Pockets of progressive resistance remain in Kansas, in bigger cities like Wichita and college towns like Lawrence. But despite the inspiring bravery of women like Burkhart, opposing forces back in Topeka seem to have insurmountably marshalled against them. Brownback already signed a bill in 2011 that banned abortions after 21 weeks (claiming fetuses could feel pain at that point). New bills required abortion providers to show patients detailed images of fetal development and explain the supposed "link" (deemed bogus by the National Cancer Institute) between abortion and breast cancer; got rid of an exemption allowing late-term abortions if the woman's mental health was at risk; and even officially declared that life began at conception. The latter bill was supported by freshman Republican Shanti Gandhi, a retired Topeka physician – and yes, he's the great-grandson of that Gandhi – who called the point "indisputable."
The Brownback revolution has not proceeded without hitches. Maintaining control of an insurrectionary movement is notoriously tricky, as is separating out the true-believing foot soldiers from the cranks and nutjobs. The antics of improperly vetted Tea Party candidates have redounded negatively on the GOP on a national level – creating an awkward tension, since the establishment also very much needs, and fears, the useful idiots making the loudest noises from the most unsavory fringes – and the same dynamic is at play in Kansas, where the Brownbackers might be wishing they'd been more careful with their previous wishes.
In the current legislative session, the House and Senate voted to rescind a 25-year-old ban on quarantining people with AIDS, and Rep. Steve Brunk of Wichita introduced a bill that would require cities that put fluoride in their water to inform customers that fluoridation lowers the I.Q. of children. The latter claim, of course, is patently false, but somehow fluoride has become a source of paranoia out in the chemtrail/Alex Jones corner of the wackosphere. A group with anti-abortion ties called Wichitans Opposed to Fluoridation actually managed to pass a ballot initiative last fall that would remove fluoride from Wichita's drinking water. ("I don't trust the water, period," one voter told the Wichita Eagle. Said another, "People should be more responsible and brush their teeth.") Last year, the state legislature passed a bill preventing United Nations' Agenda 21 from being implemented in the state. Agenda 21 is a benign, two-decades-old UN resolution that called for worldwide cooperation in fighting economic disparity and protecting the environment, but has since become a black helicopter/One World Government bugaboo for Republicans like Rep. Bill Otto of LeRoy, who argued during the floor debate that since JFK's assassination had clearly been committed by more than one shooter, well then, why couldn't the Agenda 21 conspiracies also be true?
Brownback has found it difficult to keep hardcore Republicans in line on issues like wind energy, which has become a $7 billion industry in Kansas – a flat and blustery state well-suited to wind farms – and which Brownback supports. Rep. Dennis Hedke of Wichita, a geophysicist who works for the oil and gas industry (and a climate change denier), pushed a bill that would roll back a law requiring the state to meet certain renewable energy standards. Hedke also wants to ban any public money from being spent on sustainable development.
Last year, Brownback was forced to personally dress down Rep. Virgil Peck, an insurance salesman from southeast Kansas who publicly "joked" about how sharpshooters in helicopters had been so effective in killing feral swine, they should be used to hunt illegal immigrants. A Kansas political insider who wishes to remain anonymous was telling me this story when I interrupted and said, "I can't believe he'd say that within earshot of a reporter." My source went silent, then continued, "He said it in a House appropriations committee meeting."
After the story made national headlines, Peck grudgingly apologized under pressure from Brownback. Still, it hasn't exactly quelled his willingness to embrace controversial positions. Earlier this session, Peck was the only House member to oppose an anti-bullying bill, which passed 119-1. He later told a reporter from the Topeka Capital-Journal that "bullying legislation has always been a top priority of the homosexual group. I've never been a fan."
When I visited Peck in his office, he greeted me effusively, with an accent that sounds less Midwestern than Deep South. He represents the rural Ozarks region in the far southeastern corner of the state, where he grew up. Around the capitol, he's known for his loud sartorial choices. Today, he's sporting a pretty amazing looking shirt-jacket combination, the former electric blue, the latter sherbert green, along with a red, white and blue lapel pin shaped like a cross. Peck tells me he was just writing an email, though there's no computer on his desk, only a legal pad on which he's been writing longhand. Sunlight pours through the big window behind him. For some reason, there's also an overhead light on, so he almost disappears in the hazy brightness as I face him, his thick brown beard floating like the grin of a Cheshire Cat.
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