Kansas Democrats pondered Saturday how to rebuild after last year’s disastrous elections but found encouragement in a rally that brought hundreds of people to the Statehouse to wave signs, sing protest songs and show support for the party’s union allies.
Democratic activists and elected officials from across the state gathered in Topeka for Washington Days, the party’s biggest annual convention. The Democratic State Committee unanimously selected former state Revenue Secretary Joan Wagnon as the party’s new state chairwoman; she’s also a former Topeka mayor and former Kansas House member.
She follows Larry Gates, an Overland Park attorney, who was chairman eight years, and she promised to travel the state to nurture local party organizations and recruit candidates, particularly for the Legislature. She acknowledged Republicans prospered last year by exploiting voter discontent with Washington and tying Kansas Democrats at all levels to President Barack Obama.
“I think we saw a lot of backlash against Obama, and quite frankly, the Republicans outflanked us,” she said after the Democrats’ meeting. “We have to reshape our message a little bit.”
For many Democrats, the “Save the American Dream” rally Saturday represented a start toward rebuilding the party. Taking a break from caucus meetings, Wagnon and other Democrats left a hotel for the south steps of the Statehouse, ignoring the chilly air and gray sky outside.
Progressive groups and unions organized such events across the nation to show solidarity with public employee unions in Wisconsin, which are fighting Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to strip them of most of their collective bargaining rights.
Kansas union members and their supporters who rallied in Topeka found plenty to criticize in their home state. Republicans last year swept all statewide and congressional races on the ballot since 1964 and increased their legislative majorities. Rally speakers suggested the result was an extreme-right, anti-worker state government.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that the Democratic base wasn’t energized in the 2010 elections,” state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said after the rally. “The Republicans are doing a great job of rallying our base.”
At least 500 people participated in the event, shouting, waving signs and ending the event with energetic choruses of “This Land is Your Land,” though organizers put the count at 1,200. The Democratic Party promoted the event to activists at its convention.
Chuck Tribble, an Overland Park truck driver and International Brotherhood of Teamsters member, acknowledged being disillusioned with Democratic President Barack Obama, but he was impressed by a fiery pro-union speech Saturday from state Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka. Tribble said it typifies what Democrats need to do to reconnect with voters like him.
“They need to come out here today when stuff like this is going on, and be with us,” he said. “I’m ready. I’d stand with them in a moment.”
But Ashley McMillan, the Kansas Republican Party’s executive director, was skeptical that Democrats can reconnect with Kansas voters. She said voters will assess GOP officials on how well they create jobs and revive the economy, something they’re working to do.
Justin DeLong, a Gardner computer programmer and tea party movement participant who watched the rally, said voters gave power to Republicans because they want to move away from policies pushed by political progressives. DeLong said he’s not an opponent of unions, but he also held a sign saying his American dream was “personal responsibility.”
“It’s time to get back to fiscal responsibility,” he said. “It’s time to get our budgets under control.”
Rally speakers compared the pro-union demonstrators to protesters who’ve toppled repressive governments in Tunisia and Egypt and are threatening to do so in Libya. They described Walker’s proposal on collective bargaining in Wisconsin — which the governor says is needed to help balance that state’s budget — as part of a national attack on workers’ rights by GOP conservatives and their big-business backers.
“I’m a crazy, red-blooded Kansan that says, ’We must stand together,’” said rally speaker Teresa Molina, a Wichita high school Spanish teacher and board president of a local service and advocacy group, Sunflower Community Action.
Union members see a Wisconsin-style political attack in a Kansas bill prohibiting unions from automatically deducting money from workers’ paychecks for labor groups’ political activities. The state House approved it this past week.
The bill’s supporters see it as protecting workers from being required to contribute to campaigns they don’t support. Opponents of the bill say workers always can opt out of paycheck deductions and see the measure as an attempt to cripple unions’ fundraising and political influence.
“It’s spreading all over the country,” said Dan Holland, a Kansas City, Kan., truck driver and Teamster. “They’re trying to bust the labor unions because that’s the major — only, last major — form of financial support and boots on the ground that the Democratic Party has.”
Dozens of union members shouted from the House gallery to members, urging them to oppose the bill as it came up for a final vote. Capitol Police officers and doorkeepers told them to leave the gallery and then escorted them out.
Amid allegations that union members had shouted obscenities and vulgar sexual terms at female Republican legislators and staffers — strongly disputed by union leaders — the Kansas GOP issued a statement decrying “street tactics” by “union thugs.”
Hensley began his speech with, “You don’t look like thugs.”
“You look like Kansans,” he said. “We will not be silenced!”
McMillan contrasted the furor over the paycheck deduction bill with Kansas officials’ successful efforts in lobbying for a lucrative Air Force contract for major Kansas employer Boeing Co. While those Republicans were trying to create jobs, McMillan said, Democrats were trying to ensure that their biggest political benefactors could still funnel them campaign cash easily.
“I think Kansans are very clearly seeing that,” she said.