In what turned out to be his last big speech as a presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders called on his supporters to run for office. By then, one political newcomer from Derby, just outside of Wichita, had already filed to run for the Kansas Senate.
Gabriel Costilla had never thought about running for office. But, inspired by Sanders’ campaign, the Wichita high school teacher announced he would take on two-term Republican state Sen. Ty Masterson in the District 16 race.
“I had a little bit of involvement with political campaigns before, but never to this extent,” Costilla says.
Masterson is an experienced politician and one of the state’s top leaders as chair of the Ways and Means Committee. He has represented the 16th District since 2009; he previously served in the Kansas House and on the Andover City Council. He was unopposed in the 2012 election and beat his Republican challenger in the August primary.
Costilla has zero political experience — but says he makes up for that with passion.
“I’m a teacher, a parent and a concerned citizen and I’m in this race because I care about not only my family’s future, but for the people who are in my community and the people of Kansas,” he says.
Costilla is not only facing a tough opponent; he is also is trying to get votes in a tough district. Senate District 16, which covers eastern Sedgwick County and Butler County, is overwhelmingly Republican.
Democratic Party organizers “had to twist my arm a little bit,” Costilla says. “But my wife was right in saying that basically, there’s no reason not to try. And so I decided to go ahead and make an effort to run against Ty Masterson, not knowing anything about how to run, but knowing that I needed to because no one else was doing it.”
Last winter Costilla was just getting into politics and began volunteering for the Bernie Sanders campaign.
“I was really passionate about what Bernie was bringing, his authenticity,” Costilla says, “so I decided I was going to get involved.”
He pitched in with canvassing and phone banking and went on to serve as a deputy at the first caucus he ever attended. At the Kansas Democratic caucus back in March, Costilla decided to stick around and run for delegate.
A few weeks later, at the Democrats’ 4th Congressional District Convention, he gave a two-minute speech and was elected as one of three Bernie delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
“I couldn’t believe it, because there were like 68 other people there, and they had some great accomplishments,” Costilla says. “They had done more for Bernie’s campaign than I had, for sure.”
But that short delegate stump speech caught the attention of state and local Democratic leaders. Kansas Democratic Party Chair Lee Kinch was impressed enough to ask Costilla to run for the 16th Senate District against Masterson.
“He has fire in the belly,” Kinch says of Costilla. “That’s what I was interested in, someone who will make a compelling candidate. And I believe he makes a compelling candidate.”
Getting Costilla on board helped the party’s mission to fill the state legislative races with Democrats. They fielded candidates in 91 of 125 House races and for all 40 Senate seats.
And the campaigns are growing the ranks of party supporters, too.
Dana Riley is a lifelong Democrat who also went to her first caucus this year.
“I felt energized by the Bernie message, but I also was really concerned about the direction that Kansas was headed,” she says.
Riley was one of the people who voted for Costilla to be a delegate. She’s now Costilla’s volunteer coordinator – and she doesn’t even live in District 16.
“It just really hit me that he was going to be a special candidate and someone that I felt strong enough about that I wanted to invest my time and energy into helping him get elected,” she says.
Riley’s not alone. More than 50 people are volunteering for the Costilla campaign.
Jeff Jarman, a political analyst and professor of political science at Wichita State University, says he’s seen how a presidential campaign can be the spark that brings new people into the political process.
“We saw with [President] Obama eight years ago, and Bernie Sanders in this cycle, [they’re] able to inspire people,” Jarman says. “In Sanders’ case, the supporters had to find something else to do.”
And once the Sanders campaign folded, one of those “somethings” was volunteering for state legislative candidates like Gabriel Costilla.
Kansas Democrats hope their new recruits — and their supporters – will be around for the next election cycle.
Deborah Shaar is a reporter for KMUW 89.1 in Wichita and is on Twitter @DeborahShaar. KMUW is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas.