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In the wake of a scandal-plagued lawmaker, Wyandotte County will choose between two newcomers

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Nomin Ujiyediin
/
KCUR
Republican Diana Whittington, left, is running against Democrat Melissa Oropeza for the Kansas House of Representatives seat in District 37 in Wyandotte County.

The two candidates for Kansas House District 37 diverge on issues ranging from education to abortion, but both are promising to make up for what many feel has been two years of lost time representing constituents in Topeka.

In 2020, 19-year-old Aaron Coleman made headlines when he defeated longtime Wyandotte County incumbent Rep. Stan Frownfelter in the Democratic primary for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives.

Over the next two years, Coleman made the news over and over — not for his progressive platform or political accomplishments, but for accusations of distributing revenge porn, domestic violence, making threats and driving under the influence. Legislative leaders quickly blocked Coleman from taking on committee positions in the statehouse, limiting his ability to influence lawmaking.

Now, two relative political newcomers are vying for Coleman’s seat in District 37, covering parts of the Turner, Argentine and Armourdale neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas. Both candidates were born, raised and educated in Kansas, and bring experience from long careers outside of politics. And both hope to make up for what many feel has been two years of lost time representing constituents in Topeka.

Melissa Oropeza, a 45-year-old nurse practitioner in gastroenterology at the University of Kansas, defeated Coleman in this year’s August Democratic primary. She says her experience as a health care provider has given her unique insight into her community.

“Working where I work, you see everybody who falls through the cracks,” she said. “People really do trust their nurses, so I’m hoping to bring all of that to the legislature and to Topeka.”

Oropeza’s Republican opponent, 65-year-old Diana Whittington, was a teacher for 42 years, most recently for 15 years at Washington High School, before she retired in 2021. She still teaches and substitutes part time at schools in the area. She says her bond with former students and other community members is strong.

“They know the kind of person I am. They know my character,” she said. “I have a lot of life experience.”

Two political newcomers 

Oropeza grew up between Armourdale and Argentine, two neighborhoods she hopes to represent in the statehouse. She attended the University of Kansas for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City for her doctorate in nursing.

Oropeza serves on the Kansas State Board of Nursing and previously ran unsuccessfully for the Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Utilities in 2019. She believes health policy decisions should be based on data and expert input. Over the course of the pandemic, the mostly conservative Kansas Legislature limited the ability of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and local public health departments to issue many pandemic precautions.

“I’m hoping I could bring the data and the research and really the frontline experience in showing what that really means when you limit those types of actions,” Oropeza said.

As a teacher, Whittington said she saw firsthand the negative impact that pandemic restrictions had on her students. She thinks the legislature should limit the governor’s powers, and especially disagrees with Kelly’s order limiting the size of church gatherings on Easter Sunday in 2020.

“In hindsight, I think it was a mistake to shut down for as early and for as long as we did,” Whittington said.

Whittington was born in Topeka and raised on a farm southwest of the city. She studied art education at Emporia State University and was a teacher from 1979 until 2021. She ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2020.

The two candidates share some standard views with other members of their respective parties. Oropeza says abortion access is a matter of reproductive rights. She saw August’s voter referendum on abortion in Kansas through the lens of individual health care access.

“Trying to put a very broad stroke on such a very delicate and very personal decision, it was never going to work,” Oropeza said.

Whittington said she was disappointed that Kansans voted to preserve the right to an abortion in the state constitution. Like many Republicans, she also believes parents should have more control over where their children go to school and what they learn.

“It’s their child and they should have ultimate say-so about their children’s education,” she said.

A wake-up call for voters

One belief both candidates share: that high taxes and public safety are the primary concerns among voters in their district.

“Gun violence is on everybody’s minds,” Oropeza said. “Really what everyone talks about is pretty much a recurring, same theme throughout the district.”

Another point of agreement: that District 37 lost out on two years of representation in Topeka because of Coleman.

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Kansas Legislature
Democratic Kansas Rep. Aaron Coleman of House District 37 in Wyandotte County.

“I know that we can do better,” Whittington said. “I would say it was kind of an embarrassment.”

Others in Wyandotte County’s political world agree.

Janet Waugh, a resident of the district and a longtime member of the Kansas State Board of Education, thinks Coleman’s term was a “mistake” that reflected poorly on the Democratic party and on legislators in general. But she says the experience taught voters to pay more attention to their candidates.

“I really believe if Aaron Coleman did nothing else, I think he kind of woke up the district to make sure… they know who they’re voting for,” Waugh said.

Democratic state Sen. David Haley, whose Senate district overlaps with House District 37, said he was impressed with Coleman’s advocacy for issues like climate change and criminal justice.

“He unabashedly defines himself as a progressive,” he said. “And he did take that advocacy seriously.”

But Haley feels all of that was overshadowed by Coleman’s behavior.

“We need an active member of the delegation,” Haley said, “to continue that legacy without the baggage.”

As a newscaster and a host of a daily news podcast, I want to deliver the most important and interesting news of the day in an engaging and easily understandable way. No matter where you live in the metro or what you’re interested in, I want you to learn something from each newscast or podcast – and maybe even give you something to talk about at the dinner table. You can email me at nomin@kcur.org and find me on Twitter @NominUJ.
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