Editor’s Notebook: Reflections On 19 Days In Kansas

984163_10152453003757517_1102537963427143985_n1907740_10152444276597517_6486967881837984239_n10271635_10152445334602517_2424460100893342034_n10386852_10152460170032517_2995236235913592458_n10462351_10152440588572517_1534438324465774192_n10527552_10152460164182517_357830407479864966_nBy John Celock

Waking up in Wichita on the morning of July 15, I found myself needing to be 200 miles away in the Kansas City suburb of Mission by 11 a.m. for a radio show taping. No problem I thought, get on the road by 8 and that will be enough time. Then it dawned on me, I was thinking like a Kansan.

Let’s just say it’s not something I would think of growing up in New Jersey or living in the Washington-area. Too much traffic is likely to change the whole calculus. But, travel times aside, the whole situation leads to a question. How does someone who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs end up spending 19 days traveling 2,600 miles across Kansas?

Having covered Kansas politics since 2011, I have had a little secret, one that might freak out some of my professors at Columbia J-School….I had never been to Kansas in my life. Finally I decided to set out and solve that problem and I knew if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. Thus,19 days and traveling across much of the state (yes, I know I haven’t hit Northwest Kansas or some other parts of the western part of the state, but will rectify this).

This kind of trip leaves one with many memories and experiences to last a lifetime. I drove a combine, visited a cattle feed, saw the scenic natural beauty of Kansas including the Flint Hills, saw the hard work of the Ashby House in Salina, the UAS program at K-State Salina, small businesses, communities that come together and talked to Kansans who shared with me their thoughts and feelings about a range of issues, while also showing me tremendous hospitality and taking time to make me feel at home. For me, the conversations I had with Kansans from Lenexa to Ellinwood and Dodge City to Lawrence remain the best thing about the trip.

I want to share what I learned from these conversations, from this listening tour. The first thing that comes to mind is the contrast from where I write this. Sitting in the Washington-area, many in the nation’s capital think they know what is best for the country and know more than those who sent them here. In the case of some, voters didn’t send them to DC but believe they know best because they are in Washington. While that might be the viewpoint by many (and not all) here in DC it is not the view of those in Kansas.

The people I talked to questioned what they view as dysfunction plaguing Washington and the federal government. But many also, just wanted the federal government to stay out of their lives. It is the classic conservative small government argument, not coming from a conservative scholar, but coming from a farmer and a small businessperson. They want to know why Washington isn’t listening to them and focusing on solving problems, rather than partisan bickering.

The Farm Bill came up as I talked to those in agriculture. They expressed the need for a Farm Bill to pass in order to protect crop insurance. Tbey questioned why the Farm Bill was bogged down in the issue of food stamps and why Congress cannot focus on agriculture in one bill and addressing hunger in a second. One even suggested that the Farm Bill wasn’t even about farmers anymore, not subsidies paid by the federal government to regulate growth and the impact on the commodities market.

You might call this a Republican argument on the Farm Bill, but in this case, politics has less to do with it than the work of those in agriculture. A farmer sitting on a combine in rural Kansas isn’t worried about Democratic versus Republican politics when they are thinking about Washington. They are worried about their profession and the volatile nature of farming.

The impact of the drought is fresh in the memories of farmers and others across rural Kansas. One person saw a field being water and worried that it was too much water. Farmers noted how they had deep losses from the drought and had to change their methods of work. In New York, water conservation and recycling might be progressive ideas championed for environmental protection, but in rural Kansas they are a way of life, a way to protect the livelihoods of farmers.

Innovation is becoming more and more of a central focus in Kansas. One of the main focuses spans both Kansas and Missouri with Google Fiber and the Kansas City Start-Up Village. This is spurring more and more innovation and small business development in this region of the state and making Kansas City a thriving center for small business and entrepreneurship nationally. But the Kansas innovation economy is not limited to just the KC Metro area.

Salina in the central part of the state is more and more looking towards the innovation economy in order to grow and transform the local economic landscape. K-State Salina has developed an unmanned aerial systems degree program that is not only training the next generation of UAS pilots, but also focusing on research on UAS use and the development of this technology for science, agriculture and the environment, not just for military purposes. K-State Salina is focused on growing their engineering program and in partnering with business in order to grow the local economy and create jobs. This includes a new Bulk Solids Innovation Center, which broke ground during my time in Salina.

One of the things that comes across again and again in talking to business, higher education and political leaders in Central and Western Kansas is the need to keep young people in that region of the state or to bring them back. Many are leaving for bigger cities and don’t return. Those who attend college in that part of the state, don’t stay. One of the main reasons is the lack of jobs in their fields, thus the focus on an economic transformation and the creation of rural broadband. Many of the leaders I talked to cited the need for enhanced broadband capability which would allow for more telecommuting and help grow rural populations. They also see the population growth from telecommuting allowing for new development along Main Streets.

Community spirit is alive and well in Kansas. Many people I talked to wanted to show me their communities and the work being done to benefit these towns. This was very much evident in Greensburg, which was devastated by a tornado in 2007. It would have been very easy for the town to pick up and leave, but many stayed and rebuilt. It strikes you the minute you drive into Greensburg, how new the community is, but also the spirit strikes you. You see stories like the refurbishment of the town’s ice cream parlor that is now in the county building fully operational and how the Big Well is home to a museum about the tornado. Greensburg is now a fully green community. In some places, people are saying that those impacted by disasters should pick up and move, but in Greensburg they stayed, persevered and rebuilt their community.

In Ellinwood, local leaders were preparing for the After Harvest Festival. While I did not get the chance to attend the festival, it was clear in the lead-up that the community was excited and engaged and wanted the chance to showcase the town to others. Top state leaders were expected for the event, giving Ellinwood the opportunity to show the community spirit. The festival was planned just a week after the Barton County Fair in nearby Great Bend, where the county’s youth showed the skills they have gained through 4-H.

This community spirit can also be seen in the organizations around Kansas that are working to help those in need. The Ashby House in Salina focuses on homeless women and families, along with women with addiction. They work with these women to find new homes, new jobs and sort out economic issues. They teach life skills and work to move women out of addiction.

Attending part of the Kansas Poverty Conference, I saw many organizations that are working to help families in need. They are working to promote health care coverage, housing, nutrition and repeal of the death penalty. Not all are government agencies, but rather a mix of private and public.

For all the talk of social issues that many see when they think of Kansas politics, they did not come up much in my conversations. That is not to say there isn’t a focus. Signs opposing abortion could be seen in the state, but in my conversations, people wanted to focus on economic, small business and agriculture issues, along with promoting their communities and the Kansas spirit. Obamacare came up, with some business leaders saying it is impacting them, any others saying the overall impact is slim.

Of course there are very competitive political races going on in Kansas with contested Republican primaries coming up. The moderate versus conservative GOP civil war remains in full swing, with several moderate GOP legislators in Johnson County facing conservative challenges. The U.S. Senate GOP primary is increasingly competitive and the November gubernatorial battle between Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-Lawrence) is in full swing and competitive. Wichita area voters also have the GOP primary between U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo and former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt on their agendas.

Voters cannot help but tune in as the August primary looms and four by eight campaign signs dominate the landscape. The direction of the state is in these contests and voters are talking about them. They are asking if they want to continue on the conservative path of Brownback or shift to the Democratic side. Johnson County voters are debating whether to join other parts of the state in tilting toward conservative lawmakers or stick with moderates.

What nineteen days in Kansas taught me is the unique spirit of the Sunflower State, the rich natural beauty and the heart felt welcome I received from every Kansan I saw. I learned about these communities and the hopes and dreams of the residents. I learned the issues that shape the Kansas voter and I learned much about rural America. I intend to use this knowledge to help shape my reporting and I can only say thank you to the people of Kansas for welcoming me to their state and that I hope to return.