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Kansas House Races Could Change Face Of Johnson County Delegation



Johnson County, Kansas – Most of the conversation about Tea Party candidates this year has focused on national seats, with some stunning upsets that affirm voter frustration with the persistent economic problems and the Obama administration.

The impact of the frustration is trickling down to local and state races. A majority of statehouse races in Kansas, for example, and countless races at the county and precinct level have conservative or independent candidates and are generating enthusiasm.

The Johnson County delegation, in fact, could look a lot different after November, and vote significantly with much more conservative voice.

Incumbent Challenged By Tea Party Organizer

Gene Rardin is the incumbent in the 16th district. The UAW is helping him on his campaign because they have workers from the Fairfax GM plant who live in this part of northeast Johnson County. They believe he best represents their voice in Topeka.Jeff Manning, president of Local 31, said the workers didn't mind coming a long way this day:"Yeah,we work down at Fairfax, but we have a number of workers who live up here in the Lenexa area. It's very important we get the right people in there who'll take care of working men and women you bet."

Gene Rardin's a moderate Democrat who voted against the 1 cent sales tax, but in favor of a compromise budget that funded education, programs for the disabled, and a multi- billion dollar comprehensive transportation bill. Votes like this distinguish him from his opponent, a Tea Party activist:"These are all at risk of being dismantled if we have an extremist take office."

But the opponent, a Amanda Grosserode, said there are more people who would vote the same way than he - or his supporters- suspect; "Their neighbors are Tea Party members. Their neighbors are Tea party activists. And if they view their neighbors as extremists, then I think they're out of the norm."

Later the same afternoon Amanda Grosserode, Rardin's opponent, is in her living room-turned campaign headquarters talking to HER supporters. They're ready to canvass the neighborhood. She is telling them they will knock on every door, even if there is a "no solicitation" sign; "No solicitation does not apply to political campaigns, So we will knock on those doors." She told the supporters if they don't knock on those doors, those people will not know about her campaign.

Grosserode looks young. She's got carrot red, straight, shoulder-length hair. She's a former school teacher. But she got involved in politics when she was so frustrated she decided to organized a Tea Party Rally. The rally at Johnson County Community College was the second largest in the city on Tax Day two years ago.

Grosserode supports limited government, Kris Kobach and an Arizona-style immigration bill in Kansas, local control of schools(she's not sure how that would work but says it needs to be fair to all districts across the state,) and an absolute moratorium on taxes; "My understanding is if there is not a 5% increase in spending over the previous year they consider that a budget cut. In my idea that's a spending increase, not a budget cut. A budget cut would mean you actually spend LESS than you did the year before."

Inspired By Tragedy

Earlier in the week, the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce sponsored an informal "meet and greet" with candidates in the lobby of a local hotel. 1st time Republican candidate Greg Smith says he spent 10 years in the Navy, was a policeman for 20 years, and now teaches high school history. But he says he is running because of the murder of his daughter, Kelsey Smith in 2007; "The tragedy that happened in my life with my daughter Kelsey has put me in the public limelight, and kinda just propelled me. I felt just compelled to step in and make a difference."

Then prosecutor Phil Kline was enormously effective, a great comfort, and helped Smith getting a national law passed that would aid law enforcement find missing people. Smith and Phil Kline are now friends.

The relationship between Kline and Greg Smith concerns Smith's opponent. Lisa Benlon has been in Topeka ,as a Democrat from another district, for 6 terms. She moved, and decided to switch parties to run against Smith (she was approached by party officials to do so.)

"I think the people of Kansas believe Phil Kline made a mess of the AG's office. He took personal medical records and made a mockery of them and I'm concerned that someone who gets their pointers from Phil Kline may not be someone we want in an elected position."

A Foreign Sounding Name Gets A Reaction

2 term Democrat Milack Talia from the 23rd District - Merriam and Shawnee - said his first issue will be getting people back to work; " The other issue is education, making sure we fully fund schools. The last issue is health care. Lots of things the state can do to decrease the costs and make sure insurance is more affordable."

Talia's opponent is a political newcomer. He also embraces the Tea Party platform - he describes himself as a "conservative constitutionalist." He says he's running to preserve the eroding ideals of limited government, privacy, and low taxes.

He may have gotten some unwanted publicity when the host of a talk show he was on - The Darla J Show, made a joke about Talia's name. (When she pronounced his name, she said she would fire him based on his name.)

A New Voice For Johnson County?

Johnson County has a quirky electorate. Voters historically, and rather predictably, have voted in conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independents. Boo Tyson with the Mainstream Coalition says those voters may get a surprise this year; "They're accustomed to people in Johnson County voting a certain way -no matter what party - in the moderate camp. I think what they'll see if these folks win (is that) some of the Johnson County delegation will be part of the conservative camp for any piece of conservative legislation they want to get through."< p=""><>

Still Up In The Air

But statehouse races are just heating up. Advance balloting will begin next week. Analysts will have a better idea about turnout, which is hugely important, particularly in midterm elections. Also important is the question of how many voters is Johnson County will support Tea Party, or even more conservative candidates. There are issues like immigration, abortion, and, of course, the economy, at stake. The implications are particularly large if, as predicted right now, we have a conservative, Republican Governor.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions. Email me at lauraz@kcur.org and follow me on Twitter @laurazig.
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