Kansas black leaders agree on legislative, election agenda at statewide meeting

? Nearly 75 black community leaders from throughout Kansas gathered at a historic black church in Topeka on Saturday to adopt their first-ever statewide legislative agenda, calling for expanding Medicaid, repealing restrictive voting laws, reforming criminal sentencing, and putting more restrictions on payday lenders, among other measures.

Members of the Kansas Black Leadership Council — who came from Kansas City, Wichita, Salina, Junction City and several other communities in Kansas — said their goal is to influence legislation in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. But they also said they plan to carry the agenda forward into the 2016 elections.

“I see it as a motivator to get people out to vote,” said Bonita Gooch, KBLC president and publisher of the Community Voice, an African-American newspaper in Wichita. “If you understand what the issues are, and how they impact you, you’re more likely to vote.”

Members of the Kansas Black Leadership Council vote in Topeka to adopt their first statewide legislative agenda calling for expanding Medicaid, repealing restrictive voting laws, criminal justice reform and a host of other measures.

Saturday’s convention represented the first time KBLC delegates have come together to adopt a unified, statewide political agenda for an upcoming legislative session and the elections to follow.

It also came on the heels of rising political activism among black students at Kansas University and other college campuses, as well as the nationwide “Black Lives Matter” movement, a response in cities throughout the nation to the deaths of unarmed black citizens at the hands of police officers.

“I think that things have been brewing, and they simply were not addressed,” said Melody McCray-Miller, a former legislator who is now a vice chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party. “I think that with the Black Lives Matter movement, it has empowered, particularly younger African-Americans, younger people period. Because it’s not just a black thing. I mean, it’s across the continuum of races.”

The convention was held at the historic St. John AME Church near downtown Topeka, which was built in 1864 and has long been a center of political and cultural activity within Topeka’s black community.

“It is a remarkable, historic time,” said Pamela Myrtis Mason, the newly installed pastor of the church. “As one of the last presenters said, talking about the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, things began in this area at the church. So we’re thankful to be here to be able to host (the event).”

Although the final wording of the platform was still being worked out after Saturday’s meeting, the issues agreed upon included:

• Expansion of the Kansas Medicaid program, or KanCare, as allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act, to cover more low-income, working adults.

• Restrictions on payday loan companies, including limiting interest rates to 35 percent a year, mirroring both federal and state law as it applies to members of the military.

• Raising the state’s minimum wage to as much as $15 an hour over the next few years.

• Repealing new voting laws that require voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register and all voters to show photo ID at the polls.

• Repealing the death penalty in Kansas.

• Expanding the use of body cameras among police and other law enforcement officials.

• Establishing economic development programs to spur business development and job creation in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods.

• And criminal justice reforms, including reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and eliminating the requirement to post bail for some criminal defendants.

KBLC leaders said the agenda reflects issues that are important to the black community in Kansas. But they acknowledged the issues are also important to many white Kansans. And in a conservative state like Kansas, they conceded, they will have to build coalitions with Republicans in order to pass any of them.

But they also noted that support is already building among Republicans for some of the issues on the agenda.

The Kansas Federation of College Republicans, for example, recently adopted a resolution supporting repeal of the death penalty. And Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, told the group that he believes if a bill to expand Medicaid were placed on the floor of the Kansas House for an up-or-down vote, it would pass with 65 to 70 votes in the 125-member chamber.

Noticeably absent from the convention, though, was almost anyone, black or white, under the age of 40. KBLC leaders acknowledged that mobilizing young voters has been a challenge across the political spectrum in recent years. But they intend to push their agenda out to young voters, through social media and other platforms.

“They’re there. They’re just not here,” McCray-Miller said.

“It’s all about making the issues relevant to them,” Gooch said. “And if we can connect the issues to them, and why it’s important, I think we can pull them out. And that’s going to be a challenge, but I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a challenge, based on this agenda.”