To begin with, the renovations look great! If you have an opportunity to tour the newly updated State House, take advantage of it. The history recorded through the paintings and statues is a strong reminder that our state is the home of abolitionists and farmers…progressives and suffragists. It is important to remember those who came before us in order to understand the turmoil being wreaked on our great state by today’s current batch of legislators.
My friend Stacey and I had driven to Topeka to participate in Equality Kansas’ “Day of Equality” in order to show our opposition to House Bill 2453 and in order to represent the hundreds of our friends who couldn’t participate but who were there in spirit.
We met on the 2nd floor and received citizen lobby packets, which included factual information regarding the bill’s language and corrected the false claims made the by the Representatives who voted “yes” on the bill (most of the over 70 who did so are hesitant to even speak on their vote now).
Stacey and I were both anxious, having been tasked with visiting our State Representative and our State Senator. She knew she’d have to share her own story and sit face to face with two people who appear to view her and her partner as second class citizens. I knew I’d be facing my opponent from two years ago; what made me more nervous, though, was the daunting thought of trying to hold anything close to a civil conversation with Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, the (probably) most conservative Senator in Topeka and a woman well known for using foul language and aggressive posture when confronting anyone with whom she disagrees.
Stories abound with regard to Mary’s mistreatment of others, but one of the latest to slip out of Topeka has to do with the circus she ran when bringing in two pregnant women and having sonograms performed on them under the Capital Dome. Lobbyists, who cannot speak on record, have let slip that even Senate President Susan Wagle was embarrassed and disgusted by Mary’s antics. The story goes, but it is hearsay, that Wagle approached Mary to urge her to drop the pursuit, backing up the request with support from the conservative coalition in the Senate and even a request from the governor himself.
Mary’s response, loosely, was for President Wagle to “go (insert word) herself”.
Was this recorded? Nope; it’s just part of the scuttlebutt going around the Capital. She will be running for Senate reelection in 2016 in Shawnee in case you are interested.
Alas, Mary couldn’t be found. We were told by her secretary that she’d be in committee meetings all day, wouldn’t be back in the office at all, and had a similar schedule all week.
Representative Charles Macheers, however, stumbled upon us while we were standing outside his office waiting to find out when he would return.
The Representative’s shock was visible when I introduced myself but he recovered and kindly invited us to sit. I think he thought I would attack him or something; I thought he would stutter and drool. Both of us were wrong. Stacey was angrier than me, which is understandable since I benefit from marriage and this Representative’s bill denies hers.
Several things became glaringly apparent to me during our meeting.
First of all, Representative Macheers is not a monster, far from it. The anger resulting from this bill has taken a toll on him (and his family; he mentioned how hard this has been on his wife and I feel for her). His hands were shaking while we spoke and he seemed almost apologetic.
This Representative has been badly used by his party. He shared with us that when the bill was handed off to him and he was asked to present it he was told it would be simple. “We sponsor one social bill a year and they said it would be a ten minute discussion on the floor with a majority vote and we would move on. I never saw this type of backlash coming.”
He was unfamiliar with the language in the bill, using verbatim talking points that we had been warned supporters might use. He claimed this is exactly like bills in over 30 states, limited to churches and marriages. I responded that this isn’t quite accurate and that the language in his bill was far too brood, covering employment benefits for same sex couples.
I was flabbergasted when Rep. Macheers, animated for the first time, excitedly said “that’s not true, it says nothing about employment benefits”.
I will quote : “Section 1, subsection (a): Section 1. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender: (a) Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement:”
What this says to me is that Representative Macheers simply listens to what others tell him and doesn’t do his own research. Stacey and I asked if we could leave a folder that explains in more detail the flaws in the bill, including comparisons and explanations to other state “religious freedom” bills regarding why the Kansas bill was so over-reaching and he willingly took the information and thanked us.
He spoke sincerely to Stacey and after she shared a personal story of discrimination at the hands of the Mission Police Department he appeared to be honestly upset for her.
This is when the sadness of the entire political situation in Topeka hit me. My Representative isn’t a bad man. He is simply woefully uneducated and trusting of the wrong leaders within his own party. Most likely, based upon his associations (Mary Pilcher-Cook among others – hard to campaign and fund raise with her and not have it be assumed you share the same religious doctrine), he does share the same goal of making our state government one ruled by Christian doctrine, but I honestly got the feeling that he had no idea there were gay partners residing within his district. And he seemed almost childlike in his surprise over the national reaction to the bill, as if it never even occurred to him that others might not agree that gay people are bad.
When Stacey introduced herself he quizzed her with regard to WHERE she lived, almost as if he thought his old opponent had brought in a decoy. I saw a small look of surprise when I mentioned Stacey and Bev’s daughter and her local middle school.
We spoke for over 20 minutes and, surprisingly, he didn’t appear to be pushing us out. For this I am extremely grateful to him. It would have been so easy to say he needed to be in a committee meeting, etc, and to cut the visit short. At one point, he stated “it’s okay for us to talk and disagree when we do it civilly and politely”. Again, I think we both had pre-conceived thoughts on how we might respond to one another. He also continued to support the bill, repeating the same handful of talking points like a parrot. He did acknowledge that some of the language needed to be changed but that the intent of the bill remains the same: protect religious freedom.
When we left, he shook our hands and asked Stacey to please contact him if she experiences any type of discrimination within his district. He said “no one should be discriminated against”. He seemed to deeply, from the bottom of his heart, mean this.
Read that again.
Clearly, we can have civil dialogue all day long about this and other bills, but the chasm of comprehension is simply too wide to overcome I fear.
There truly isn’t any clear answer, other than making your voices known at the polls.
There is a lesson in this for all of you, though.
Do NOT be afraid to visit your elected officials. If Stacey and I, two people who represented a large threat to Representative Macheers, can draw on the courage necessary to pop in unannounced and make our concerns known then so can you!!
A visit to the capital doesn’t have to take long. Our elected officials are extremely busy during the session and, to be honest, don’t have a great deal of time between meetings. But it is absolutely vital that they see your face, hear your voice, and hear alternative opinions to those of their base. Voters who disagree with them aren’t the ones attending their fund raisers and cheering them on. They aren’t the ones they have targeted on their canvassing lists. Until this bill, they weren’t the ones commenting on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.
In their defense, if constituents don’t talk to them they will continue to remain in the dark.
Don’t let them off the hook. Force them to hear your opinions and then, when they vote against the spoken interests of their districts, we can use this to vote them out.
We have more power than we know. Let’s use it.