Dinah Sykes, mother of two and a former PTA president, says she hears blistering discontent all the time from Johnson County neighbors — a seriously fed-up feeling about the conservative-led agenda coming out of Topeka.
It starts with school funding, a sacrosanct issue for many, and spills quickly into the budget chaos last legislative session.
Sykes is a self-described moderate Republican and she has already signed up for the 2016 Republican primary. She wants to send conservative Sen. Greg Smith packing.
Almost as soon as conservatives consolidated power in the Kansas Legislature by ousting many moderates in 2010 and 2012, speculation began about a moderate comeback. It would only happen, analysts said, when the notion took hold that conservatives, an ideological bunch, had gone too far.
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“We love our parks, we love our libraries, we love our good roads, we love our schools,” Sykes said. “We cannot keep allowing this attack on our children and our teachers.”
“She’s a left-wing progressive,” said Smith, who won the seat four years ago, part of the conservative takeover. Senate District 21 is made up largely of Lenexa and a part of Overland Park.
“It’s definitely going to be a choice between the failed policies under (former Democratic Gov. Kathleen) Sebelius and someone working for change, for making Kansas grow,” he said.
Sounds bruising already, but the larger picture, the breadth of this fight, will become clearer in the next few months.
Can moderates mount a legitimate challenge, loosening the conservatives’ right grip in the Legislature? Besides Sykes, moderate Rep. John Doll of Garden City has signed up to challenge conservative Sen. Larry Powell in the Republican primary.
For moderates, targeting the Senate makes sense. Retaking a half-dozen or more seats in the 40-member chamber could allow them to throw their weight around. In the 125-member House, moderates would have to notch many more wins.
But so far, said Chapman Rackaway, political science professor at Fort Hays State University, and it’s early, he doesn’t see a cohesive moderate push or leader.
In the 2015 legislative session, the tax cuts championed by Gov. Sam Brownback led to a budget crisis, and last session, lawmakers had to fill a budget hole of hundreds of millions of dollars with new revenue, particularly higher sales and cigarette taxes.
With the reversal of tax cuts off the table, it was a grueling, sometimes tearful, process that kept lawmakers in Topeka for a session of record-breaking length.
Cracks in public support for Brownback’s agenda were evident before the budget mess, said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University.
He pointed to Brownback’s arguably unimpressive 2014 re-election victory. Brownback received 50 percent of the vote to Democrat Paul Davis’ 46 percent. A Libertarian candidate won 4 percent.
“There was no reason Paul Davis should have come anywhere close to Brownback, a Republican governor in a Republican state,” Rackaway said.
“There’s a latent appetite out there,” he said, “but it has to be activated.”
To 38-year-old Sykes of Lenexa, the tax policy clearly isn’t working. Sykes and her husband have lived in Overland Park and Lenexa for 16 years. They have two sons, a fifth-grader and seventh-grader, in the Olathe school district.
While some business owners got out of paying taxes, everyone else got stuck with higher sales taxes, and the state still isn’t out of the financial woods, she said. And while lawmakers search for other revenue sources, most Kansans see no benefits, she said.
“That’s a burden for our state and for the middle class,” said Sykes, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “I think it was irresponsible.”
For Johnson County residents, school funding is front and center. The state and the schools have been in a long-running fight, including in the courts.
Sykes said she became concerned along with many other parents about school funding. She noticed an increase in class sizes and, through her PTA work, how administrators were struggling and juggling because of financing decisions in Topeka, she said.
“Their hands are being tied by the decisions our legislators are making,” Sykes said.
A newcomer to elective politics, Sykes said she knew she had to start early. She has a lot of doors to knock on, she said.
“My neighbors, the people I’m encountering, their voices are not being heard in Topeka,” she said. “I want to be that voice for them.”
Smith, 55, of Overland Park, couldn’t disagree more about the state of school funding. While legislators are considering a new school financing plan, the current block-grant funding has given school districts “unprecedented flexibility” on how to spend their money, he said.
For instance, the stability has allowed the Shawnee Mission district to eliminate some fees, Smith said, and overall spending is up, not down, for K-12 education.
“School finance is obviously very important to me since I’m a school teacher,” Smith said.
Smith has five grown children and five grandchildren, with a sixth grandchild on the way. He lost his daughter Kelsey in an abduction and murder in 2007. She was 18.
Smith has been a government, U.S. history and social studies teacher in the Shawnee Mission district for eight years.
Before teaching, he served 10 years in the U.S. Navy and was a law enforcement officer for 20 years. He served a term in the Kansas House before his election to the Senate.
On tax policy, Smith said he had favored reducing tax rates for all taxpayers but “didn’t agree with the philosophy” that resulted in no tax liability for some.
Smith favors the elimination of sales tax exemptions for some businesses and groups and a sales tax reduction on groceries, which are taxed at the same rate as other purchases. Both issues will be taken up by interim legislative committees this fall.
“I don’t believe the tax policy is necessarily incorrect,” he said, “but we do need to adjust it some.”
Smith said he wasn’t surprised to draw a moderate primary challenger, which he said was not unusual in Johnson County. The choice will turn on ideology, he said.
He, too, will walk the district, knocking on doors.
It’s that kind of face-to-face politicking, Rackaway said, that can give challengers in state legislative races a chance against incumbents.
“There’s something to be said for hustle,” he said.
But it’s still an uphill battle. Moderates need a unified message, he said, a mantra that the public can pick up on, to make inroads against the firmly established conservatives.
A lack of political oomph by moderates in 2016 would point to 2018 as a pivotal year for them, Rackaway said, when Brownback is finishing his second term and can’t run again for governor.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka, said there’s another major hurdle for moderates — extremely low voter turnout in primaries.
It’s in primaries that seats are won in one-party-dominated races. But not many people vote, and those who turn out are often the most ideological voters, he said.
“A challenge for any moderate running for the state Legislature is to get those other moderates to the polls,” he said.
Edward M. Eveld: 816-234-4442, @eeveld.