Young State Legislator Resigns


By John Celock

A young state legislator in Kansas has announced his resignation citing the conflicting demands of family, work and politics.

Rep. John Wilson (D-Lawrence) used Monday’s ceremonial conclusion of the 2017 legislative session to announce his resignation from the state House of Representatives. Wilson, known for his work on health and nutrition policy, said that juggling the demands of his work in the Legislature with his professional career running a non-profit focused on nutrition and hunger and his family life.

“I am not able to fully commit to any of those,” Wilson said in a speech to his colleagues.

Wilson, a third term lawmaker, said that he enjoyed his tenure in Topeka and that while he had it easier than some lawmakers in that he was able to go home to Lawrence every night, the time commitment became too much. He said that when he was home he found his mind drifting between his professional commitments, his work in the Legislature and his wife and children. He noted that when the Legislature is not in session, he still has constituent commitments and the challenge of running for office every two years.

Wilson cited a common complaint among young state legislators in their thirties during his speech, that the challenges of juggling a professional career and family life make legislative service prohibitive for those in that age bracket. Most state legislatures, including Kansas, meet part time each year.

“There is a reason there is not as many thirty something legislators in Kansas or around the country,” Wilson said.

Wilson has been known for his work on health care policy and solving hunger issues since he joined the Legislature. He is the ranking minority member of the House Health and Human Services Committee and served on the Federal and State Affairs Committee and the Agriculture Committee. He served a two-year term in the House Democratic leadership as policy chairman.

Wilson entered the Legislature as part of a class of freshman that was dominated by those 35 and under. Kansas elected the largest class of young legislators of any state in 2012, followed by Montana and North Dakota.

Wilson is the fourth young legislator in his class to voluntarily leave the Legislature. Democrat Emily Perry did not seek reelection in 2014 in order to move to another district, while Republican Reid Petty did not seek reelection in 2014 after accepting a teaching position. Republican Travis Couture-Lovelady resigned in December 2015 to accept a lobbying position. Republican Josh Powell, a member of the 2012 class, was defeated in his 2014 reelection bid.

During his farewell speech, Wilson touched on his growth as a legislator. He said that he came in “ready to fight every battle” but soon grew to realize that he should target his efforts on specific issues. He said that he learned to form relationships with colleagues on both sides of the aisle and work to develop policy solutions in a collaborative effort.

He said that he hoped that during his tenure in Topeka, he was able to help provide a model for how lawmakers should act.

“What I will miss the most, and one of the hardest things to give up is to model the behaviors we expect of our elected officials,” Wilson said.

He touched briefly on some of his policy work, including the areas of health care and children’s policy. Wilson also joked about a 2013 amendment he offered that, due to a typo on the part of legislative attorneys, would have authorized the open carry of guns in the state Capitol. The amendment was changed for concealed carry.

Wilson said that while he will no longer be in the Legislature he plans to continue to promote consensus building and bipartisan collaboration in politics.

“Even though I will not be in a position to model that behavior in the Statehouse, it is important for us to model that behavior outside the Statehouse,” Wilson said.

Wilson is the fourth Kansas House member to resign this year, following Reps. Marvin Kleeb (R-Overland Park), Mike Kiegral (R-Olathe) and Pete DeGraaf (R-Mulvane). Kleeb resigned for professional reasons, while Kiegral and DeGraaf resigned for health related reasons. Rep. Patsy Terrell (D-Hutchinson) passed away suddenly earlier this month.

In the state Senate, Republican Jake LaTurner resigned earlier this year in order to accept an appointment to the vacant office of state treasurer.

Democratic Party committee members in his Douglas County district will select Wilson’s successor. Wilson’s resignation speech came the same day that Democrat Jason Probst was sworn-in to succeed Terrell.

Wilson said that his colleagues will likely not see the last of him, noting that he plans to remain engaged in a variety of issues involving health care, children, nutrition and agriculture. During his speech, Wilson praised his wife, Jami Jones, for her support during his time in the Legislature. He asked for applause for her.

He said that he remains optimistic about legislative service but noted that the timing was not right for him.

“Now is a great time to be in the Legislature, but it is not for me,” Wilson said.