Too Early To Think About Kansas Legislative Elections? Not For Grassroots Johnson County Groups

Apr 25, 2017

Just because Kansas had an election a few months ago doesn’t mean people aren’t already thinking about 2018 legislative campaigns.

Grassroots organizations in Johnson County are multiplying and starting to plot how they will elect more moderate Republicans and Democrats to the Kansas Legislature.

In November the Legislature took a swing into the political middle, in no small part because of a group called Stand Up Blue Valley that worked to elect candidates willing to pour more money into public education.

Stand Up campaigned for many new lawmakers, but its members want more votes in the Legislature that they hope will lead to even more school funding. 

So Stand Up already is recruiting candidates for 2018.

“When you say 2018 it’s, like, exhausting to think about,” says Elizabeth Arnold of Leawood, a Stand Up Blue Valley founder.

Pressures From Topeka

Arnold has been giving some advice to the newest grassroots organizations in Johnson County: Save Olathe Schools and Education First Shawnee Mission.

“We’re facing, and have been for years, lots of pressures coming from Topeka,” says Tiffany Johnson of Prairie Village, an Education First founder. “We want people who will be standing up and advocating for our kids.”

“We want people who will be standing up and advocating for our kids.”

At the top of the Education First agenda, Johnson says, is to elect some new members to the Shawnee Mission school board in November when three seats are up. That’s even more important to the group now that Superintendent Jim Hinson has said he’s retiring.

Hinson’s support of block grant funding and coziness at times with Gov. Sam Brownback made him unpopular with some teachers and parents in the district.

But always looming in the background is the next election, for the Kansas House.

“We wanted to get organized so we can also have an impact on the legislative races coming up in 2018,” Johnson says.

More Voices In The Discussion

If a march or protest is happening somewhere near Olathe, Nikki McDonald is likely to be there. She organized Save Olathe Schools with the aim of defeating conservatives at the polls.

“The powers that be are not listening very well. So it’s time for us to speak up and advocate for our children,” McDonald says.

State Sen. Molly Baumgardner of Louisburg says she welcomes grassroots political groups because they bring “a more rich discussion and better ideas.”
Credit Sam Zeff / Kansas News Service

State Sen. Molly Baumgardner of Louisburg is among the fiscally conservative lawmakers these groups are looking to replace in upcoming elections.

“I’m a conservative woman. I always have been. I don’t hide that,” Baumgardner says.

During a recent Saturday morning forum in south Overland Park, Baumgardner says she welcomes groups like Stand Up and Save Olathe Schools into the political fray.

“I am never opposed to having more people at the table for discussion, because I think it really brings back a more rich discussion and better ideas,” says Baumgardner, whose term runs through 2020.

So after one election cycle and most of a legislative session, how does Stand Up Blue Valley think its candidates have done?

Arnold says so far, so good.

“What we have seen is a willingness for them to show up and listen and communicate back to their constituents what’s happening, and that’s just such a great feeling,” she says. “We know that some of them may not always vote the way we like, but for the most part we see them working hard.”

Working hard is one thing, and results are another.

Lawmakers have yet to close a $900 million budget hole for the next two fiscal years and haven’t passed a school funding formula — two big issues that await them when they return Monday to Topeka.

Will the lawmakers supported by Stand Up deliver?

It likely will be close to summer before that question is answered.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KCUR.org.