In Topeka, two blocks west of the Kansas state capitol, stands the historic Gem Building. Built in 1928 as a three-story apartment dwelling of yellow brick and Mediterranean styling, through the years it has housed a drugstore and a grocery on its first floor and 12 apartments on its second and third.
But now, the Gem Building is being transformed into something its original builders likely could not have imagined - a congressional office. It's occupant will be Topeka resident Nancy Boyda, who on Nov. 7 defeated U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun of Lawrence for the 2nd Congressional District.
Just as the Gem Building is in the process of transforming from its original purpose the same transformation is happening to Congresswoman-elect Nancy Boyda - a mother of seven and educated as a chemist - a woman who three years ago complained to her husband "Why isn't somebody doing something about all the issues that are facing our country?"
Steve Boyda replied, "If you're that upset, why don't you go do something about it?"
So, she did. She will be sworn in on Jan. 4.
Mike Penner, a fellow of the of the Citizen Journalism Academy sponsored by The World Company and the Kansas University School of Journalism, spent some time with Boyda this week. Here are excerpts of his interview.
Question: Please give the readers a short biography of yourself.
Answer: I was born in Missouri. My family is from the Ozarks. My parents were from the Depression. Waste not, want not I got hammered in strongly.
I also jokingly say we are fiscally conservative (in the campaign). We don't even have any campaign debt.
I spent my first six years in Rolla, Mo. Then my parents moved to the St. Louis area and that's where I spent most of my growing up years. I have two older brothers, David and Steve. I went to William Jewell College.
I was raised in a very conservative Southern Baptist home. William Jewell at that time was a very staunch conservative Southern Baptist college.
People have said, "wasn't that like a convent?" (she laughs) And I say, no, no, no, it WAS a convent. Extremely strict. No dancing. Obviously no drinking or any kind of smoking. So, literally, at this point I have never smoked a cigarette much less a joint.
When I get to go out and talk to kids, (I hear) very powerful statements about how somebody's really gone down the wrong road but found their way to recovery. Those are strong and powerful stories.
Mine is - if you want to save yourself a whole bunch of trouble just don't get into trouble. Staying out of trouble is a really good option. I was raised with the "just say no" kind of upbringing.
I graduated with a degree in chemistry and education and then worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for about two and a half years in the laboratory and also doing field inspection. Then I went to work in the pharmaceutical industry starting with Marion Labs in Kansas City when Ewing Kauffman was still around. It was an amazing place to work, developing life-saving and quality of life drugs. It was great. But things began to change and became a lot more about profit than about the people. So, I thought, this just isn't working for me anymore.
Steve (Boyda) was the one who said I was never politically active, never attended a political meeting, never made a political contribution, but I just kept on saying to him, why won't somebody do something about all the issues that are facing our country?
He finally got to the point where he said "If you're that upset, why don't you go do something about it?" Determination would be my strong suit. He was my first endorsement. He said "You'd make a good congresswoman. Get out there and get it done."
That's how the whole campaign happened.
Question: And when did that thinking start?
Answer: That thinking started in the spring of 2003.
Question: How did you get from Missouri to Kansas?
Answer: I actually lived in the Kansas area for most of my adult life. Steve and I met about eight years ago. He's from Marshall County, had a law practice and was working out of an office in Manhattan. This was really his home. When my youngest graduated from high school we started looking for stone houses in Pottawatomie County. We actually found one but ended up saying we were going to do this (campaign) and come to Topeka - which would really be a good place to centrally locate the campaigns. So, that's how we ended up in Topeka.
There're still very strong ties to Manhattan and that area.
Question: Now that we understand that background -- what were the factors that turned your eye to the political arena? For instance, did you always want to be a politician?
Answer: No. I was raised in a very, very conservative sort of household and politics were not discussed. It was considered pretty bad form for a woman to discuss politics. So, that's how I was raised. Literally, it had never crossed my mind.
When I finally figured out that Steve was serious, I made a decision that I would get out there and say what needed to be said. I intended to do it with all graciousness and professionalism but there needed to be some tough questions asked. I think our country's where we are because nobody's had the guts to ask the questions that need to be asked.
Question: In 2003 you switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. Why did you switch?
Answer: A couple of reasons. The first reason: I felt like Kansas Democrats are good, centrist moderates and they represent what I believe - and that is, the idea of a common good. How do we get the most benefit to the most people based on good hard work and personal responsibility? What the Republican platform has always been.
Generally people were out there working hard but it was getting harder and harder for middle class families to raise their kids, to get good health care. Everything seemed to be making it harder and harder on the middle class (even though they were doing) the right things, making the right decisions, working hard. They were just losing ground.
Steve and I have seven kids between us. So we're talking about kids getting through college and putting their lives together, raising their families. It's just getting more and more difficult - which is so much of the conversation - why doesn't somebody do something?
Democrats believe that if you get out there and you work hard you ought to be able to raise a family with some sense of security. That comes back to national security and economic security, health care security, food security, all of those things. We're just losing that.
The second reason is the Republican party has fractured in two. The fight that they have among themselves really gets in the way of setting good policy.
There's a lack of tolerance for different viewpoints. The fact is there are three hundred million Americans, 675,000 Kansans that I'm going to represent. Of those, there are 675,000 ways of looking at the world. I think that's what Democrats bring, a willingness to have a discussion and to recognize that people who are patriotic, live in good faith and are of good moral character just see things differently.
I think that's something that the Democrats to better.
Question: So you think polarization of politics and of the electorate is a major problem now?
Answer: Yes. It's a gridlock back in Washington, D.C. - a lack of willingness to explore differences. People stand up and say there's right and wrong - and we know there's right and wrong - but there're 675,000 views of what is wrong.
We need to listen and be much, much, much more respectful of differing views.
Question: How did you manage to continue in politics as strongly as you did after the 2004 election defeat? Wasn't that a difficult rebound? Why did you think that with a second effort you could defeat Congressman Ryun?
Answer: After the last election in 2004 my mother went home, back to the St. Louis area ,on a Thursday evening. On Friday morning I got a call that she'd had a massive stroke. She ended up passing away four months later, but I got to spend the last four months of her life with her. I never had time to do that before so it was an amazing blessing.
After that, Steve and I went back and spent some time in Marshall County where he'd grown up. We became very difficult to contact. You know you go from one extreme of the race to the other extreme of taking care of your mother - being right there for her in very, very intimate ways.
So, after we got mom's things taken care of we spent four or five months being very difficult to reach. And doing a lot of thinking and reflecting. It was very difficult to lose. We lost by 16 points.
One of the real reasons it was so painful to lose was because I didn't think we'd run a very good campaign.
A lot of people said, "You did a really great job," but I was not happy with the campaign. I think it didn't connect with the voters, didn't really say what was on my heart and what I wanted to talk about.
The campaign was run out of Washington, D.C. but (it wasn't about) what I felt and the passion that I felt. I think voters sense authenticity a mile away and they sense in-authenticity a mile away.
So coming back to the decision to run (again) came down to a couple of things. One is the conditions that got me to run in the first place had universally gotten worse, not better. So my concerns were even more so than when we started this whole thing.
I know myself well enough that sitting back and not doing something would have actually been more difficult. Steve will attest to that. Not doing anything would have been more difficult than getting out there and at least trying.
The reason that I thought we had a good chance to win was because the wind had changed so much in the country and in Kansas. The second district was 20 rural counties out of 26. We have not benefited from this global economy.
The voters were very much in a different place to hear things this time - their health care, their jobs. Things are just getting harder and harder for them.
So, when we decided to run again, this time people could hear what was on my heart and Steve's heart and not have that come from Washington, D.C. In fact, I (thought at the time that) it will connect with people and if it does they can send me to Congress and if it doesn't then they can send Jim Ryun back.
We were going to give it a chance and really run the race the way we wanted to run it.
It was very much more grassroots. I wrote all the speeches, most of the campaign literature. Then Steve and I did these newspaper inserts.
That was really Steve's brain child to use more print media. He said, "Let's just do an eight-page newspaper insert." The first one wasn't eight, it was 12 pages. Everybody said nobody will read a 12- page newspaper insert so we did another one and made it 16 pages. Then we did another one that was 16 pages. People did read them. What politicians and Washington don't give credit to is the voter they really will take the time to understand what's going on. They need information.
As for sound bytes, all those are for is "cut and run" or "stay the course." People are getting (tired of that) and saying those are not fair questions. There's no way you can get any kind of information. Are you for "cut and run" or "stay the course?"
It doesn't make any sense any more.
Today we're looking for more information.
So, Steve and I got a $99 piece of software and laid (the inserts) out ourselves and wrote every bit of it - the two of us. Steve probably did 80 percent of the work. Any time the word "I" was in there was because I had written it myself.
We tried to give voters the background and really connect with them. We respect them enough to include them instead of trying to shove this message on them.
Then we had the benefit of being next to Missouri for the Claire McCaskill /Jim Talent (U.S. Senate) race. Then we had the benefit of being here for the nasty, nasty Phill Kline and Paul Morrison (Kansas attorney general) race - which ended up so nasty that (it benefited) Paul Morrison.
People were just so willing for something that didn't look and sound and feel like Washington, D.C. We were able to take that message to people directly and they deeply appreciated it.
I'll let Steve, who was my campaign manager, talk about that.
Steve Boyda: What she is saying is absolutely right. There's an incredible contrast between a typical Washington consultant-run campaign which utilizes television, television, television with advertisements that are 30 or 60 seconds that are no more than slogans or subliminal messages to discourage voters from voting or to tell you how bad the other guy is. Compared to a campaign, that I call a much purer form of democracy that are conversations among a whole lot of people to draw from that a consensus of how the body politic feels about an issue.
So, what should a politician do? Go to Washington and raise a lot of money, throw the subliminal ads that are attack ads - or should they treat the voter with a great deal of respect and say we want democracy - let's make it stronger? I think the voters are ready to hear information and the candidate has an obligation to put information on the table.
How do you do that? Obviously it's through the newspaper format, which we've been used to since the beginning of politics.
Nancy Boyda: We planned all along to do radio. We did a great deal of radio and then we planned all along to do TV, too. People want to see you on television and that lends a certain amount of authenticity to the campaign that this is a real campaign and that she can do enough fund raising to pull it together. Being on television gives you that credibility of being a real candidate, but it doesn't get across you can't get across a message in thirty seconds.
So we inverted the pyramid as our base: newspaper, radio, and then TV.
Steve Boyda: The inserts became conversation starters all over the district.
(At) one point in a recent seminar in the Kennedy School of Government we met three members of Parliament in England. They were here to find out what our system operates like.
They asked me about the campaign and I showed them the brochures and (one of them) said, "Ah, this is the way we do it in England!" I said really, and he said, "Yes, we don't run television ads, we limit the campaigns to six or eight weeks, we do little or no radio, we communicate with our voters by putting in writing how we feel about things and what we think is important and we give them information that way. They digest it and they make up their mind based on that and personal contact - retail politics."
Refreshing to have information written down in more detail than we (do) in our system (which has) become accustomed to massive amounts of money. Somewhere truth has gotten lost. Information to the voter has gotten lost and that's what we tried to recover in this campaign.
Nancy Boyda: We both truly believe that if you're going to have a democracy you have to have an informed electorate. That does not mean "are you for cut and run" or "stay the course?" That means (understanding) the issues.
The freshman class (of Congress) has a lot of new people in it - 42 new Democrats. A lot of people who challenged races did it in different ways - they did non-traditional kinds of campaigns.
I think it would be interesting to do an analysis. Did the more typical Washington-based campaigns fare worse than the lower budget campaigns that communicated directly with the voters? I don't have numbers on that but I feel very certain that was the outcome.
Again, everyone said, "You can't win." Some people said, "She just got caught up in the big movement - in the wave." And in fact, that had a lot to do with it. But the wave did not catch many of the top tier races. So, it wasn't the wave but that the wave worked -- when you worked with the wave. The wave was that the people want information and they want their democracy back.
We worked with that wave and it made a big difference.
Question: You mentioned the orientation you just came back from - tell us about that.
Answer: It's been absolutely fascinating. I was surprised that there was really three weeks of orientation - and two weeks of it was bi-partisan. Just literally getting your office selected and set up, going through and making sure that the computer equipment is available. Hiring core staff.
(Because of) the ethics rules, one thing I'm learning is I think I'm a deeply moral and ethical person but you've really got to learn these ethics rules because some things you wouldn't assume would be a problem you can't do. (For instance,) if somebody brings in pizza because you're working late at night you can't even accept the pizza if somebody sends one in. And if you're doing something on behalf of your constituents late at night and some well-meaning somebody sends in a pizza, you can offer to pay for it or not accept it. I think that's just a reflection of how much corruption has really happened.
My concern is that declining pizza isn't going to really make a big dent in the corruption. What we really need to be looking at is how money affects elections in big ways.
Money absolutely influences the whole legislative process and that's where we got to get to the core. That's something that's not going to be easy. But, Americans are ready to say we got to break the tie between not only money and elections but the tie between money and the legislative process - it is very, very broken.
I think the people of Kansas broke that tie right now just by virtue of hiring me to go represent them - and they did that on their own. They didn't wait for any legislation. They just said she looks like she'll listen to us more than she will the big billion dollar lobbyists.
Steve Boyda: I read an article just recently that there are 65 lobbyists for each and every member of Congress. There are 535 members of Congress, House and Senate, so 535 times 65 equals the number of lobbyists that you have to influence legislation.
Nancy Boyda: That number has tripled in the last 12 years.
Steve Boyda: The budget that is spent for those lobbyists to affect legislation is $200 million per month - (that's) straight out of one of Bill Moyers' articles. Now think about it - $200 million per month times 12 months is $2.4 billion a year that is spent to influence Congress after the election.
And we talk about pizzas and Pepsis. Let's get real here.
Question: What did you change in the 2006 election campaign that you think vaulted you past Congressman Ryun? What outside factors contributed strongly to your election? What events or actions beyond your control helped out?
Answer: Well, I never used the words "culture of corruption." They annoyed me and I figured they annoyed everyone else. But the fact is, people were so concerned about what was going on in Washington on both sides of the aisle. For the most part, everybody recognized that the Republican side of the aisle had taken it to a new all-time high and had institutionalized a bunch of corruption - and it wasn't just here and there. So, that worked in our favor.
The war in Iraq was on everyone's mind. People were deeply concerned about how we're going to do anything to make anything better in Iraq since it's gotten so bad.
Much more than Washington would give them credit for, the voter and the people were already way past where Washington was on many issues. They're way past Washington on immigration. They're past Washington on health care.
What we did say was - we're right where you are. The reason I'm running is that I've got the same concerns that you do and we have to do something about it.
I think, as we said earlier, the whole way of running the campaign differently was an enormous benefit - a positive and a plus.
We stayed very, very beneath the radar. Actually, we were operating in broad daylight with a grassroots organization - in broad daylight and doing all kinds of things. But most people tend to poo-poo grassroots - so, if they ignored it, we could do anything we wanted and still be below the radar screen.
Even in Kansas a lot of the politicos and pretty much everyone in Washington assumed we couldn't win. Unless you knew what was going on on the inside it looked like something that (we) couldn't win. And many people who understood what was going on on the inside also thought we couldn't win. We just moved around and said "thank you so much" and "we've got work to do" and moved on as fast as we could around people who said you can't get there from here. We moved around them. We tried to do it graciously, but we didn't have a lot of time to talk to people who tell you you can't do something. We just don't spend much time with them. But you listen.
Jim Ryun had done a very poor job of constituency service and that was well understood by most people. We never made a political campaign issue of it because he had helped a certain number of people and so if we had made a big issue out of it he would have trotted each one of those persons across the TV and (they would have) said "she's just such a horrible person" and here's what he's done to help me.
But the fact is, people gave him extremely low marks on constituent service.
We're moving into this office right here because it is much more accessible than the office he did have. Most people didn't know where it was - even people who live in Topeka had no idea where his office was.
We want to make sure that people have a direct communication and direct line of communication with their Congress person when they're trying to get things that they need through all the red tape in Washington. We're here to help that, but we also want to be right here to listen on both sides of issues. I'm hoping that when I do run for reelection in 2008 that we get high marks for our constituent service.
This is going to be our main office. We'll also have a satellite office in Pittsburg - we'll keep the one that's right there.
Unfortunately, we haven't gotten anything from Mr. Ryun's office. No communication from Mr. Ryun's office. No constituent service files - not even the phone numbers for the two offices. Very unusual. We've certainly called. There will be no interaction.
What we will do is after the first of the year we'll send out press releases and we'll say being there for constituents is my number one priority and this is how you get ahold of us. And if you contacted Mr. Ryun's office previously we're going to ask you to contact us and give us all the information over again. We'll apologize for having to do that on behalf of the constituents but they're not going to be happy about that. We will let them know that we don't have any of the information.
Steve Boyda: House administration said the technical rule is that all the information he gathers during his tenure, including telephone numbers, he need not transfer unless he simply wants to be cooperative.
And he's chosen not to be cooperative.
Nancy Boyda: What one thing we weren't expecting was that he wouldn't even transfer the numbers over for our office (in order) to get telephone numbers out to people before they're in phone books. Not everybody has access to the Web.
We'd been let to believe that it's standard even when somebody isn't going to be helpful in other ways they'll always help with that. It's just going to make everything very difficult. The web will help because people can go to the web and Nancy Boyda and they'll find out the numbers. But if you don't have access to the web, it's going to be difficult.
Question: Since a representative serves for two years, it seems as if you would have to campaign almost continuously to be re-elected. If that's the case, how do you balance that with the necessity of governing?
Answer: Well, during the campaign I wondered how anybody could do this every two years. I'd give anything if it were four years - first because it would be easier on me. But now I understand why our founders did it this way. You are totally right there with people. You have to stay connected with people from day one.
So, I recognize why they did it more now that I'm in office. I'm going to be out working to help people get their problems solved and I want to hear what's on their mind with regard to issues on both sides. I think the campaign will not be a whole lot different until deep into the election cycle.
What I did when I campaigned was listen and learn about what was on people's minds. I have the ability to go out and do something about it. That pleases me a great deal.
The Founders intended for representatives to stay close to people.
Question: How do you see your role philosophically, i.e., what percentage of your role do you see as a "pure" representative of the expressed interests of your constituents versus a role as a leader and persuader who may have opinions counter to those of the majority of the voters in your district and/or to very vocal groups?
Answer: I think I may bring a unique view. I've never governed, been in government, never served. I'll be finding out. But my intention is to bring people together to communicate when they've got very, very, very different ideas.
I'd like to do conservative talk radio here in Topeka - Jim Cates' show. I'll hear a lot, learn a lot, disspell a bunch of misinformation.
But, when I did talk radio on a Monday morning the week before last, the first guy called and was furious about an issue - Rails to Trails. He was just furious. He's a landowner. So I talked with him and I told him on the air "thank you" and I got his phone number. The fact is, after the first of the year we're going to sit down and have a couple of very small discussions on what the problem is and how we can get it resolved with the Rails to Trails people - not any big meeting, because if you got a great big meeting the chances of getting anything done go down.
But, what was amazing is that this is somebody who's been furious for years and nobody tried to (fix) the problem.
I think my views match those of the district - going out fighting for the middle class, fighting for those jobs, for health care, for education. That's what the district hired me to do.
I happen to be a bicyclist and advocate for Rails to Trails. So, I'm not going to try and persuade him about anything. I'm going to pull him in with somebody he needs to have a conversation with, then sit there and say "we're all good people." That's kind of my strong suit and certainly Steve's strong suit - the core belief that people generally want to do the right thing. And given the opportunity to understand two sides of an issue they'll work together to find a good solution.
We attended the meeting with the farm bill coalition. About 20 farm organizations will come together in 2007 about the farm bill and we want to have a voice - we want to do some things. I don't know of any other state, and I've been trying to just check around some, I don't think any other state is doing this.
That's Kansas because we're practical.
I am going to try and facilitate conflict resolution.
Question: Tell us about the "Blue-Dog Democrats." Who are they and why have you chosen to join them?
Answer: Well, first of all I have chosen to ask for an interview.
They are a coalition of 44 who represent the moderate side of the Democrats, mainly on fiscal issues. They are deeply concerned about the debt. Some are most vocal for pay-as-you-go legislation and understand that lack of fiscal responsibility is jeopardizing our future and our children's security. (U.S. Rep.) Dennis Moore is the policy chair.
I will be interviewing with them after the first of the year and I certainly hope to be part of their coalition.
They've made a difference.
The right-wing is going to do everything it can do demonize Nancy Pelosi and call her a liberal. She has five children. She just had her sixth grandchild. She is the four cookies, five children, kind of problem solver and very much wants to legislate and govern from the center - from the moderate position.
Being there in the center and being the moderate is going to be key not only to getting everything accomplished but to holding a majority - and they understand that.
Question: Will being a female representative be a plus or minus factor in your tenure, and why?
Answer: I got all kinds of questions about running as a woman especially after I won - magazines and all different kinds of groups.
I think being a woman was actually an advantage, but I really don't have any strong data to support that.
In Kansas, good common sense - what Kansans want more than anything is just practicality - common sense. I don't know whether when I ran that race over Jim Ryun if I was seen as just somebody who was more practical and common sense than Jim Ryun. People tend to know that a woman who has raised her family and managed and multi-tasked over and over for years is pretty able to get things done.
So, I don't know whether it helped or not - but I don't feel like it hurt.
Now we have Kathleen Sebelius - a good moderate, Democratic woman. We've got lots of good representatives and senators. A Democratic woman has held this seat - Nancy Landon Kassebaum. She was a way-finder. She found ways to get things done - a true uniter. She was common sense and practical and people loved her because of that.
Question: Looking at the map of the 2nd District, you not only represent K-State but also the western half of KU. How are you going to represent both of them at the same time?
Answer: (Laughs) How can I do that? I showed the good common sense to marry a man who graduated from both universities. It's just another example of my good common sense to marry this man right here. Steve's undergraduate and master's were from K-State and law degree from KU.
So, we are not a house divided - we are a house united.