In February, a story about Franton, Kansas, made the rounds on Facebook. “38-year-old Johnny Quinns-Smith wanted to get an egg-salad sandwich for himself and his fiancé, Erique Boltzman,” it read. “He went to his local diner, a place where he and Boltzman had occasionally ate over the past six years. But today, Quinns-Smith encountered something he thought he would never see in his lifetime: a sign. A sign that said, SERVICE REFUSED TO GAY COUPLES.”
“It means you and your boyfriend can’t come eating in here no more, unless you find God,” the article claimed Quinns-Smith was told by another customer.
Here’s the thing: There is no Franton, Kansas. Or SERVICE REFUSED TO GAY COUPLES sign. Or small-minded patrons with a penchant for quoting scripture in the presence of gay men. It was all a ruse by a local satirist who isn’t that funny.
But no one outside of Kansas seemed to get the joke. The story was liked and shared on Facebook over and over again as though it were real—as though it was no trouble at all for the rest of the country to believe that Kansas was a netherworld where time stopped 100 years ago.
There were a few reasons why, but the most glaring was House Bill 2453, which the Kansas House of Representatives passed on February 12 by a vote of 72-49. The bill, officially named “An Act Concerning Religious Freedom with Respect to Marriage,” was touted as a narrow way to protect Christian-minded businesses and individuals that didn’t want to perform marriage-related services for gay couples. In reality, it was a 21st century replay of the Jim Crow Laws that were so prevalent in the South during segregation—i.e., the bill appeared to legally protect anyone in the state who refused to serve a gay person if it violated his or her religious beliefs. In other words, it made signs like SERVICE REFUSED TO GAY COUPLES a distinct possibility.
Not that any of this bothered the state’s conservatives, who increasingly outnumber the state’s moderates (Republican or otherwise). Case in point: After the bill passed, the reigning Republican Speaker of the House told his caucus via memo that it “should unite us all as Kansans.”
“While marriage is an issue about which thoughtful and sincere people can disagree,” the memo further stated, “we should all be able to agree that the government should not punish anyone for the views they hold on this sensitive issue—HB 2453 is limited to advancing this important goal, nothing more.”
Sadly, there’s been a lot of that kind of talk since former U.S. Senator Sam Brownback became the state’s governor.
Inside the Capitol building in Topeka is a mural of Kansas' most venerated vigilante, abolitionist John Brown. Hellfire fills the background, but Brown is undeterred. In his left hand, he has an actual bible; in his right hand, he has a Beecher’s Bible (a.k.a. a repeating rifle). Beneath Brown’s feet lie the slain sinners who defied God—and Brown—by siding with those who supported slavery. God wanted Kansas to be a free state; and so, Brown and his Beecher’s Bible would ensure God’s will was done.
Brownback stormed into office with similar conviction in 2010. He didn’t carry a rifle, but he brought his bible and the idea that Kansas would be an example of what happened when government aligned itself with the will of the Almighty. He was raised in Parker (pop. 250), which is about 70 miles southwest of Kansas City. By all accounts, he was an all-American teenager—a quarterback on the football team and a leader among his classmates. By the age of 30, he was appointed as Kansas Secretary of Agriculture, a prominent position in such a breadbasket state. A few years later, he became a U.S. congressman, and in 1996, he won the coveted seat of Senator Bob Dole, who retired from the upper chamber when he ran for president against Bill Clinton.
During his 16 years in Washington, D.C., Brownback became known as one of the most vocal proponents of faith-based legislation and governance. In 2006, Rolling Stone even dubbed him “God’s Senator.” America, however, wasn’t ready for Sam Brownback. After a failed presidential bid in 2008, he fulfilled a promise he made in 1998 to seek only two full terms in the Senate. As 2010 approached, he looked to return home.
On the campaign trail for governor, Brownback spoke of his dream for a Kansas that valued life, rewarded hard work and a government that moved aside to allow prosperity. He promised to increase private-sector employment, improve reading scores for fourth-grade students and decrease the percentage of children in poverty. All the while, he looked for any opportunity to restore God’s role in government and society. As such, within a year of his election in 2010, he signed three bills restricting abortion,
But beyond abortion, Brownback struggled to find common ground with a strong moderate Republican faction in the state senate, led by Senate President Steve Morris. Brownback’s solution? Make sure Morris and others lost their primary elections. “Because of the alliance in the state senate between Democrats and some Republicans that join together to promote a Democrat agenda, the primary has effectively become the general,” Brownback told the Topeka Capital Journal in July 2012. “Therefore, I am going to be involved in a limited number of primaries.”
In the 2012 primary election, 16 of 21 moderate candidates—including 9 incumbent state senators who had opposed Brownback—lost to conservatives largely funded by outside political actions committees that sponsored Brownback’s plan to eliminate the state’s income tax on businesses. Even Dick Kelsey, a staunch conservative who regularly joined Brownback for Monday morning prayer meetings, wasn’t safe. After questioning Brownback’s tax plan, Kelsey found himself pitted against an ideologue in the Republican primary.
Morris told me that about a month before the 2012 primaries, polling showed that he and most other moderate Republicans enjoyed at least a 20-percent advantage over their conservative challengers. Around that time, however, arch-conservative PAC money (Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth and the Alliance for America’s Future) started pouring into the state. For instance, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which is now led by former Speaker of the House Mike O'Neal, whose last big act as speaker was to force through a key piece of Brownback’s tax plan, relied on its biggest contributor, Koch Industries, to spend $700,000 to influence state senatorial elections.
In western Kansas the cash went toward radio ads that painted Morris as a liberal who was responsible for Obamacare. Other registered voters received as many as three fliers a day featuring Photoshopped images of Morris standing next to President Obama or burning $100 bills in a tuxedo to illustrate his supposed wasteful handling of taxpayer money. “I was running positive ads the whole time,” Morris says now. “I was so naive that I thought people would see those things for how ridiculous they were.”
They didn’t. Morris and his coalition of moderates were routed and replaced with lawmakers whose allegiance rested with the governor and the PACs who had financed their elections.
By January 2013 the Kansas Legislature belonged to Brownback.
Although it’s hard to remember these days, Kansas is the birthplace of the populist movement. It’s the place where farmers and laborersdemanded that the government fairly tax trusts, landowners and workers. It’s the place where aggrieved parents partnered with the NAACP to file the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court ending segregation in public schools. It’s the place where, in 1887, voters elected Susanna Salter, of Argonia, as the first female mayor in the nation, and the place where, 25 years later, the electorate extended full suffrage to women—eight years ahead of the rest of the nation.
Over the last few decades, however, Kansas has arched to the right, starting primarily with Roe v. Wade in 1973. Ever since, special interest groups have successfully overtaken the state’s politics through impassioned messaging that is designed to stir a visceral reaction from votersand simplistic “scorecards” that influence voters motivated by cultural issues such as abortion. “We now have politics driven by special interest groups on the extreme,” says H. Ed Flentje, a political science professor at Wichita State University.
In the meantime, moderate Republicans struggled to define their message to voters. After all, their position, by its nature, rejects blind devotion to a cause. “The problem with moderates is that they’re moderate,” Flentje says. “Special interest groups don’t want someone who will look intelligently on things.”
Special interests officially took hold of the state in 1991. That was the year the national anti-abortion group Operation Rescue launched the Summer of Mercy in Wichita, home of George Tiller, the state’s most controversial abortion doctor. Protesters lined the streets of Wichita, holding signs that read BABIES KILLED HERE and TILLER’S SLAUGHTER HOUSE. (Tiller was later shot and killed in the lobby of his Wichita church by a pro-life activist from Kansas.) Pro-life billboards sprang up along the state’s roadways, where they remain today. News coverage featured protesters camped out in front of Tiller’s clinic, sometimes lying in the street to prevent patients from entering the parking lot. “The abortion battle is not going to be decided in the trendy urban centers,” the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a Presbyterian minister from Florida and a spokesman for Operation Rescue, told the New York Times at the time. “It will be decided street by street, town by town, village by village. Wichita is the heartland of America. In capsule form, Wichita embodies what we will see in the next three to four years.”
The Summer of Mercy forced a shift in Kansas politics—and eventually much of the country. Kansans basically found themselves with three political parties to choose from: Democrats who largely supported abortion rights; pro-life Republicans who believed in providing fair taxation and regulation of business; and pro-life Republicans who fought for less taxation and less regulation. Flentje and one of his colleagues gave this phenomenon a name: Polar Alliance Republicans—those who “seek on the one hand to apply the force of government on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage and on the other to limit the powers of government on economic issues such as taxing, spending, and regulation.”
With few pro-choice lawmakers left in Kansas, gay marriage has become the social issue of the 21st century. In 2005, Kansans overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Similarly, in an ongoing case, the Kansas Department of Children and Family Services has successfully sued to collect child support from a man who had served as a sperm donor for a lesbian couple after answering a Craigslist ad rather than acknowledge the now-separated women as legitimate parents. And last year, Brownback signed into law the “Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.”
In spirit, it mirrors House Bill 2453 by making it illegal to unduly burden a person’s right to practice his or her religion—even if that practice is potentially discriminatory. It was drafted to counter anti-discrimination city ordinances on the books in places like Lawrence (home of the University of Kansas) and under consideration in smaller towns like Hutchinson and Salina. (The city councils of both towns approved the ordinance, but fundamentalist religious groups led by the Kansas Family Policy Council successfully petitioned to force a public vote, which their aggressive campaigning heavily influenced.)
But unlike House Bill 2453, it didn’t institutionalize legal discrimination—something that Kansans historically have rejected. While many Kansans might view homosexuality as unnatural or sinful, they generally believe in leaving other people to themselves, regardless of their differences. They might silently judge another person’s way of life or pray for their salvation, but they also feel uncomfortable with any law that conjures up images of the embarrassing Westboro Baptist Church. Kansans generally have grown tired of being the laughingstock of the country, and they don’t necessarily appreciate Brownback using the state as a way to further his political ambitions.
Much of what’s happening in Kansas today is because Brownback has his sights set on another run at the presidency. “My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, ‘See, we’ve got a different way, and it works,’” he told the Wall Street Journal last year.
According to Brownback, a government centered on the bible strengthens families, curtails poverty, increases personal responsibility and reduces reliance on government assistance. Under his model, government has no role in business, yet it plays a significant part in regulating morality. That belief, coupled with his free-market ideology, has secured continued support from special interest groups eager to secure his return to national politics.
Strangely enough, Brownback himself hasn’t introduced many of the socially conservative bills that have emerged in the Kansas legislature. But his presence has emboldened conservative Kansas lawmakers who find power and conviction behind Brownback’s ideology. So far this legislative session, which ends next month, lawmakers have performed a live sonogram inside the Capitol building to educate lawmakers—nearly all of whom oppose abortion—about life in the womb; introduced legislation that would ban the use of surrogate parents; and moved to make it easier for parents to sue teachers and schools that introduce their children to potentially offensive material such as Catcher in the Rye.
There would likely be more conservative red meat on the legislative menu, but it’s a poorly kept secret in the state that Brownback wanted a tranquil legislative session. It’s election season and relatively unknown Democratic gubernatorial challenger Paul Davis has nearly matched Brownback’s campaign fund raising and leads in recent polls—an indication that many Kansans have grown weary of Brownback’s agenda.
Obviously, House Bill 2453 was far from quiet. For a week after its House approval, the legislation dominated the national news, even prompting a couple of jabs from Daily Show host Jon Stewart. Many in the religious community opposed the bill, as did the state’s largest business lobbyist, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. The bill came to an abrupt end in the Kansas Senate, where Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Republican from Wichita, buried the bill in committee.
Nevertheless, the issue isn’t likely to remain tabled forever. Nor will it be easy to unseat a Republican governor.If the race appears close—or at all unstable—Brownback’s longtime allies, the Koch Brothers and their proxy groups chief among them, will accelerate Brownback’s crusade, which like Brownback, they believe they could scale nationally.
“I served 20 years in the Senate under five or six governors, both Republicans and Democrats,” says Steve Morris, the former Kansas Senate President who Brownback helped railroad out of office in 2012. “And there was always a lot of noise about the need to vote for a Republican or Democrat. But I never worried about those governors; it was just noise. I worry about Brownback, though, because he’s doing damage to this state. It’s scary to think about the prospects of him winning again and being completely unchecked.”
Yet Kansas’s populist strain hasn’t been completely lost.
In the past year, numerous grassroots organizations have sprung up to counter Brownback and his network of conservative legislators. One group, Reroute the Roadmap, features six of the state’s most prominent public women. Other groups have rallied around issues of health care, poverty and education. A coalition of former Republican lawmakers and public officials also has come out against Brownback, using their standing as leading Republicans in the state to discredit his policies. Each has spent the last few years seething at the social-political complex Brownback has created and the precision with which it has exploited Kansas voters. Their opposition, however, believes Brownback and his heavy blend of faith and politics will preserve their way of life for the foreseeable future. For them, House Bill 2453 was a stalwart protection against an overreaching federal court that increasingly subordinates religious liberty to personal liberty and threatens to force acceptance of homosexuality.
And they’re seething, too.
Jason Probst is a journalist, columnist and a lifelong resident of Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @thatguyinhutch.