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Rogue State: How Far-Right Fanatics Hijacked Kansas

Gun nuts, anti-abortion zealots and free-market cultists are leading the state to the brink of disaster

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
June 12, 2013 11:50 AM ET

For the past 12 years, the Kansas State Capitol has been under constant renovation. Most recently, its grand dome, which towers majestically over sleepy downtown Topeka, sprung leaks, forcing repair crews to cage the entire building with a blocky, ramshackle grid of scaffolding. From a distance, it looks like painful orthodontia, or perhaps a bad political metaphor.

Inside, though, one can't help but be swept up by the bustling, civics-in-action buzz of the place. Groups of children on field trips are being led past murals of hearty Kansans surviving a blizzard, grazing cattle, leading kids into a one-room schoolhouse. Politicians and their staffers sit on benches nearby, conducting hushed confabs or chatting amiably with Capitol bureau reporters and red-badged lobbyists. None of this reeks of Machiavellian House of Cards amorality, perhaps because we're surrounded by so many paintings of pioneers doing various things with wheat. In the gift shop, you can buy snowglobes containing tornados and Wizard of Oz characters.

And look, there's the governor, Sam Brownback! The 56-year-old, a regular sight on Capitol tours, today happens to be wandering the corridor near his second-floor office. He's holding a coffee mug and sporting one of his signature sweater vests – such pleasingly Capra-esque touches that one wonders if a wardrobe consultant was involved – and when his eyes alight upon an unfamiliar face, he beams and gives the visitor a pleasant nod.

Just a few years ago, Brownback seemed washed up. A devout Catholic who attends mass several times a week, he'd built a following among the Christian right as one of the most socially conservative U.S. senators of the Bush era, but his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 proved an embarrassing folly. Unable to raise money or make a dent in the polls after religious conservatives flocked to Mike Huckabee, Brownback wound up limping from the race before the first votes were even cast in the Iowa caucus.

But apparently, the notion of wielding executive branch power had become appealing. Two years later, he handily won the governorship, part of the class of Republicans elected in 2010 on a Tea Party-driven wave of anti-Obama sentiment.

Once in office, Brownback surprised critics and supporters alike with the fervor of his pursuit of power, pushing what reporter John Gramlich of Stateline described as perhaps "the boldest agenda of any governor in the nation": gutting spending on social services and education, privatizing the state's Medicaid system, undermining the teacher's union, becoming the only state to entirely abolish funding for the arts, boasting that he would sign any anti-abortion bill that crossed his desk, and – most significantly – pushing through the largest package of tax cuts in Kansas history. His avowed goal is to eliminate the state income tax altogether, a move that many predict will torpedo the budget and engender even more draconian cuts in spending. "Other Republican-led states have experimented with many of the same changes," Gramlich pointed out – the difference in Kansas being that Brownback "wants to make all of those changes simultaneously."

Since Mitt Romney's resounding defeat last November, much has been made of the supposed battle for the soul of the Republican party taking place at the national level, where pragmatic establishment types are attempting to win over minorities, women and young people by tamping down the most extreme elements of the Tea Party fringe and moderating stances on issues like gay marriage and immigration. The problem is, in places like Kansas (and Louisiana, and South Carolina, and North Dakota), that fringe has become the political mainstream. In fact, while strategists like Karl Rove urge moderation for the GOP, in Kansas, they've been taking the opposite tack. Last fall, Brownback and his allies – including the Koch brothers, the right-wing libertarian billionaires whose company Koch Industries is based in Wichita – staged a primary putsch, lavishing funds on hard-right candidates and effectively purging the state Senate of all but a handful of its remaining moderate Republicans. "The Senate was really the bulwark of moderation last term," says Tom Holland, a Senate Democrat (there are only eight of them left) who ran against Brownback for governor. "With the moderate Republican leadership gone, that just got blown away."

It's been nearly 10 years since Thomas Frank wrote about the conservative takeover of his home state in What's the Matter With Kansas? Back then, Kansas still had a Democratic governor in Kathleen Sebelius. But after last fall's civil war, Kansas has emerged a more intense shade of red than even Frank imagined. The state legislature is the most conservative in the United States, and now there is absolutely nothing stopping the Brownback revolution – one which happens to be entirely at odds with any notion of the GOP adapting to the broader social and demographic changes in the country. If anything, these purists argue, Republicans lost in 2012 because the party wasn't conservative enough.

No one can say that about Sam Brownback, who is rumored to be mulling his own presidential run in 2016 – and using Kansas as a sort of laboratory, in which ideas cooked up by Koch-funded libertarian think tanks can be released like viruses on live subjects. At a national level, the GOP remains stuck in a reactive position, pursuing executive branch "scandals" and blocking Obama's policies with no real power to effect changes of their own, and so states like Kansas have become very important to the future of the party's far-right wing. Consider it a test, a case study – proof, finally, that an unfettered hybrid of Randian free-market dogma and theocratic intolerance can create, in the bitter words of outgoing Senate President Steve Morris, one of the ousted moderates, an "ultraconservative utopia." Of course, Morris ruefully added, "It depends on your definition of utopia."

Back in April, Brownback was chosen to deliver the Republican response to the President's weekly radio address. He invited listeners everywhere to "join us as we remake our country, not into a place that looks more and more like Europe. We don't need to do that. We just need to become America again. And that is the rebirth we are doing." In other words, the Koch brothers may have lost the big battle last fall, but in states like Kansas, they're winning.

The legislative session in Kansas begins in January and typically only lasts for about 90 days, a holdover from a time when most of the citizen-legislators were farmers who could only make time for governing in the fallow winter months. Two floors up from Brownback's office, spectators can watch the House and Senate proceedings from a gallery of stiff-backed pews. The chamber is the sort of grand, filigreed hall (fussy cornicework, pink marble columns, chandeliers fit for a castle) that makes you feel like you're inside a giant wedding cake. The lawmakers work at curved desks that stretch back from the speaker's platform like rows of teeth.

One afternoon in March, the Senate debated a bill that would prevent public employees from donating directly to union PACs from their paychecks. The wonkiness of the details helps disguise the fact that the bill directly targets public school teachers, part of a larger package of union-busting laws pushed by Brownback. (He's also reclassified thousands of civil service jobs to eliminate union protection and set up public school "innovation zones" that would basically allow districts to ignore state laws surrounding curriculum, salaries and collective bargaining rights.) In order to finance his tax cuts, Brownback has cut education spending by the largest amount in state history. But in January, a state court ruled the cuts unconstitutional and ordered the government to restore $400 million of school spending. "It seems completely illogical that the state can argue that a reduction in education funding was necessitated by the downturn in the economy and the state's diminishing resources and at the same time cut taxes further," the court stated in its ruling. Brownback has responded on dual fronts: by appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court and by pushing through a bill that would "reform" the way in which state judges were appointed – allowing Brownback, rather than a panel, to appoint judges directly, giving the governor direct power over the one branch of Kansas government that had been out of his control.

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