Julie Shaw was having the kind of pleasant conversation that one has to pass an indeterminate amount of time in the doctor’s office, checkout line and polling place. While waiting in line to vote in the 2012 presidential election, she and the elderly man behind her talked of everything but politics. But then the man glanced down at the ballot in her hand, saw what she had written on it and chuckled softly.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that word,” said the Overland Park man.
The word? Democrat.
That chuckle is what it’s like to be a Johnson County Democrat — more
than political threat. Shaw remembers the man’s laughter as without edge, the way we might laugh at a puppy struggling to get off the couch it has so eagerly jumped on to. Still, even puppies have teeth.
According to the Johnson County Election Office, the Democrats are the third-largest block of voters in Johnson County, outnumbered by Republicans roughly two to one (172,439 Republicans to 83,430 Democrats) as of May 2013. Smack dab between them is a large pool of 110,904 unaffiliated voters. This group holds special significance for the Democrats because they’re allowed to vote in the Democratic primary without registering as a Democrat (the GOP requires registration).
“In the 1970s Johnson County Democrats used to be able to meet in a phone booth,” says the current Johnson County Democratic Party chairman, Kyle Russell. “That’s what my predecessor Dennis Moore used to tell me.”
Moore is one of the 40 attendees on hand for the JoCo Dems’ second Saturday breakfast in May and he’s still in a booth. But he only has to share it with three people. The monthly meetings are held in the dining room of the Lucky Brewgrille, Democrats sipping coffee from foam cups before the Mission restaurant opens to the public for lunch. The sound of pots clanging and employees arriving for work occasionally competes with the speaker at the microphone.
“It’s so nice to be around folks that think like I do,” Janet Waugh, the Democratic District 1 representative on the Kansas state Board of Education, says as she checks in at the table by the front door. The woman at the table smiles, her collared shirt open to reveal a T-shirt that says “Proud Democrat,” with an image of a donkey beneath it.
The program begins with first-time attendees standing up and explaining why they’ve come. Russell estimates that a rotating crowd of 300 people attends the breakfast and a monthly happy hour. Most know someone sitting beside them, but a few claim they’re seeking refuge from being adrift in the Red Sea. One woman suggests that she has good news for Republicans: “It’s curable.” The audience erupts with the easy laughter of a summer camp mess hall.
Mary Hoffman, the ebullient and curly-coiffed organizer who brought the idea of a monthly breakfast with her when she moved from Colorado to Kansas 13 years ago, asks how many people have run for office at one point. A third of the hands in the room go up.
“Some of us win and some of us don’t,” says Hoffman. “But I think you win just by running.”
What could be taken as hyperbole is more a reflection of what life is like on the campaign trail for Democratic hopefuls. Arrianna Jaben of Overland Park, the 29-year-old president of the Kansas City Young Democrats, is a seasoned trail hand. She explains her political affiliation as the result of the fact that she is a young woman who is not ready to start a family but still wants a fair wage. Jaben, armed with a politician’s handshake and sensible shoes, was meant to be a canvasser. And in 2012, while volunteering for Russell’s failed state Senate campaign, she was surprised by what happened when people answered the doorbell.
“I remember knocking on doors in northeastern Johnson County and people are like, ‘Thank you so much for doing this,’ ” says Jaben.
Russell has been hearing the same thing for the past decade. He contends that Republicans have done a “pretty good job” of convincing Democrats that it is hopeless to expect to see a Democrat with a check mark next to their name on Election Night. He sees it as his job to break down those feelings of isolation.
“I went door to door to let people know that their neighbors are Democrats. They were flabbergasted,” says Russell. “I probably talked to 3,000 people that thought they were the only Democrat in Johnson County.”
If he had found 3,000 more, he might have won his race against Republican Kay Wolf. He lost by 2,404 votes. But Johnson County did vote to elect two Democrats — Emily Perry and Nancy Lusk — to the Kansas House of Representatives.
“How are they treating you up there?” one woman asked Perry, who was back in her home district (she represents Merriam and parts of Mission and Overland Park) for the Saturday breakfast.There
is Topeka, where one would easily expect Perry to meet stiff head winds because of the current climate of outstretched partisanship. Her response, however, suggested that there were other differentiating factors to deal with before the issue of party lines had to be broached.
“Sometimes I think they’re not exactly sure what to do with me. There’s a lot of older gentlemen and I think they sometimes see me like I’m their daughter or granddaughter,” said Perry.
The polished 27-year-old representative, who sits on the judiciary and federal and state affairs committees, paused briefly then to find the right phrase.
“They’re very polite,” she said, flashing a set of brilliant white teeth.
As the sun winked off a laptop with a bumper sticker that read “Stop Kobach,” the morning gave way to the political hopefuls. Democratic secretary of state candidate Randy Rolston states several times that he is the only Democratic candidate currently running for statewide office. While that certainly won’t be the case in 2014, the Mission Hills businessman, hoping to unseat Republican Kris Kobach, began January with a war chest consisting of $201,000 of his own money. With wide suspenders and no coat, Rolston has the delivery and attire of a Southern lawyer in a courtroom drama, but he’s a fourth-generation Kansan who knows his way around a joke.
“Yesterday I was talking to a little old lady and she told me I’d vote for you but Democrats just can’t win in Kansas,” said Rolston.
The crowd, which had its fair share of little old ladies, groaned like a prompted studio audience.
“You know what my response to her was? But mom, I’m your son.”
Democrats in Johnson County are earning more than their family’s votes. As of October 2012 (the most recent statistics available from the Kansas secretary of state’s office), Johnson County had the largest number of registered Democrats of any county in the state. Of course, Johnson County also had the largest population— 544,179 people in the 2010 census. That’s why running for statewide office can feel like trying to climb a greased poll, even as individual candidates find success at the local level.
In the traditionally staunch Republican city of Gardner, Democrat Chris Morrow defeated incumbent Mayor David Drovetta, who was seeking his third term in office.
“Some people were trying to gentle out me as a Democrat during the election and I was OK with that,” said Morrow. “I’ve been a registered Democrat since I was 18 and I’m not a quitter.”
While Morrow is true blue, he contends that being fiscally conservative trumps party affiliation at the local level. In May, he appointed Tory Roberts, a registered Republican, to an open seat on the City Council. With that appointment, there are now three Republicans, two Democrats and an independent on the Gardner City Council.
“I think it’s about being reasonable and responsible in your dealings with others and not taking a partisan stance all the time, similar to how former Congressman Dennis Moore would conduct himself,” said Morrow.
Rep. Nancy Lusk of Overland Park hangs tough as one of only 33 Democrats in the 125-member Kansas House by understanding the role of the opposition party — to question.
“Sometimes we count our success in being able to help prevent some really bad things more than getting good things passed,” Lusk said. “...You keep asking questions, asking questions, pointing things out until enough people show some common sense. We’re the voice of logic sometimes.”
Until Lusk first ran for the House in 2012, she had never discussed politics with her long-time Bunco moms group.
“I was surprised to find out that most of them were Democrats and were very supportive,” Lusk said.
When it comes to explaining why Democrats haven’t gained a stronger foothold in Johnson County, the players and politicians have no shortage of reasons. Jaben sees younger, potentially like-minded voters being drawn to downtown Kansas City instead of the suburbs. The crowd at the breakfast made her point for her. She was one of only two people under the age of 35 years old that would qualify for the KC Young Dems (the other was Vice President Ryland Lundy).
Former Kansas House member Gene Rardin of Overland Park blames the rise of the tea party in 2010, the year he lost his bid for re-election in the 16th District after two terms in office. Russell suggests that the long history of conservatism in Kansas leads Dems to dismiss incremental gains and instead focus on unfavorable election results. But he still sees the current conservative climate as a potential springboard for the next wave of Democratic candidates.
“The Brownback administration is a bad thing for Democrats in the short term. But in the long term, it may be a good thing the way that Obama was a reaction nationally to Bush,” says Russell.
The number of registered Democrats in Johnson County reached its highest total of the past 25 years with 87,805 voters for the 2012 presidential election. And in the northeast portion of Johnson County, there is a dedicated voting block of Democrats. President Obama received a majority of the votes in every Mission and Roeland Park precinct, which Russell also carried. Prairie Village, Westwood Hills and Westwood all went for Obama, as well.
And while Johnson County has long been known as the home for RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — who registered with the GOP in order to vote for more moderate candidates in the primary, there’s a concern that moderate, and even, liberal voters, are no longer even bothering with a designation. Rolston, who has made increasing voter turnout one of his main campaign platforms, is worried about affiliation fatigue.
“The challenge is to get young voters involved because most these days are unaffiliated,” says Rolston.
Julie Shaw admits that she has been tempted to register as a Republican since moving across the state line five years ago. Surrounded by McCain/Palin lawn signs, she knew that voting in the Democratic primary was about as effective as buying a Powerball ticket. But then she thought about her father, Robert Harris, running for school board in Columbia, and her brother Jeff Harris, a former Missouri state representative who unsuccessfully ran for attorney general and is now the policy director for Gov. Jay Nixon.
“Moving from Columbia to Kansas City wasn’t that much of a shock, but moving from Brookside to Overland Park was. Still, I could never be a registered Republican. My grandparents would roll over in their graves,” says Shaw. “But I’m hopeful for the future in Kansas. I think the pendulum is going to swing back to the middle.”
With two children, Shaw also thinks a lot about the next generation of Democrats in Johnson County. She remembers when her 10-year-old son came home from school devastated that Mitt Romney had carried his fifth-grade class. While she says she won’t push toward a particular party, she’s fairly confident that the Democratic Party will be gaining a voter in eight years. As for her 5-year-old daughter, she’s still unaffiliated.