November 12, 2018

LIEBERMAN | An Ode to Kansas: Don’t Give Up on Red States

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For most of my Cornell career, being from Kansas has been not much more than a nuisance. Maybe, sometimes, I can squeeze a conversation piece out of it, but that’s about it. I was confused by this, and surprised by this, because I did and I do consider this a big — maybe the biggest — part of my identity. I don’t know if many people think of their home state in this way, but I do. I never had a very solid religious identity nor a very solid ethnic identity, but I grew up in Kansas, and that was something I couldn’t second guess or underplay. I am from Kansas, and I have two evolutionary biologists for parents (I practically was raised in a natural history museum), and my house was a quick twenty minutes by car from the notoriously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church. These are the things that are really, truly integral to how I became who I am.

At Cornell, anything outside the tristate area and California is novel, and most people tell me I’m the first person they’ve ever met from Kansas. “You’re not in Kansas anymore!” they say. And it’s true — I’m not, and for the most part, I’ve considered this to be a very, very good thing. When Kansas is in the news, it’s usually for something that makes me want to cover my face in shame. They made a real example out of Kansas, when our former Governor Sam Brownback drove our economy straight into the dirt. There was also that time our capital, Topeka, temporarily renamed itself “ToPikachu.” We also can’t forget one of the most awful religious zealots, Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, who established himself in Kansas. Our biggest tourist attraction is the world’s biggest ball of twine. Twine. The BTK killer also wreaked havoc on Kansas, as do tornadoes, and absurd, permit-free concealed carry laws, and the list, to my horror, goes on, and on, and on. Some days, I wish I was from anywhere else.

And then the midterm elections happened. I don’t remember when the Kansas state elections first hit national headlines. Maybe it was when Trump endorsed (at the time Secretary of State) Kris Kobach, who has invented some of the worst voter suppression laws in the nation. Maybe it was when this same Kobach drove a Jeep, mounted with a replica machine gun and an American flag around Shawnee and scared a bunch of school children. Maybe it was any number of things that he did or said, but what mattered was that he was getting attention. I was used to negative attention when it came to Kansas politics.

However, Laura Kelly rose above that talk. She was endorsed by every living former governor of Kansas (except for Brownback), and she won. A woman, and a Democrat, won the Governorship in Kansas, a starkly red state. Not only that, but now Kansas is one of only a few states that have had more than two female governors. I know, that sounds pathetic — it is pathetic — but being at the top is still something, even if the top is really, really low.

Maybe the nation started paying attention to the Kansas election when they heard about Sharice Davids — a Native American women who is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, a lesbian, and a former MMA fighter with a law degree from Cornell. In her ads, she boxed and talked about what it meant to be a fighter when our rights are at risk. It resonated with people, and she was elected to congress. She won. There was racism along the way; GOP official Michael Kalny said, in a Facebook message that went viral, “your radical socialist kick boxing lesbian will be sent packing back to the reservation.” But she won. She made history by becoming Kansas’s first gay representative and first Native American representative. Everything about her amazes me. When I read an article about her, or watch a video about her, my whole body tingles with excitement for her  and pride in my home state. For once, Kansas is in the news for a good thing; this is a great thing.

And the crux of this, this pride and enthusiasm and excitement that I had almost forgotten, is that it is a message that I want to pass onto you. When exciting candidates across the country lost their races, like Stacey Abrams, Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Gillum, I heard, echoing from my peers, “Of course, it was Georgia,” or “Of course, Texas couldn’t pull through,” or “Classic Florida.” Words like this were everywhere. I can’t say I haven’t fallen victim to this same sentiment. Deep red states have continually disappointed progressive voters. However, the tides of the midterm election are far from being done turning. Andrew Gillum has rescinded his concession. Stacey Abrams’s campaign is filing a suit. We don’t know how Georgia or Florida voted, yet.

But I beg of these excited voters, these enthused liberals, and these disappointed Democrats: do not give up on these states. Structural barriers have stood between citizens and voting since this country was founded. Voter suppression is rampant. These races are close; clearly people want something new and something unexpected. There are organizers in places like Florida, and Georgia, and Texas, and Kansas, who have broken their backs over politics. They have fought and failed so many times so that one day they could win. One day, they could have a Laura Kelly or a Sharice Davids, and could feel a sense of excitement in their state politics that they thought was lost. Do not give up, do not stop voting, do not condescend to the people who did, the people who made calls and knocked on doors and tried to do something different. These races are hard, but this is something we have to do.

Sarah Lieberman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Blueberries for Sal runs every other Tuesday this semester. She can be reached at slieberman@cornellsun.com.