TOPEKA — Conservative and crunchy.
By BRAD COOPER
The Kansas City Star
Caleb Stegall is both.
A nominee for a new seat on the Kansas Court of Appeals, Stegall is emblematic of a new kind of conservative, dubbed a “crunchy con.”
The label, popularized by a 2006 book, aims to describe a somewhat countercultural outlook that disdains box stores and unfettered development and opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.
Conservation, a commitment to local communities and the preservation of traditional family values are all crunchy con hallmarks that Stegall has written about or commented on publicly over the years.
“His conservatism does not lead him to take typical Republican Party stands on things,” said writer Rod Dreher, who coined the term “crunchy con” and profiled Stegall in his 2006 book on the phenomenon.
Before his confirmation was endorsed by a Senate committee Tuesday, Stegall pushed back against criticism of an editorial in which he urged “forcible resistance” to save the life of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman who was at the center of the right-to-die debate when the courts ordered her off life support. The editorial appeared on a website he edited called The New Pantagruel in 2005.
Stegall told senators that he had long accepted the principle of civil disobedience, but that did not mean the rule of law could not be applied.
“There is no contradiction whatsoever between accepting the principles of civil disobedience and imposing the sanctions required by the law,” he said.
Stegall was the first nomination Republican Gov. Sam Brownback made under a new law that allows him to unilaterally nominate candidates for the appeals court with Senate confirmation. Previously, the governor was limited to picking from a short list of possibilities filtered through a panel dominated by lawyers.
Brownback has come under fire for choosing a member of his staff and for not revealing the names of 17 other applicants for the judgeship.
Stegall finds himself explaining his work for Brownback, his opposition to abortion, his representation of former attorney general and abortion opponent Phill Kline, and maybe even his crunchiness.
Stegall said that while he may be labeled a crunchy con, he doesn’t know whether the label fits. He said most Kansans want public officeholders who transcend labels.
The crunchy cons fill a void somewhere between the hardened views of the extreme right and the extreme left, said Mark Mitchell, who teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College, a Christian school in Purcellville, Va.
“It’s not really liberal and it’s not standard-line conservatism that you get from talk radio,” said Mitchell, the founder of a website that reflects some of the crunchy values. “It’s a much more considered, a much deeper notion that has appeal across the old ossified lines of left and right.”
Stegall’s judicial nomination is significant, Dreher said, because it marks one of the first times that someone who thinks about politics and culture in a crunchy way will wield so much influence.
“It shows we’re not just a bunch of academics and eccentrics,” he said.
To be sure, Stegall — the governor’s legal counsel since 2011 — has established his conservative credentials on the Kansas political scene.
A Christian and the son of a minister, Stegall has been an integral part of Brownback’s team as it builds a red-state bastion of limited government and lower taxes while enacting laws that restrict abortion.
Stegall, 41, also defended Kline in a heavyweight legal bout over the handling of an investigation of Planned Parenthood in Overland Park.
But there’s another side to Stegall, one that emphasizes environmental stewardship and questions the value of more big-box development.
Over the years, Stegall has talked about sustainability, whether it’s preserving family life or the environment or helping the poor.
He has expressed concern about urban sprawl and questioned whether the city of Lawrence, for instance, had given into “unrestrained progress and unlimited consumption of land.”
“Our sprawl-mania is ecologically unsustainable, causing dangerous depletions of natural resources from topsoil to water,” Stegall wrote in 2009 for the political website Front Porch Republic.
He told the Lawrence Journal-World as early as 2004 that he believed that true conservatism is about sustaining families, traditions and the planet Earth.
Stegall has also has lashed out at commercialism, urging people to clear their lives of mass culture influences that choke personal growth, things he described as the “Hollywood weed” or the “Wal-Mart weed.”
“Read the classics and the church fathers instead of junk fiction and self-help crap,” Stegall said in a 2005 interview with Godspy, an online magazine for Catholics. “Get married. Have kids, lots of them. Don’t turn them over to others to raise.”
Stegall has written that he forfeited opportunities to make more money outside the state. He decided to pursue his legal career closer to home, first working in Topeka at Foulston Siefkin, one of the state’s biggest law firms, and later opening his own practice in the barely 1,000-person town of Perry.
He told a magazine interviewer in 2011 that using his legal skills to fix problems in Perry gave him a sense of what it meant to be part of the community.
He now lives on a 10-acre parcel in rural Jefferson County, where he, his wife and five kids grow some of their food.
The decision to give up the bigger bucks and stay close to home were other signs of his crunchiness.
He said in the Godspy interview: “We have a commitment to this place and these people that trumps most of the other things that we could spend our life pursuing.”
To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.