First, Kansas lawmakers approved a congressional map that divides Wyandotte County for the first time in 40 years.
Then, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signed a Republican-supported bill overturning much of a local ordinance to help undocumented immigrants. Finally, Kelly approved new state Board of Education district boundaries, drawn by Republicans, that also carve up the area.
Wyandotte County—the fourth-most populous county in Kansas—has taken several political punches this year. Decisions from Topeka have angered local leaders and activists time and again.
Area residents proudly boast of the county’s rich diversity — racial, ethnic and socioeconomic. But the county’s long history as a Democratic stronghold in a Republican-leaning state limits its influence in the Capitol and makes political setbacks an expected, if disappointing, fact of life.
Still, the quick succession of hits Wyandotte County has taken in recent months has produced extra frustration among key community figures already accused of occasional loss. Some predict the headwinds will lead to a new, more aggressive wave of activism.
“I’ve never seen this amount of frustration on the ground and at a grassroots level,” said Marcus Winn, an organizer in KCK with the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity.
In Wyandotte County, 47% of registered voters are Democrats, compared to 26% statewide. Black, Hispanic and Latino people make up more than half of the population in the county, but only 18% of Kansas residents.
Perhaps the most consequential blow Wyandotte County has suffered this year is the decision by Republican lawmakers to split the county into two congressional districts during the once-a-decade redistricting process. Residents fear it will blunt the influence of their diverse county is able to wield in Washington.
Lawmakers divided the county between the 3rd District, currently held by Democrat Sharice Davids, and the 2nd District, held by Republican Jake LaTurner. Kelly vetoed the map, but the Legislature overrode her decision.
The dividing line roughly follows Interstate 70 and has drawn vocal condemnation from Democrats and local officials for both cleaving apart the state’s most-diverse county and violating the spirit of county-wide unity that the Wyandotte County-Kansas City, Kansas, merger approved by voters in 1997 helped promote. Democrats also say the map is an attempt to oust Davids, the state’s sole Democrat in Congress.
“It’s a very sad situation for myself,” said Bill Reardon, a former Democratic state representative from Wyandotte County who was first elected to the Kansas House in the mid-1970s.
When Reardon was first elected, Wyandotte County was split into two districts and he spent part of his early career in the Legislature fighting to reunify the county. Federal judges eventually ordered the county into a single district again in 1982.
“It’s the largest, highest percentage of Democrats of any county in the state. That’s, I think, the biggest thing,” Reardon said of the new map.
A group of Wyandotte County voters is challenging the map in state district court and a trial was held earlier this month. Wyandotte County District Court Judge Bill Klapper is expected to issue a ruling by Monday.
The voters allege the map is politically and racially gerrymandered, violating the Kansas Constitution’s protections for equal rights, suffrage and free speech. Whatever Klapper decides, the case is certain to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The map angered county residents but wasn’t necessarily unexpected. A decade ago, Republicans considered moving Wyandotte County into the 1st District, a massive rural district dominated by conservatives.
Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat first elected to the Senate in 2001, said this year isn’t the first that Wyandotte County has been “marginalized and somewhat restrained” by lawmakers.
The Legislature “by and large is driven by suburban and rural concerns and not necessarily that which are more urban and diverse,” Haley said.
Attorneys for the state who are defending the map have emphasized that because of population growth, lawmakers couldn’t keep all of Wyandotte County and Johnson County together in the same district, as they were in the past. Lawmakers chose to split Wyandotte instead of Johnson.
“Ultimately, the Legislature determined that the best option was to keep Johnson County — the ‘economic engine of Kansas City,’ … together,” Anthony Rupp, an attorney defending the map, said in a court filing.
They have also sought to poke holes in the testimony of expert witnesses who say the maps show characteristics of gerrymandering. And they contend the state constitution provides no standards for Klapper or any other judge to use to toss out the map.
Separately, the Legislature also divided Wyandotte County among three state Board of Education districts. Board of education members have expressed frustration with the new districts. The map was packaged with new state House and Senate district maps into a single bill, which Kelly signed last week. She made no comment explaining her decision.
Wyandotte County leaders and activists, however, have directed most of their anger at Kelly over her decision to sign a bill blocking the county’s “Safe and Welcoming” ordinance.
The ordinance was the culmination of years of local work and would have created municipal IDs and governed how the Unified Government and KCK police interact with federal law enforcement. The new law says cooperation with federal immigration authorities cannot be prohibited.
Kelly has cast her decision as policy-driven and has urged Congress to set immigration policy.
“I am a true policy wonk and I look at this through policy lenses and I have been very consistent on immigration for nearly 20 years now,” she said.
Some activists have cast it as a betrayal, however — an attempt to appease Republican voters in an election year that risks alienating Democrats who must turn out to vote for her if she wants to win.
More interest in organizing
But beyond individual politicians, Wyandotte County leaders feel weighed down by a larger sense that Topeka itself isn’t looking out for them.
“I think people are angry and there are lots of people to be angry at,” Winn said. “I think the frustration is deep, it is wide and it is non-discriminatory at this point. I think folks are frustrated at the attacks that are coming from multiple directions.”
Winn, however, does see a positive coming from the political blows Wyandotte County has taken this year.
“I’ve also never seen this level of interest in organizing to fight back,” he said. “It’s tragic that it’s taken this level of disrespect to achieve that organizing. But I think that some really exciting conversations have been coming out of this very frustrating experience.”
Over the past few weeks, Winn said he’s heard from several organizers, not just in Wyandotte County, but across the state.
Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City, Kansas, Democrat, said Wyandotte County has routinely taken political hits but always stands strong.
But Burroughs, who was elected to the House in 1997, worries about Wyandotte County’s future after the past few months.
“I’m really concerned about our community,” he said. “I really am concerned about what will happen moving forward.”
The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed reporting
This story was originally published April 22, 2022 5:00 AM.