This Democrat helped Republicans pass laws against transgender Kansans; he still enjoys support in his district
photo by: Blaise Mesa / Kansas News Service
KANSAS CITY, Kansas — A gazebo in northeast Wyandotte County marks a historic area with an important legacy as part of the Underground Railroad.
But the Quindaro Ruins has also become a symbol of division among Kansas Democratic lawmakers and constituents in that district.
The freshman legislator who represents this part of Kansas City, Kansas — Democratic Rep. Marvin Robinson — ended the Legislature’s session by regularly siding with Republicans when voting on important legislation, including a plan to increase work requirements for food stamps and bills that restrict transgender rights.
Shortly after those votes, a $250,000 provision to fund the restoration of the Quindaro Ruins ended up in the Republican-controlled Legislature’s budget plan.
That’s led some of Robinson’s Democratic colleagues to say that he sold his votes to get Republican support for an issue he cares about at the expense of policies that would benefit his community. And it may cost him his political future.
“He’s a crusader and he’s willing to die on his sword,” said Rep. Louis Ruiz, who also represents part of Kansas City. “Well, his political career probably did die on his sword.”
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly ultimately vetoed the funding, a move that appeared to be political punishment toward Robinson for straying from the Democratic path. She said she vetoed the funding because it was added late in the session and was not fully vetted.
But the derision from his own party may not hurt Robinson back home in one of the strongest Democratic districts in the state. Some in the Kansas City community believe Robinson was doing what he thought was best to support a long-sought project in an underserved, and often overlooked, community.
Stefon King, a Kansas City, Kansas, resident for more than 30 years, said Robinson’s neighbors still have unwavering support for him.
He said Kelly’s decision to veto the funding was a misstep and a misunderstanding of the district. And if the Democratic Party tries to unseat Robinson in the 2024 election cycle, it won’t be easy.
“They think they are going to get Marvin out,” King said. “Nobody’s going to run against Marvin.”
Robinson first raised eyebrows with his vote to overturn Kelly’s veto of a bill that bans transgender girls from participating in girls sports at public schools and colleges.
Robinson was the decisive vote and the only Democratic lawmaker to back the override, angering his colleagues and Democratic Party groups. The LGBTQ+ Caucus even called for him to resign.
Robinson likely didn’t receive much backlash back home from that vote. Democratic Rep. Ford Carr of Wichita, who represents a district similar to Robinson’s, said bills related to transgender people are not a major concern for their districts. He believes Robinson’s vote to override the veto was aligned with his constituents’ views.
But the breadth of Robinson’s dissent from the Democratic Party wasn’t fully known until later. During the last week of the session, Robinson voted along with Republicans to reject expanding Medicaid and override a veto of a bill that increased work requirements for people to receive food assistance.
Carr said Robinson’s votes on those issues hurt both of their communities, where many people rely on food and health assistance. He said he also learned Robinson was at one point a recipient of food stamps.
“From an ethical standpoint, it’s just horrendous,” Carr said. “I don’t understand how he could have taken those votes.”
Robinson’s votes also raised questions about his loyalty to his party. He said his votes did not mean he was rejecting the Democratic Party, according to the Kansas City Star. Instead he blamed the party for how underserved his district is.
“The Democratic Party,” Robinson said, “left our area in the shambles that it is now.”
Robinson did not respond to repeated calls, emails and text messages requesting further comment.
When the funding appeared for the Quindaro Ruins, Robinson’s voting record against Democratic policy stances began to make sense to Ruiz.
Robinson and Republican lawmakers denied making a deal to exchange votes for the Quindaro funding. But Ruiz said he doesn’t believe that.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Ruiz said.
Carr believes Robinson sold his votes because Carr was also approached by Republicans to make a deal. But those discussions abruptly ended. Carr suspects that meant Republican lawmakers found someone else to make a deal with.
Carr said he was also suspicious because Robinson’s votes mostly followed how Republican Rep. Patrick Penn of Wichita had voted. At the end of the session, Penn noted in a newsletter to his constituents that he had fostered a friendly relationship with Robinson and worked with him to secure the Quindaro Ruins funding.
“The votes he was taking were not his own,” Carr said.
Democratic Sen. David Haley, whose district overlaps with Robinson’s and includes the Quindaro Ruins, said he has known Robinson for decades and believed him when he denied knowing the funding was going to be included in the budget.
Additionally, Robinson has leaned conservative before he was a lawmaker, Haley said, and even supported the elections of Republicans Sam Brownback, the former governor, and Kevin Yoder, a former congressman.
Haley said it’s possible Robinson would have made the votes regardless of the circumstances.
“He didn’t flip his vote because he had no record on which to rely on,” Haley said.
Meanwhile, Haley said it’s unclear whether Robinson’s renegade voting pattern will hurt him politically.
Robinson has spent decades fighting to preserve the Quindaro Ruins and it may be the most important issue to some voters in the district, Haley said. And Kelly’s veto of the funding is disappointing to some residents in the district, regardless of their political affiliation. Haley said he fears her decision will hurt the party brand in the area.
That’s how King feels. He said Kelly shouldn’t have vetoed the funding.
“I think it’s going to hurt Laura Kelly in this area,” King said.
But there is still lingering concern over Robinson’s votes among other members of the community. The Rev. Tony Carter Jr. of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas, said Robinson’s votes on Medicaid and food stamps were the opposite of what his constituents expected him to do.
Carter said there’s still time for Robinson to make things right.
“This is his first time at this,” Carter said. “And so maybe there’s a learning curve for him. And at some point, as he gets more informed, he will again be more representative of the community that he serves.”
— Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service.