Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How Tim Owens Saved Kansas

I want to relate a little story that might otherwise get lost in the historical shuffle.

The first year I was a lobbyist in Kansas was 2012. It was a very eventful year: the Brownback tax "experiment" got underway, and it was also the year Brownback and the Koch's purged the moderate leadership in the state senate - 7 out of 9 moderate GOP Senators were knocked off in Republican primaries. It took years for sanity to return; till this year, in fact.

Tim Owens was my state senator that year, as well as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are few contemporary politicians whose record of service is more admirable than Tim's. He served in Vietnam, and then was an elected official in Overland Park and in the Kansas legislature for basically 30 years. He was like a throwback to a previous generation, to the likes of Bob Dole, who saw public service as a public trust and a public responsibility -- in marked contrast to his successors, who are too often motivated by partisan ideology rather than any kind of sense of public service.

Anyway, in 2012 Tim was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. One of the committee's tasks that year was to redraw the state's legislative districts in the aftermath of the 2010 census. This was the time when the Kochfrastructure was pushing "Redmap", a massive plan to gerrymander districts to Republican advantage - a task that was largely successful nationwide, and which has had electoral repercussions to this day.

Of course the ascendant ultra-conservative caucus in the Kansas Republican Party and in the Kochfrastructure wanted to do the same thing here. But... they didn't have Senate leadership. Tim was also well aware of the plan to purge the Moderates, and that he was being targeted in the primary by Greg Smith, an ultra-Con who had been elected as a State Representative in the 2010 wave. So in addition to trying to stave off the overall gerrymander, Tim was trying to keep Smith out of his district as well.*

*Tom Witt reminds me that when the bill got to the floor Owens proposed an amendment to his own plan to move Smith into his district. In the end the maps the courts approved had Smith in another district altogether.

So the Moderates had a map, and the ultra-Cons had a map, and they couldn't agree - stalemate. In the end it got thrown to the courts, and they drew the maps - the kind of non-partisan "commission" that good governance-voter rights types always want.

It didn't help the Mods that year*, of course, or in 2014, but in 2016, in the aftermath of the obvious failure of the Brownback tax experiment, many of the Cons who had been brought to office in the 2012 wave (including Smith) were turned out by Moderates in the Republican primary, and then the Democrats picked up additional seats in the fall. It was this result that allowed the legislature to pass the repeal of the Brownback tax disaster in this year's session.

* Tim was ill-suited to the kind of election that is run these days, in terms of the money needed or the physical labor involved. He didn't like to/wasn't really physically up to the kind of door-to-door canvassing that's necessary to overcome the Conservatives' financial advantages, and anyway he was kind of offended that he would have to prove himself to people he had served for so long. But he did.**

** I'll also mention that the only time in my life that I have been a registered Republican was for about 3 weeks in the summer of 2012, so I could vote for Tim Owens in the primary. It didn't help; he got creamed. I went to his election watch party that night, and it was a very dispirited atmosphere, I can tell you. 

So because Tim was Judiciary Chair, and because he was stubborn, the Ultra-Cons were not able to fully gerrymander Kansas' voting districts in 2012. That had a benefit four years later when the election went the other way -- a result that I believe wouldn't have been possible if Redmap had been put into full effect in Kansas. And it was because of that that Kansas was able to begin the turnaround to financial sanity in the 2016 session.

And that, my friends, is how Tim Owens saved Kansas. It was basically his last act of public service, and it was a big one.


  1. I think the Kansas State Legislature's Research Department should also get some credit, since they ended up drawing the maps that were ultimately used. Here's to hoping they get to do it again in 2020!

  2. Another way in which Tim was an exemplary legislator was his willingness to hold town halls in 2011 & 2012 at which Tea Party plants openly ridiculed him. He spoke openly and honestly--which really pissed them off and surely sealed his fate in 2012.

  3. Decency and honesty and perseverance and spunk are not dead nor are they on the ropes. The unsung, behind-the-scene folks like Tim Owens have always been around. It's the general atmosphere of mistrust and greed and narcissism which cries out for moderation and progress toward the real goal - better service to all of the Citizenry. The 1% and even the 20% have their needs met. Let's go for the other 99% or 80%. Thanks, Tim Owens. And thanks, Reb Moti. We must shine a light on the deeds of honor and character. The abundance of Characters in Washington and elsewhere needs trimming. Snip, snip, snip...