State Representative Jim Ward dreams of a blue Kansas. It’s been 15 years since he was elected to the Kansas State Legislature in 2002. Since then, there hasn’t been a single moment when a Democrat majority was in power in the House of Representatives.
There have been a few close calls—most recently in the form of the progressive Kathleen Sebelius, who occupied the governor’s chair from 2003 to 2009—but the State Assembly has remained a Republican composite since 1993. This is flyover country, the heart of the Bible Belt. The conservative base was born here. In 2010, Kansas elected Sam Brownback, a rancorous member of the hard-right who destroyed the state’s friendly plurality between moderates and liberals with a spew of legislation, which included ripping apart firearm regulation and abortion protections with startling efficiency. Ward recalls it as “the dark ages”—one of the few political moments where it became hard to go to work everyday. In 2014, there were only 26 Democrats left in the 125-member House, down from 33 two years prior.
Still, Ward dreams of a blue Kansas. “I don’t think it’s a dream. It’s something we can do,” he says of winning battles as part of the minority party. “[The Republicans] say ‘Come on Jim, look at this legislature, you’re not even getting a hearing’ and I say ‘Watch and see. You just watch and see’.”
There are people who say, ‘How can you continue doing this? Vote, after vote, after vote, you’ve lost.’
North Dakota Senator Tim Mathern
For a country that counts the distribution of power between states as one of its most important institutions, it’s strange how often local politics is overlooked in America. There is no shortage of horrific stories of hard-line Republican assemblies passing regressive legislation—an anti-trans bathroom bill in North Carolina, a dog-whistle voter suppression bill in Iowa, an openly segregatory immigration law in Arizona—that leave many feeling powerless. Nothing innervates the merciless right quite like a lack of federal oversight. Ward has been at a disadvantage for his entire political career in a truly thankless job. His vision for Kansas is routinely dashed by the traditional conservative bloc, which has successfully promoted cloaked racism, pro-life fetal heartbeat bills and pointless tax cuts term after term. There is little he can do. And yet he persists.
“It may be a sign of mental illness, but every time they had to cheat, I took that as a badge of honor,” he tells Playboy. “They knew they couldn’t stand toe-to-toe on [an issue like Medicaid] and debate the merits. They felt uncomfortable. That would empower me to push and find more creative ways to bring the issues up.”
There should be no fatalism in representing the progressive base in a red state. Dreaming big is important, and a history of demographic shifts and political reshuffling means that previously unthinkable trends—like California, won by every Republican candidate from 1952 to 1988, finally turning blue—aren’t impossible. But you can’t collect losses in every legislative session without rationalizing your goals. Senator Tim Mathern has represented the 11th district of North Dakota since 1987. He is a proud, empathetic social worker, the type of local lawmaker you see in church on Sundays, and he’s incredibly cognizant of what victory looks like in a Republican stranglehold. He’s also atypical for a leftist; a Roman Catholic, Mathern voted in February 2013 in favor of a pro-life measure that banned abortion about 20 weeks. Just one month later, however, when North Dakota’s Senate voted on a fetal heartbeat bill, he voted nay (it still passed, 26-17).
“There are people who say, ‘How can you continue doing this? Vote, after vote, after vote, you’ve lost,” he says. “But I do see the occasional vote that wins. For example, I had an amendment this legislative session to preserve Medicaid expansion. It passed the Senate here. So maybe there will be 300 votes, and 299 don’t go, but this one passes and it’s going to matter to thousands and thousands of people who actually have health care. There comes a point in every person’s life when you can’t address defeat. But it hasn’t happened to me yet.”
It’s in the thick of it where Democrats act like Democrats.
It is strange to call Mathern an idealist; few people in politics are more familiar with failure, depending on how you view Hillary Clinton these days. The last time Mathern worked with a Democratic conglomerate was in the 1980s—his inaugural season. He laments how he has less support today than he did as a young man, but Mathern is moonstruck, permanently hopeful, undeterred, with not a drop of cynicism in his blood. He is at peace with this fight because this fight is true. The orbits of federal policy rarely come home to roost in the tundra. So he shows up on time to help more North Dakotans get health care.
“This is my motivating factor. I believe that each and every person has intrinsic worth, and the only way you can express that worth is with food, shelter, education, a living wage and a clean environment,” he says. “It’s really not that difficult to vote or stay involved when you believe this. Some would call it a philosophy or an expression of religious belief, but for me it’s so basic. There’s nothing in the world more important. To be involved is life-giving.”
The progressive base is petrified. A coalition of craven GOP lawmakers just passed an unpopular, unread health bill that will strip coverage from those with pre-existing conditions. This is the dystopia Barack Obama’s generation feared heading into Election Day 2016, and it is these moments when people like Tim Mathern and Jim Ward become particularly relevant. These anxieties might feel new and pressing on a transatlantic scale, but it is shortsighted to forget about the lawmakers who stare down the regressive right on a daily basis. It is here, in the thick of it, far from the horse-trading in Washington D.C., where Democrats act like Democrats.
To date, the legislation Mathern is most proud of is his work in mental health. Currently only half of North Dakota’s mental health needs are met by the state’s municipality, but Mathern has watched the culture change firsthand. “To raise the issue of personhood in mental illness and substance abuse—that these people have an illness just like if you had cancer or diabetes? I’ve actually seen a change in terms of mindset,” he says. “It hasn’t changed enough in terms of program funding…but I’ve been a part of that change and I feel very proud of it.”
Of course, everyone has their limits, and sometimes being a red-state Democrat is as frustrating as it seems. Earlier this year, Kansas Senator David Haley took the floor and introduced a bill that would double the sentences of people convicted of hate crimes in the state. Haley has advocated for the legislation six times over the course of his career, only this time his efforts were compounded by a racially charged shooting in an Olathe, Kansas bar in February, where a white man targeted two Indian immigrants and killed one of them. His efforts were rebuffed, which was especially ironic considering the state assembly was also mulling a bill that would increase punishment in crimes targeting police officers.
“I’d like to say that everything is easy-going and I let things roll off my back, but I have to bite my tongue more often than not,” says Haley. “I’m okay with [the Blue Lives Matter bill, which includes law enforcement in hate-crime statutes]. But we don’t have one that speaks to race or religion or sexual orientation? We don’t have an enhancement where the victim is singled out for that, but we will when the victim is a police officer? This is the most recent aggravation of what has been a series over the course of my legislative term.”
Unlike Ward, Haley doesn’t dream of a blue Kansas. He holds out hope for another Democrat governor, but isn’t convinced that the legislature will flip anytime soon. It’s easy to understand his case. The last time the state’s electoral college votes went to a Democrat President was in Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. The last Kansas Democrat dispatched to the U.S. Senate was George McGill, whose term lasted from 1930 to 1939. So instead, Haley focuses on exploiting the crevices in the Republican doctrine—to discuss things as human beings outside of the metagame of political fame.
Unlike Representative Jim Ward, Senator David Haley doesn’t dream of a blue Kansas. He isn’t convinced the legislature will flip anytime soon.
“The key thing has been to listen more than you speak. I am a Democrat, but I’m proud of the fact that I spend as much time listening to my Republican constituents, and I get a lot of support,” he says. “It’s difficult for them to form opposition against me because I have taken the time to be involved in many nonpartisan efforts. I’ve learned a lot about agricultural issues, even though I’m from an urban district. I’ve learned how important water rights can be. And they’ve learned how crucial my issues are as well.”
This is the same refrain I hear in every interview with a red-state Democrat. Progressive stances need to be relatable and organic. Promises like universal health care, a considerate education system or a sustainable planet should be common sense for all. These are good, honest pieces of policy and for progress, they need to be sequestered from the confrontational endorphin rush that defines modern liberalism. Perhaps that’s why politicans like Mathern and Ward keep winning their elections, despite the odds.
“You can’t win based on a political philosophy in a red state,” says Mathern. “But you can win on your connections to day-to-day organizations—the YMCA, the PTA, the church? That’s what gives you credibility. You need to make a map of the important institutions in your district and get involved. You have to be active, and then run for public office. Run based on your service and your connections to community people. Don’t run based on your philosophy or your party identification. That’s a serious flaw some Democrats make,” he says.
And still, there are signs of life for Ward’s sky-blue dream. In last year’s election, Democrats made huge gains in both the House and Senate. In the 40-seat Senate, Democrats gained a member, from eight to nine. In the House, Ward gained 12 compatriots—the largest bump across the country.
Four years ago, in the dregs of the Brownback administration, Ward introduced a bill that would expand Medicaid coverage to an additional 150,000 low-income people in Kansas. It was an underdog measure that seemed dead-on-arrival in a Republican assembly, but against all odds, it started gaining headway. Last month, 81 Representatives voted to pass the bill, three short of the two-thirds majority needed to overrule Brownback’s veto. It is a defeat for now, but Ward still counts it among the most important pieces of legislation he’s ever been involved in—one of those occasional flashes of light that reassures him. Jim Ward believes in politics. He believes in Kansas.
“It’s really important not to give up. The ultra-conservatives will always act like you have no chance and that you’ll never win, and that your ideas don’t have merit,” he says, “but you can never underestimate passion. We went from 28 to 40 representatives in a state that elected Donald Trump. It can be done.”