Topeka Dozens of people marched Saturday to the Kansas Statehouse to protest potential budget cuts and other policies pursued by Gov. Sam Brownback and fellow Republicans who dominate state government.
Their protests initially were inspired by Brownback’s proposal to move the Kansas Human Rights Commission, an independent agency, under the attorney general’s office. But the governor dropped the plan earlier this week, and speakers at the rally touched on a wide range of issues, including immigration, abortion rights and protection from employment discrimination for gays and lesbians.
Organizers described their events as a civil rights march and rally. The groups involved included the state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and the gay rights group Kansas Equality Coalition.
About 150 people marched nine blocks to the south steps of the Statehouse from the national historic site dedicated to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. They chanted, “This is what democracy looks like” and, “Civil rights are here to stay.”
“We are standing together,” said the Rev. Ben Scott, president of NAACP’s Topeka chapter. “This is one time we will stand up against the enemies that try to hold us back, because we realize we’ve come too far to turn around now.”
Organizers originally had hoped that hundreds of people would converge on the Statehouse, but the day was cool and overcast, and showers had been forecast. Thunder punctuated the speeches and chanting, and a light rain pelted participants as the rally drew to a close.
Rally participants criticized Brownback’s plan to close a budget shortfall because it includes a 6 percent cut in the state’s base aid to its schools. They also tried to paint Brownback and many Republican legislators as conservative extremists who are attacking the rights of workers, women and immigrants.
“They’re not doing what we elected them to do,” said Lester Shotwell, a Wichita resident disabled by kidney disease. “How dare they try to take away the rights of the people?”
State GOP Chairwoman Amanda Adkins said Kansans’ top priority is creating jobs for more than 100,000 state residents who are without work, then noted strong bipartisan support behind legislative approval of a plan from Brownback to lure people from other states to declining Kansas counties with income tax breaks.
“Kansans of all backgrounds and viewpoints are coming together behind ideas to grow our state,” Adkins said. “That’s the top priority.”
Brownback’s plan to move the Human Rights Commission spurred plans for the rally because the NAACP and other groups feared it would make the commission more partisan and less effective.
The governor argued the commission would be more effective in investigating discrimination complaints with the resources of the attorney general’s office behind it, but also proposed the move as a way to save $231,000 a year. He’s still pursuing the budget cuts.
“The compromise on the Human Rights Commission saves taxpayer dollars and will serve Kansans well,” Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said after the rally.
Rally participants acknowledged that Brownback had backed off but remain wary of his administration.
“I am honored to be standing with progressive Kansans that know our state can and will be better,” said Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney and immigrant rights advocate who represents both Planned Parenthood and Kansas Equality Coalition. “Our country has taken a giant step backward recently, and we cannot permit it to go in that direction.”