Once rebels, Kansas conservatives now see a legacy

Twenty-five years ago, a few lawmakers pushed for changes that helped set GOP’s current course.

12/26/2012 9:24 AM

05/16/2014 8:38 PM

Their official name was the Republican Reform Caucus. But in contentious moments they were branded as rogues, renegades, the Dirty Dozen or, most commonly, “The Rebels.”

The 12 Republican lawmakers who banded together in Topeka 25 years ago to challenge the long-standing moderate leadership of the Kansas GOP can be labeled something else today: The founding fathers of Kansas’ modern conservative status quo.

In 1987, the rebels — with two members from Johnson County, Kerry Patrick and Bob Vancrum, and another from Eudora, David Miller — started raising havoc. They challenged House rules. They questioned routine spending bills. They demanded that interest be paid on state deposits.

“We were giving (state agencies) a 3 percent raise whether they wanted it or not,” said rebel J.C. Long of Harper.

The rebels schemed and strategized and generally made life hell for establishment leaders from their own party, such as House Speaker Jim Braden.

“They have no party loyalty,” Braden thundered in 1990 to The Wichita Eagle. “None whatsoever.”

Said Gov. Mike Hayden, a fellow Republican, the same year, “They have a personal agenda, and it hurts the party.”

But the rebels said they were simply hewing to the old Republican philosophy of wringing the most value out of every tax dollar. They were a new breed of conservative — bonded not as much by social issues as by fiscal worries — who said they offered solutions even as they ruffled feathers.

“We try to get the most bang for our buck,” state Rep. Gayle Mollenkamp, a rebel from Russell Springs, said at the time. “I think we’re being mislabeled. But I guess whenever you buck party leadership, you get branded something.”

Today, you can arguably see their handiwork in the way statehouse debates turn more on how to cut spending than to fund something new.

As maddening as they could be, today even Braden looks back on the rise of the rebels as a milestone moment. “It may have been the beginning of the far right wing of conservative Republicans.”

Political scientist Burdett Loomis, who has studied Kansas politics for decades, is more adamant. “They

were

the forefront,” he said.

In 1990, three years after their informal launch, Miller ran as GOP gubernatorial candidate Nestor Weigand’s running mate in an intensely bitter primary challenge to Hayden that nearly succeeded. Hayden wound up losing his re-election race that year to Democrat Joan Finney.

Five years later, another rebel, Tim Shallenburger of Baxter Springs, won House speaker, denying moderate Robert Miller the usual second term. The same year, David Miller, then closely tied to the state’s burgeoning anti-abortion movement, was elected state GOP chairman. That stopped moderate Gov. Bill Graves from picking his own chairman, as was tradition.

In 1998, Miller challenged Graves in the GOP primary for governor, but was crushed 73-27 percent in a classic moderate-conservative showdown.

Miller may have been defeated in his bids, but other conservatives had started winning, including Sam Brownback, who was elected to Congress in 1994 and then to the Senate two years later. In 1996, Brownback defeated Graves’ hand-picked choice to succeed Bob Dole.

But the rebels were the first group to dent the moderate juggernaut.

For as much attention as they got, the group was no well-organized machine. They came together because some thought they deserved better committee assignments. Others were unhappy with Hayden.

They met weekly in Capitol offices or apartments. The group never had a formal leader, though some pointed to Miller, Patrick and Vancrum.

The rebels ranged in age from 30 to 69. Some members were single while others were grandfathers. They were small-town farmers and big-city lawyers. While some had earned master’s or law degrees, others held no more than high school diplomas.

They hung together because of their shared black-sheep status and by their devotion to Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism that frowned on excessive government spending.

“We’ve got one common goal — for the state to be fiscally responsible,” Mollenkamp said.

Vancrum said members had to get used to being outsiders.

“We were kind of pariahs for a while,” he said. “It didn’t feel very good.”

Not all rebels were anti-government. They backed education spending, for instance. Some favored abortion rights.

“In retrospect today, I think we’d be considered somewhat moderate,” said rebel Dennis Spaniol of Wichita.

But they made their mark through their often unpleasant confrontations with GOP leaders and their insistence on change.

Case in point: In 1989, in a move that infuriated Braden, the rebels succeeded in changing House rules to limit the speaker’s power. The new rules made it easier for members to bring a bill to the floor for debate and harder for the speaker to push through bills at session’s end that contained controversial spending provisions.

The idea was to limit the power of any individual.

“We got tired of leadership saying, ‘Thou shalt not vote this way,’ ” rebel Vern Williams of Wichita said in 1990.

Braden insisted that the House managed to accomplish its objectives during those years despite the rebels. But the turbulence carried a price. In 1990, for the first time in more than a decade, the Democrats won control of the House.

Braden said the rebels caused that GOP defeat.

“Of course,” he said, “they would tell you it was my fault.”

Most agree that the rebels’ impact lingered for years. Patrick said the group shifted the course of state government. Long said the rebels “showed that you could change from within and get people to look at new ways of thinking. Obviously it’s evolved for 20 years.”

Being a rebel was a badge of honor, Spaniol said.

“I was standing up for what I believed in,” he said. “It’s funny. After I retired, I had several members of the Legislature come up to me and say you guys were right and we should’ve gone along with some of the things you said. That was a nice tribute.”

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