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The Kansas Democrats’ Fresh-Faced New Chairman: John Gibson

Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3

Of course, Republicans dominate Kansas. They hold all the statewide offices, and control both houses of the Legislature.

Meantime, Kansas Democrats have just elected a younger, and more progressive chairman, John Gibson. Gibson’s a lawyer who was raised on a farm in Missouri, went to MIT, and settled in the countryside northeast of Topeka.  

In an interview at the Washington Days convention where he was elected chairman, Gibson says Kansas Democrats are on a better trajectory than the party nationally and, maybe, on a roll.

Gibson says the problems Kansas faces were brought on by Republican leadership.

“Our political opponents have created a number of problems for the people of the state: the budget nightmare, the problems with taxation, the school finance issue that we are still wrestling with in the state,” says Gibson.

Gov. Sam Brownback is one of the nation’s least popular governors. Gibson says Democrats can offer an alternative.

“I would rather the state be prospering and our schools and roads getting better, but that’s not the situation we’re in right now, because of the failed policies of our opponents,” says Gibson, referring to Brownback and his conservative legislative allies. “That creates not just an opportunity for us, it creates an obligation for us. As Democrats we need to fix those problems, or be in the arena to help fix those problems, by winning elections and picking up seats.”

Kansas Democrats did just that in the last election, netting 12 House seats and one in the state Senate. “We’ve got a little bit of momentum,” says Gibson.

Some 5,000 people turned out to see Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Democrats’ annual Washington Days gathering in February, an enormous jump from past years.

“We’ve got some new energy, maybe some new spring in our step,” says Gibson. “And with that, we’re going to go into the special election down in the 4th District, as well as the 2018 elections, with some confidence.” 

The special election April 11 in the Kansas 4th District will replace Mike Pompeo, whom President Donald Trump picked to head the CIA.

The Democrats are running a political novice, James Thompson. He’s a civil rights lawyer in Wichita. State Treasurer Ron Estes is the Republican in the race. Estes is well-connected and expected to raise lots of money. The national Democratic Party hasn’t weighed in, a sign party leaders don’t see much chance of winning. But Gibson says Thompson has generated impassioned grass-roots support.

“In special elections, enthusiasm becomes turnout, and turnout becomes victory. And I’ve never seen the kind of enthusiasm behind an election in Kansas that I’m seeing in that special election right now,” says Gibson.

Gibson says his immediate goals are to elect a Democratic governor and make further gains in the Legislature next year. He is also shooting to elect one or possibly two Democratic congressmen from Kansas. He’ll know more about the plausibility of that goal, he says, after the special election next month.

Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR, a partner in the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman. 

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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