Kansas progressives face a moment of truth
Laura Kelly on inauguration day at the Kansas State Capitol on Jan. 14, 2019, in Topeka, Kan. Kelly on Twitter condemned recent statements comparing COVID-19 restrictions to the Holocaust. - Mark Reinstein/Zuma Press/TNS
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly kicked progressive advocates in the teeth by signing a rightwing political stunt masquerading as legislation on Tuesday.

The law supposedly bans “sanctuary cities” in the state. What it really does is target undocumented Kansans and those who worked patiently to pass an ordinance protecting them in Wyandotte County. The bill was introduced by Kelly’s gubernatorial rival, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, and pushed through in the last days of the legislative session.

No doubt Kelly saw the writing on the wall. A veto would tar her as insufficiently tough on border issues (never mind that Kansas’ actual border issue is businesses moving to Kansas City, Missouri). The Legislature had enough votes to override a veto anyway.

The cold, calculating decision? Sign the bill, blame the U.S. Congress, and move on to a pleasant photo op designating the Sandhill plum as the official state fruit.

“Both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have failed to address immigration issues for decades. We need a national solution and we need it now,” Kelly said, conveniently blaming both parties and removing herself from the equation altogether.

Kelly’s political course should be clear to everyone at this point. She’s working to make sure as little daylight exists between her and Schmidt as possible. Where distinctions exist, she angles to make them as advantageous as possible.

– Clay Wirestone

For instance, the governor consistently called for a full repeal of the state’s sales tax on groceries. Schmidt has supported cutting the tax, but not necessarily to zero. While Republicans in the Legislature grumble about critical race theory and attempt to pass parents’ bill of rights legislation, Kelly will tout her commitment to fully funding public schools without gimmicks.

Progressive advocates don’t appear to have other options. Are they going to vote for Schmidt instead? And are there enough of them to be decisive in a statewide vote for governor? Kelly has dared them, in essence, to stay home on Election Day and suffer the consequences.

I expect that when November rolls around, most of these advocates will turn out and vote for Kelly. They might grit their teeth and curse, but they will vote.

Politics works on two fundamental principles: power and fear. Those in the political sphere work to accumulate the first. Their relationships with others are determined by the second. Politicians who have gained power fear the folks who can legitimately put their electoral prospects or legislative majorities at risk. That’s why folks take the Kansas Chamber’s calls.

Kelly rightly fears what national and state Republicans could do to her reelection bid if she vetoed the sanctuary city bill. She didn’t fear what national and state progressives would do. Indeed, for many conservative voters, the spectacle of her kicking liberals in the teeth might earn their grudging respect. It shows she’s not like the rest of those silly, pie-in-the-sky Democrats.

This was, as I wrote last week, a bill that no one wanted. Precious few voters called for it. But the fact that it passed by wide margins and was signed by Kelly shows vividly who holds power in Kansas politics.

I don’t have pleasant answers or easy solutions for this situation. Ambitious progressives are often told to go build power at the local level. Beyond that, they are often told to participate in the committee process at the Statehouse through testimony.

Well, progressives did both for the Safe and Welcoming ordinance. They created a local groundswell of support in Wyandotte County and then defended the measure as best they could in Topeka. They did everything right, and look at what it got them.

A mouthful of bloody, broken teeth.

Building progressive political power in Kansas will take serious investment from those inside and outside the state. It will take a commitment of years, if not decades, to build institutions with enough clout to instill fear in politicians of both parties. Most importantly, it will recognize that simply electing a Democratic governor doesn’t mean that liberals suddenly seized political power. It means a canny politician figured out how to win a specific race.

Kelly will do what she thinks she needs to win. I’ve pointed out before that she’s uncommonly agile as a candidate. She may well earn another term. Perhaps she will even use that term to do good for undocumented folks.

That’s cold comfort in the moment, however, to Kansans targeted in Wyandotte County.

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