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Decision Time in Topeka

By Alan Jilka
Opinion | April 19, 2012

Bare-knuckled political battles over redistricting have set the stage for some high drama when the Kansas Legislature returns next week. Governor Sam Brownback has led by example, bringing Washington D.C.'s brand of take-no-prisoners partisanship back to the state capitol. House Speaker Mike O'Neal has joined with the governor and dropped all pretense of statesmanship while moving aggressively to gerrymander legislative districts to ensure conservative Republican dominance of Kansas politics during the next decade.

First the legislative body will have to address the search for a formula to add 58,000 residents to the 1st congressional district while protecting 2nd district Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins' seat. Initially O'Neal had wanted to split Wyandotte County away from 3rd district congressman Kevin Yoder's territory in order to make that district more safely Republican. Enough Republicans apparently became convinced that putting Wyandotte into the agricultural 1st district wouldn't pass court muster and the idea was dropped. So the battle now boils down to Jenkins, arguably Kansas' most vulnerable member of Congress.
Jenkins was narrowly elected in 2008, defeating first-term congresswoman Nancy Boyda. Once in office she quickly became the butt of jokes from late night comedians with a comment about the search in Republican circles for a "great white hope" to challenge President Obama. Other incidents followed. In a normal year she would have been quite vulnerable, but she benefitted from the Tea Party tide in 2010 and won a second term, albeit with the smallest margin of victory of any of the four Kansas Republican congressional candidates that year.
One look at a map suggests that the logical way to balance the 1st district's population loss would be to add Manhattan to Tim Huelskamp's district, the map passed by the State Senate. But Manhattan officials are united in a bi-partisan desire to stay out of Huelskamp's district. Presumably Democrats don't want to be represented by one of the most conservative members of Congress. And Republicans don't feel Huelskamp has the commitment, or respect of his peers to successfully push for continued funding for the proposed National Bio-Defense Lab at Kansas State University.
Governor Brownback claims that Congresswoman Jenkins would be in the strongest position to advocate for such funding with her seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. His reasoning is suspect since the Ways and Means Committee deals with tax issues, not appropriations. Brownback claims to want to protect communities of interest, such as Leavenworth County. But he didn't seem bothered by the prospect of cutting up the capitol city of Topeka. A huge outcry scotched that plan. Meanwhile, it comes as news to residents of western Kansas that they don't have common interests with the home of Kansas State University.
Then there will be the state legislative maps to finalize. With Brownback's agenda going nowhere in the Legislature look for him to pull out all the stops to force through a map that will give conservative Republicans an advantage in their efforts oust moderates from the Kansas Senate. After the governor's allies rolled out eight primary challengers to moderate Republican Senators prior to the session moderates responded with a proposed map cutting most of the challengers out of their districts. Now Speaker O'Neal is threatening to intervene in the other body's dispute, a move without recent precedent.
Brownback has stated publicly that he will stay out of Republican primaries this year. But word out of Topeka this past week suggests that his Chief of Staff is leaving his position to direct the conservatives' attempt to take over the State Senate this fall. Brownback's disingenuous comments have further eroded his credibility in a state that elected him governor with sixty-five percent of the vote just eighteen months ago.
The stakes are indeed high for the governor. Without a legislature controlled by his stripe of Republicans his legislative agenda is dead, and he could wind up as a lame-duck in his final two years. Stay tuned.


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