Hanston As a youngster in this prairie farm community, Larry Salmans just about lived at his grandparents' corner cafe, where folks came to talk, gossip, share a laugh and maybe even a sorrow or two.
The cafe closed in 1943 and was close to rubble four years ago when Salmans and his wife, Marilyn, restored the building. Back in place are the old booths, counter, stools and vintage menus offering a ham sandwich for a dime.
GeographyCounties: Edwards, Ellis, Hodgeman, Kiowa, Lane, Ness, Pawnee, Rooks, and Rush.Cities: Hays and Larned.
Voter RegistrationTotal: 35,236.Republican: 16,752, or 47.5 percent.Democratic: 10,564, 30 percent.Libertarian: 168, 0.5 percent.Taxpayers Party: 23, 0.1 percent.Reform Party: 17, 0.1 percent.Unaffiliated: 7,696, 21.8 percent.Other: 16, 0.0 percent.
No longer a cafe, it's the campaign headquarters for the first-term senator. He faces a more brash and talkative opponent in the Aug. 1 GOP primary, former Democratic state Rep. Delbert Gross of Hays.
The building is Salmans' reminder of where he came from and how things once were in rural Kansas, with the emphasis on family and community.
"But I'm not living in the past, just recalling those things important to us and building on it for the future," he added. "It's a slow life here, but we do live in the computer age."
Salmans, 62, seems to embody the modest lifestyle both at home in the Senate chamber, where he seldom engages in fiery floor debate and quietly votes his views.
Only with coaxing does he talk about the more than 100 Vietnam combat rescue missions he flew with a helicopter or the Distinguished Flying Cross he earned.
"I am reluctant to blow my own horn. But I enjoy helping people."
He added: "I want to show that the state isn't some cold hard thing, but that it responds to people's needs," Salmans said.
It's a modesty not often seen in politicians.
"You just need to do a good job and let your deeds speak for you. Let your actions do your talking," he added.
Gross served a decade in the House until 1997, and his decision to switch parties this year left some questioning his motives.
House Speaker Robin Jennison, R-Healy, said Gross switched at the urging of Democrats to force Salmans into a primary fight and soften him up for the Nov. 7 election against Democrat Harold Nye of Larned.
"He's a party hack and the party asked him to change registration. But he's a nice party hack," Jennison said. "Larry has voted in a manner that reflects his district. It's just a Democratic challenge."
Gross, who served with Jennison, called such allegations "bogus."
Switching parties, he said, was for pragmatic reasons. Republicans rule the Legislature and make up almost half of the sprawling 37th District's voters.
"I was good legislator, but there was a lot I couldn't get done because I was a Democrat," Gross said. "When you're a Democrat, you aren't invited to the dance."
As a legislator, Gross had a reputation for honesty and concern for the issues and constituents. He was a maverick who didn't vote the party line and spoke his mind, often to the dismay of others.
"When I decided I wanted to do this, it was because I wanted to help people. There is nothing sinister. I just wanted to serve the people in western Kansas, and it's rural and Republican," Gross said.
Losing it all
Gross, 50, was on the political rise when it all came crashing down. He once was chairman of the House Financial Institutions Committee and also served on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
A crippling automobile crash in 1988 left him in chronic pain. He became addicted to prescription painkillers and had bouts of depression. Add to this a second car accident and a divorce. He ended up living on disability.
"I lost my family, my home, my dignity -- everything," he volunteered. "In 1998, I was living in a grungy old apartment."
At the end of his House career, Gross missed committee meetings and votes in the chamber. He kept to himself because he couldn't face people with his pain and depression.
"I wasn't taking care of my people. If I get another chance, I will be an effective legislator," Gross said.
Last year, Gross checked himself into a treatment center to get help for his drug problem and depression.
"When you go through something like that, a lot changes," he said. "You start thinking about what life is all about. I just want to serve and help our people out here."
Gross said a key difference between him and Salmans is how they do things.
"I think he's an honest man. His style and my style are different," Gross said. "He's more quiet and not very visible, where I like to get in and mix it up. I like to make things happen."
Gross said he expects his past problems may be used against him, but Salmans said it won't be by him.
"I would never campaign against him on that," said Salmans, a former psychologist at Larned State Hospital, where he was director of its chemical dependency recovery program.
In turn, Gross said he won't go negative on the incumbent.
"I am not going to say anything bad about him. I've got enough baggage myself," he said.