other faculty members has easily passed, along with another bill, likely unconstitutional, maintaining that federal gun laws do not apply to guns manufactured and sold within Kansas' borders (citing a tenuous argument that the federal power to regulate firearms only applies to interstate commerce.)

Freshman Republican Jim Howell, a trim 46-year-old Air Force veteran who represents suburban Wichita, has now introduced a bill that would force nearly all public buildings in the state to allow people to carry concealed weapons inside – unless those buildings hired armed security guards and install metal detectors, which, of course, would be prohibitively expensive for most cash-strapped municipalities. Gun-free "safe zones," Howell insists, should actually be rechristened "dangerous zones."

Howell is soon joined by an ally, freshman Republican Allan Rothlisberg of Grandview Plaza, a retired 30-year Army veteran who is the approximate shape and shade of a Red Bartlett Pear. Rothlisberg goes even further than Howell, arguing that public buildings which banned guns should be held liable for any shootings. When one incredulous Democrat asks if Rothlisberg is familiar with a recent "slaughter of 10-year-olds in Connecticut," Rothlisberg drawls, "I've been familiar with slaughters of people in gun-free zones for years." Later, he adds that the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech had been "absolutely [the school's] fault."

Up next: a shockingly reasonable amendment from retired judge John Barker, another freshman Republican, who stands up to argue that it might be a good idea to ban concealed weapons from court proceedings – say, emotional child custody cases, in which allowing aggrieved parties to carry weapons could be a recipe for disaster. Taking care to stress his bona fides as a "lover of the second amendment" and an 18-year hunter's safety instructor, Barker goes on, "I've been a judge for 25 years and am proud to say I never carried a gun on the bench. Didn't think I wanted to do that."

During the voice vote on Barker's amendment – which, of course, goes down to defeat – the no's sound like boos at the Apollo. Finally, Lawrence Democrat John Wilson stands up to offer his own cheeky amendment. If gun-free zones are so dangerous, he argues sarcastically, why not get rid of the metal detectors and guards at the entrances to this very building, which wind up costing Kansas taxpayers upwards of $200,000 annually, and just allow everyone to carry concealed weapons in the state capitol instead?

Howell says that sounds like a great idea to him. The amendment passes overwhelmingly, as does the bill itself.

Kansas has a long tradition of producing pragmatic, centrist Republicans, from President Dwight Eisenhower to senators like Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum. In What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank notes that traditionally, the Kansas legislature was comprised of moderates, aside from "a small band of right-wing cranks who amused the citizenry by pulling an occasional filibuster on tax legislation." He argues that the shift in focus came in 1991, during an "uprising that would propel those reptilian Republicans from a tiny splinter group into the state's dominant political faction... wreck[ing] what remained of the state's progressive legacy."

That uprising centered around abortion. Operation Rescue, the fanatical anti-abortion group founded in 1986 by former used car salesman Randall Terry, first decided to target Wichita during its so-called "Summer of Mercy" in 1991 – focusing in particular on Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country who provided late-term abortions. In 2002, Operation Rescue moved its national headquarters to Wichita in order to stalk Tiller even more closely; the doctor was eventually murdered by an anti-abortion zealot in 2009, gunned down while working as an usher at his church.

Back in the summer of '91, thousands of anti-abortion activists descended upon the city, committing acts of civil disobedience, harassing women attempting to enter clinics and picketing residences of doctors. Protestors outside of Tiller's clinic waved signs that read "Babies Killed Here" and "Tiller's Slaughter House." Operation Rescue's tactical director bragged to The New York Times that "We know when Tiller's using the bathroom." Nearly 3,000 people were arrested; at one point, a quarter of the city's police force was dedicated to handling the protests, and all of the city's abortion clinics were closed for a week, until a federal court ordered them reopened.

The protest culminated with a massive rally at Wichita State University's football stadium headlined by Pat Robertson and drawing a spillover crowd of 25,000. "This was where the Kansas conservative movement got an idea of its own strength . . . " Frank wrote, "where it achieved critical mass."

Thus mobilized, conservative Republicans swept into the state legislature in 1992 and never looked back. Four years later, moderate Republican governor Bill Graves appointed his own lieutenant governor, Sheila Frahm, to fill Bob Dole's vacant Senate seat – but she was trounced in the primaries by the far more conservative Brownback, with the help of an eleventh-hour infusion of $400,000 from the Koch brothers.

When Brownback was elected governor in 2010, there was only one group of politicians standing in his way. Surprisingly, they were not Democrats – whose numbers in the Kansas legislature had dwindled so precipitously as to render them effectively impotent – but a small band of moderate Republicans, who balked at the most extreme elements of Brownback's agenda and still had enough power in the Kansas Senate to gum up the works. And so when the 2012 Republican primary rolled around, Brownback and his supporters recruited an army of right-wing challengers and targeted the moderates with unprecedented alacrity. Not to mention cash: During the primary, outside spending from groups like Americans for Prosperity (a lobbying group founded by the Koch brothers), the Kansas Chamber of Commerce (run by former Koch employees), the Club for Growth and Kansans for Life totalled, according to varying estimates, somewhere between $3 million and $8 million.

One of the targeted moderates, Jean Schodorf, had served three terms as a state Senator. Her grandmother came to Kansas in a covered wagon as a homesteader in 1883; Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up on the land that would become the Schodorf family farm, and Schodorf and her brother still run a Little House On the Prairie museum. Her family has been Republican "since Lincoln created the party," she says. But she wound up clashing with Brownback over abortion rights and his education policy; though she opposed a number of elements of Obamacare, she also voted against the notion of holding a statewide ballot referendum to repeal the law, considering the move a waste of taxpayer money since the health care law had already been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A 62-year-old Ph.D. who works as a speech pathologist, Schodorf had never before faced a primary challenge – but in 2012, in the second most expensive state Senate race in Kansas history, she was defeated by 27-year-old Michael O'Donnell, who had served for a single year on the Wichita City Council, and who still lived with his parents. O'Donnell's father, a Wichita pastor, was an anti-abortion protestor who was arrested during the Summer of Mercy while protesting outside of George Tiller's abortion clinic.  "Senator Schodorf's a great lady," O'Donnell told me. "She's just in the wrong party."

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