Editor’s note: A version of this article appears in the Winter 2014 Journal, which will soon arrive in mailboxes.
Remember the first day of high school?
There’s trepidation about the unknown. The unease of looking foolish while juggling a rigorous workload. And a lingering concern about upperclassmen.
That essentially sums up how many freshman House members say they felt as they walked into the majestic Statehouse when the 2013 session of the Kansas Legislature began. Often newbies come to Topeka ready to take on the world but end up biding time until they learn the ropes and earn the trust of key committee members in order to gain footing and make a difference.
But a lot changed in 2013 when the largest freshman class of legislators in four decades was sworn into office, a byproduct of federal judges redrawing boundaries to resolve a redistricting dispute. The ruling prompted a mad rush of last-minute candidate filings. In the House, the influx of newcomers was especially significant. Forty-nine new members in that 125-person body served in the Legislature for the first time.
Over the course of the session, House members became an important source of votes as the Legislature wrestled with – and eventually settled on – making part of a temporary sales tax increase permanent to help shore up the state’s budget a year after the passage of historic income tax cuts.
The position was a particularly sticky one for House freshmen, many of whom ran on a platform of cutting government spending and lowering taxes. They all found themselves voting on whether to help pay for major decisions that predated their tenure.
With a year’s worth of experience under their belts, the House’s freshmen are back to work this week. Entering the election-year session, members acknowledge that it’s unclear how strongly connected the class will remain. It also remains to be seen what level of influence the group might wield now and into the future.
Longtime Statehouse observer Martin Hawver, who publishes Hawver’s Capitol Report, says the last-minute redistricting decision meant candidates put their name on a ballot without much time to figure out what the Kansas Legislature was all about. The jury remains still very much out on what the impact of the newcomers might be.
“There’s really a learning curve because so many people were essentially talked into running,” Hawver says.
Rep. Steve Becker of Buhler.
COMMUNICATION THROUGH DISAGREEMENT
The freshmen sworn into the House in January 2013 tended to be mostly Republican and fiscally and socially conservative. But the group included lawmakers from differing points on the political spectrum. They all quickly learned that the freshman class shared an identity of sorts that crossed ideologies. They all want to make Kansas a better place. Of course getting there was the tricky part.
Former legislator Kenny Wilk, Lansing, says the class was unique for its size. But he was also struck by the diversity in age and background.
“I’m really delighted at the diversity and background of folks. They’ve got such a wide range of experiences that they all bring,” says Wilk, who served as faculty for Leadership and Legacy in the Statehouse, the Kansas Leadership Center’s seven-month course for new legislators. “The fact of the matter is you’ve got some fairly young members in this class, and then you’ve got folks who are retired. But yet they’ve come together and seem to enjoy each other and they seem to have some ability to take that wide range of perspective and ability and put it all together.”
Even after a bruising and highly partisan session many House freshmen say they don’t look back and see a malicious legislative body. Instead many believe the chamber’s freshmen will be remembered as a free-thinking group that – though sharply divided at times – didn’t waste time jumping into the complex and intricate details that go into the public’s business.
“I would say about 99 percent of the freshmen that I worked with really are doing this job because they really do care and they want to make Kansas a better place. They genuinely do. They disagree with me on how to do it. But at least it’s easy to find that common ground,” says Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Republican from Overland Park.
Wilk was impressed by the group’s ability to keep discussion going despite disagreements. Typically freshman lawmakers come together for a preparatory class then go to their separate caucuses.
It might be too early to tell what distinguishes this class, but he’s “cautiously optimistic” that communication will be part of it. Ideally, he’d like to see lawmakers sharing stories about their families and creating bonds early on.
“Over the long haul, that’s the stuff that can make a difference in civil discourse,” Wilk says.
Communication – even through disagreement – is critical, he says.
“You want to have relationships strong enough that they always keep talking,” he said. “We’ve seen an example very recently in Washington of what happens when people aren’t talking. Government is paralyzed. We are better than that.”
Rep. Stephanie Clayton of Overland Park (lower left)
UNITED, IF ONLY FOR A MOMENT
But lawmakers freely acknowledge that maintaining dialogue became a challenge as the friction of the session became more intense. Friendships began to wear as the session dragged on, and tax policy prompted clear division.
“We were best friends and then we started voting differently, and we all broke apart,” Clayton says.
Just as it seemed the freshmen had pulled apart for good, a news story popped up. Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce made a comment to a reporter that some interpreted as pinning the blame for an extended session and budget impasse on inexperienced freshman lawmakers.
“Most of them spent half of the session trying to find where the bathrooms are,” Bruce told The Topeka Capital-Journal. “And we’re asking them to change state policy for a generation. That’s an intimidating task.”
The words reverberated across the state. Some lawmakers laughed it off, but others felt insulted.
“Talk about drawing the freshman class together,” says Rep. Steve Becker, a Republican from Buhler. “All of a sudden we’re all on the same team.”
The freshman GOP caucus chair, Ottawa Republican Rep. Blaine Finch, wrote a response defending his chamber’s newcomers. He noted that the group included military officials, former mayors, sitting city council and school board members, successful entrepreneurs, farmers, ranchers and “people with excellent analytical skills who are more than capable of understanding state tax policy.”
The moment didn’t last long though. The senator’s comment “brought us all together again albeit for a brief and fleeting moment,” Clayton says. “I think that was the last time that the freshmen class of 2012 will all be together again.”
Rep. Charles Macheers of Shawnee and his family.
BEYOND POLITICAL IDEOLOGY
Becker says the comment didn’t represent how the freshmen class was treated overall.
“There’s a certain camaraderie among all of the representatives, and I think we freshmen were so welcomed and accepted that we weren’t treated like ‘sit down and shut up,’” Becker said.
Some freshman lawmakers had spent months, even years in the Statehouse working in other capacities.
“They knew where to go. They knew who was who. They knew the little secrets,” Clayton said. “I didn’t know any of those secrets. I actually had not stepped foot in the Capitol since my fourth-grade field trip.”
But Clayton walked in knowing several faces. She was one of 30 lawmakers – including one senator, Steve Fitzgerald of Leavenworth – who attended KLC’s Leadership and Legacy in the Statehouse. The program brought freshman lawmakers together for a series of retreats and workshops before, during and after the session.
Several participants say the training helped strip ideologies and open dialogue for pragmatic conversations.
Rep. Charles Macheers, a Republican from Shawnee, says the relationship building set a strong foundation.
“You got to establish professional relationships with [other legislators] earlier, and it’s very important to have a rapport and relationships when you’re doing business,” Macheers said.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway, went to the Statehouse knowing she would find herself regularly at odds with some of the most powerful Republicans regarding education. The class allowed her to start making connections before debate began.
“There was so much value in getting to know my colleagues outside of the Topeka arena,” Rooker said. “There were a lot of people I don’t think I could have approached otherwise.”
“We became familiar with people beyond their political ideologies,” Becker said. “You hang labels around other people’s necks. And we put so much reliance and importance on those labels. What the leadership course did was to show me that those labels are so superficial.”
Rep. Melissa Rooker, Fairway, and her son in Lawrence.
FORMING UNUSUAL BONDS
The class connected Becker, a retired district court judge, with Rooker, a former Hollywood executive who lives in a Johnson County suburb. Becker laughs thinking how they were the most unlikely connection of the freshman class.
“What does a Kansas farm boy have in common with her,” laughs Becker. “But we do. We do have things in common.”
Rooker has been his go-to source on education issues. Rooker seeks his advice on criminal justice bills.
Rep. Brandon Whipple, a Wichita Democrat, said his party affiliation didn’t immediately come up during the retreats.
“Whipple, you’re a Democrat?” one lawmaker asked well into the coursework.
If KLC classmates knew his party, it didn’t seem to matter.
“We were able to build relationships based on what we were sharing with the class,” he said. “We were pretty exposed to each other in the course.”
The connections paid off for Whipple when they arrived in Topeka. He felt comfortable going to Republican classmates to ask their thoughts on a bill if he knew their background or professional job might provide more insight. And others felt comfortable coming to him.
There is value in getting to know people outside of debate, Macheers says.
An attorney by trade, Macheers is used to being in an adversarial role with other attorneys on legal matters but it doesn’t mean they can’t sit down together for a friendly lunch afterward. He knows that doesn’t come as easily for everyone.
“You can still be polite and get along,” he said. “We respect each other’s right to disagree.”
He appreciated how most lawmakers kept the debate temperature warm – but not hot.
“The founding fathers designed our republic to be bumpy. There’s supposed to be open, robust debate,” he said. “And that’s to make sure we don’t have bad laws.”
Rep. Brandon Whipple of Wichita and his son.
THE BASIS OF TRUST
The relationships made the environment friendly and respectful but it also became a crucial way to get things accomplished since nothing is accomplished alone in Topeka.
“There’s a certain amount of distrust when it comes to partisan politics, but if you have that relationship then it’s a lot easier to say, ‘no, this is what my goal is with this bill and what do you think of it and would you be on board with it?’ And you build that by having these interactions,” Whipple said.
That scenario happened this year when Clayton asked him to help generate support for a law that she introduced and feared might be misconstrued by Democrats who otherwise had no reason to trust her.
“She wrote a bill protecting women, and I got to stick up for her bill in my caucus because I knew her,” Whipple said.
Others from the class also came to Whipple to seek support. It impressed the new legislator.
“(Republicans) have a constitutional majority at this point, so technically they don’t need to include Democrats and sometimes they don’t,” he said.
It persuaded him not to shy away from striking up conversations with Republicans. He often found himself talking about movies and sharing jokes with a group of conservative lawmakers about his age.
“You can’t let partisanship get in the way of making friends,” he said. “We don’t agree on much when it comes to politics, but we were able to go out to eat and hang out when it’s appropriate.”
Rep. Kevin Jones, Wellsville, and his family.
STANDING BY PRINCIPLES
Yet the job was hardly easy. Several lawmakers found themselves unexpectedly in the spotlight and influencing others.
Rooker was heckled as she delivered a statement about gun control at the well, the podium from which legislators speak to the body. She remembers it was late, and only lawmakers were inside the room.
“That stunned me,” she said. “I was stunned at the absolute lack of respect.”
But she continued on because she wanted to explain her vote.
“I think anytime a legislator casts a vote, they’re either leading or following,” Rooker says.
Several lawmakers say they were also able to exercise influence in unexpected ways.
“One of the very satisfying experiences was when my colleagues would come to me and ask me what I thought,” Becker says. “They trust my opinion on court and criminal matters.”
The budget process also proved telling for Rep. Kevin Jones, a Republican from Wellsville.
“The way I voted influenced others whether I liked it or not,” Jones says, reflecting on the tense predicament he faced.
Jones declined to change his no vote on the budget even when questioned by others whom he greatly respected. The budget included a spending measure that went against one of his guiding principles. It left the freshman in the awkward position of being at odds with nearly every fellow conservative in Topeka.
At one point, one vote was the only thing that stood in the way of the budget passing and the entire legislative body going home for the year. Several legislators turned around and stared squarely at the freshman. Jones stood firm even though he too wanted little more than to go home.
“There are certain things you can’t go against,” Jones says.
Others agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment.
“It’s not worth doing if I can’t stand by my principles,” Rooker says. “It isn’t worth the energy.”
WHAT KIND OF LEGACY?
Ask just about any freshman lawmaker about his or her legacy and the answer isn’t all that different. They want to create a brighter future for Kansans.
Macheers holds out an iPhone photo that captures his young son, a kindergartener, flashing an angelic smile.
“Everything I vote on, I’m thinking of him,” he says.
Jones is clear on that, too. He doesn’t want his children saddled with debt and ineffective laws. He’s going to use that guidance to let his legacy find him.
“Any legislator should be very careful about trying to manufacture (a legacy),” Jones says.
Many agreed that it’s too early to write their legacy. Some don’t want to think of it in those terms at all.
“I don’t write my legacy. Someone else writes my legacy,” Becker says firmly.
Yet he and many others have already naturally created the groundwork.
Next year Becker plans to continue a drive to abolish the death penalty. Jones will again push hard against creating any additional debt. Rooker plans to continue work on education policy.
But most lawmakers aren’t fixated on just one issue.
“What I want most is to build consensus,” Rooker says.
However, the House class legacy may also be partially defined by how they handle the challenges and circumstances thrown at them. University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis says there are several issues that may test lawmakers this year, and in the years ahead.
“How they deal with impending issues like funding education maybe in the face of a court order and declining tax revenues that are starting to slump” could be among them, Loomis says.
But many say their goals and ultimate legacy should be about something that can be less hard to quantify.
Macheers wants to be known as someone who has done his due diligence and research on every single bill he votes on. The historic nature of their work is hardly lost on him and others. It’s something he and others considered every time they cast a vote.
“It has to be good law 10 years from now,” he says. “It has to be something that lasts for a long time.”