Duane Goossen

Image result for Duane Goossen    Duane Goossen has been, and remains today, the most influential Mennonite in Kansas politics.  He is also the most thoughtful about the relevance of Anabaptist-Mennonite values for political thought and behavior.  For fourteen years (1983-1997) Goossen served in Kansas House of Representatives.  For twelve years he served as Kansas Budget Director under Republican and Democratic governors.   Today he is a Senior Fellow with the Kansas Center for Economic Growth.  He and his wife Rachel are active members of the Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka.

Duane Goossen was the son of a Mennonite pastor, steeped in the teachings of peace and service.  He learned the skills of carpentry and home building.  He also acquired an exceptionally strong passion for public political service.  In the year after his graduation from Goessel High school (1973), Goossen spent some time in northern Indiana.  There he took a course at Goshen College, “Introduction to Politics,” taught by an African-American professor, Leroy Berry.  A key concept in that class was “Politics is a way of decision-making.”  Berry’s view was different from traditional Anabaptist-Mennonite notions of politics as a place of compromise with the world.

From 1974 to 1978, Goossen attended Bethel College.  He had a double major in religion and peace studies, and became interested in the discipline of conflict resolution.  His senior seminar paper, written under his mentor, Duane Friesen, was titled “Faithfulness Versus Effectiveness:  A Position on Ethics.”   The paper outlined and critiqued the ethical positions of theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder, finding both of them wanting.  Niebuhr, wrote Goossen, rendered the life and teachings of Jesus irrelevant, and Yoder held a view of “being the church” that could lead to “self-righteous minority withdrawal.”  In a concluding section, Goossen stated his own distinctly humanistic ethical position:  “ . . . (A) person gains identity by choosing a morality or way of life. . . . We must act shrewdly to implement that vision as effectively as possible.”  The ethical case mentioned most often in the paper was the refusal to pay income taxes—a position Goossen critiqued as potentially ineffective and a wasted sacrifice involving legal hassles and penalties.   During his political career he was more interested in resolving practical political conflicts than in propagating his theological viewpoints.  But his ethics determined the direction of his politics.

In the Kansas legislature Goossen represented voters in Chase County and Marion County.  Mennonites were about one quarter of the voters in the district.  Goossen’s election in 1982 gave Mennonites in his district more direct access to a Kansas politician than they had had in the past.  Many of them shared their political concerns with him in personal conversations as well as at more formal public forums.  Many also wrote letters to him in Topeka about their special concerns.  In his first term, January through April of 1983, Goossen received letters from Mennonites on fourteen different issues, including  pari-mutuel betting, medication aides, natural gas prices, farm equipment taxes, liquor laws, telephone rate increases, and more..

Over the years Goossen found special satisfaction in his work in the field of human social services.  His leadership in that area was helped by membership on the House Appropriations Committee.  He worked to reduce the domination of large institutional centers in the state mental health system.  He tried to move state funding into more community-based mental health settings, including the Mennonite Prairie View Mental Health center based in Newton.

At the end of his first term his party colleagues gave Goossen a “Golden Throat Award,” a joke prize for speaking less than any other freshman legislator.  His demeanor of calm reasonableness has not changed.  But today his voice is heard across the state.   He is a popular public speaker and writer.   Kansas newspaper editors consider his blog about the Kansas financial situation <http://thekansasbudget.com&gt; to be an authoritative source about budget matters.   With carefully reasoned exposition, illustrated by statistics, charts and graphs, Goossen exposes how Governor Brownback’s tax cuts of 2012 brought the Kansas  budget into crisis.  When the governor manipulates data with self-serving talking points, Goossen clarifies matters with the authority of a highly respected former state budget director.

Governor Brownback’s tax policies–cutting taxes for business and increasing regressive consumption taxes–contradict Goossen’s political commitments on two foundational points.   First, government should make decisions to solve problems, not to make situations worse.  Second, government should seek the welfare of the disadvantaged, not extract money from the most vulnerable and funnel it upward to the wealthy.

Duane Goossen was a Republican legislator and budget director who earned the respect of leaders of both parties.  Recently he quietly changed his party registration from Republican to Democratic.   More than one person has suggested that he run for governor of the state.  He has no interest in that possibility in this latter stage of his career.  Certain it is that he has found a place of significant public service and influence on the contested scene of Kansas political dialogue.

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Don Schroeder

Don Schroeder  Don  Schroeder, a member of the Koerner Heights Mennonite Brethren Church in Newton,has been since 2008 a Republican member of the Kansas House of Representatives.  He grew up in the Inman area, attended the Buhler Mennonite Brethren Church and graduated from Buhler High School.  He served as McPherson County Commissioner and on the Inman school board.  He now lives in Hesston and represents the Kansas 74th legislative district.

Schroeder says his religious faith is closely related to his politics.  He quotes Scripture in his writing and in his speeches.   He believes some moral principles are absolute, and that Scripture clearly teaches about what is right and wrong.  Scripture teaches us to take care of widows and orphans.  We must address problems of social welfare.  We need government.  But sometimes government makes immoral decisions.   Schroeder opposes same-sex marriage and the recent Supreme Court decision, but he doesn’t make controversial pronouncements about that or any other such issues.

There are three or four factions among Republicans in the Kansas House of Representatives, from right to left:  extreme conservative; conservative; moderate; libertarian.   Schroeder dislikes labels, but would identify mostly as a conservative.  He voted against Governor Brownback’s original tax program in 2012, and then responded to various changes.   The plan to grow the economy with business tax cuts, he says, is a long-term solution.  The growth that was promised with the reduction and elimination of taxes on businesses has not taken place, at least so far.   Schroeder says we need to wait and see.

Schroeder has been among those who said Kansas should address its current budget crisis by reimposing at least part of the business taxes cut in 2012.  But Governor Brownback promised to veto any such measure.  The legislature instead reluctantly passed a temporary budget fix that included a regressive sales tax increase.  The next legislative session will again need to deal with Kansas’ ongoing budget crisis.

Schroeder was in I-W service in Nebraska, but is not dogmatic about issues such as military defense and capital punishment.  He opposes abortion and says that if it is wrong to take life through abortion, maybe it is wrong to take life through capital punishment.   He says the current Republican leaders will not allow a bill to abolish capital punishment to come up for a vote, even if it passes committee.

Schroeder speaks of such issues cautiously and with a friendly smile.   He is not in general an outspoken crusader.  His is a humble voice of quiet reasonableness and problem-solving.

Judy Loganbill

15 Judy Loganbill

In November 2000 Judy Loganbill, a 47-year old elementary school teacher in Wichita, became the first Mennonite woman to be elected to the Kansas House of Representatives.   She was an active member at Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church (LAMC).   She served as a Democrat in district #86 for six terms–through 2012.  In that year she lost in the primary to a popular fellow Democrat after changes in the district boundaries.  Her departure from the legislature allowed her to be more active in the LAMC.  For one term she served as chairman of the congregation’s church council.

Upon entering the legislature, Loganbill  substituted her affirmation for the traditional oath of office.  She  was proud to be the only elementary school teacher in the Kansas House.   She was an activist teacher who had become known through her work for the local teachers union and for the Wichita affiliate of the National Education Association.  Her most important legislative concern was adequate funding for education.  She also gave special attention to “the social issues”—social welfare, immigration, voter registration, and unemployment.   The National Rifle Association usually rated her at the bottom of their list—an “F minus minus”—as she put it.  Loganbill did favor allowing a casino vote in Sedgwick County, a position that most of her fellow church members probably disagreed with.

One time that Loganbill voted against her own convictions was on the issue of gay marriage.   Her district was more conservative than she was on that issue.  A bill came before the House to force a popular vote for an amendment to the state constitution outlawing gay marriage.  Thinking of her constituents, she “wimped out and voted to put the issue on the ballot.  I was literally in tears when I did it.”  Later that same issue came back to the House from the Senate, and she voted against the amendment.  She did get a few letters of protest from her constituents.  She also was honored by Wichita Pride with one of their Gay and Lesbian Awards for “most supportive public official.”

Loganbill’s Mennonite identity made her vulnerable to charges of not being sufficiently patriotic.  In the 2004 campaign her opponent distributed a flyer accusing her of not saying the pledge of allegiance and of not supporting American troops in Iraq.   In fact she often had not gotten to her seat in the House chamber in time to participate in the morning opening pledge of allegiance.  She was not opposed to reciting the pledge, but she always concluded under her breath:   “ . . . with peace and justice for all (some day).”   Loganbill did not like to see the American flag in church sanctuaries.   “God is not an American,” she said.

During the six terms she served in the legislature (through 2012), Loganbill spoke up at congregational sharing times to keep her fellow church members informed about state politics.   Asked in 2012 about how her Christian and Mennonite values affected her politics, she pointed to the banners in front of the church:  “Love, Hospitality, Service.”   The hospitality theme was immediately relevant in view of a crusade by the Kansas secretary of state, Kris Kobach, to restrict voting by immigrants.  The themes of love and service guided her all along the way.

Welcome to the Kansas Mennonites in Politics Blog!

Steven Becker
Steven Becker

Steven Becker, a lifetime member of the Buhler Mennonite Church, is one Kansas Republican legislator that Governor Sam Brownback could just as well do without.  Last month Becker voted against Brownback’s temporary fix of Kansas’ budget crisis—a major increase in the sales tax.  Now he has spoken out against the Governor’s verbal and legal assault on the Judiciary that allegedly stands in the way of the right wing’s conservative agenda.

Becker’s political positions reflect both his religious background and his professional career.  He first ran for the legislature in 2012, in the 104th district in Reno County, after retiring from a career as District Court Judge.  In his first term he introduced a bill to end the death penalty in Kansas.  The bill would replace capital punishment with life in prison.  “In American jurisprudence,” Becker said, “there is no such thing as absolute certainty.  How can we impose the irreversible absolute certainty of death when we do not require the absolute certainty of guilt. . . . As long as there exists even the possibility of execution of an innocent there must be no executions.”

Becker has met with the Death Penalty Task Force of the Mennonite Western District Conference to plan for mobilizing public opinion.  Partly because of the legislature’s preoccupation with Kansas’ budget crisis, the death penalty did not come to a vote in this session.   However, the leaders of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty are convinced that the public is turning on this issue.   The issue transcends partisanship.  In the state of Nebraska conservatives recently led the way in abolishing capital punishment.

Mennonite voters have been a significant force in the movement to end the death penalty.   The sponsor of the bill in the Kansas Senate is Carolyn McGinn, a moderate Catholic Republican from Sedgwick who in the 2012 Republican primary barely survived a right wing challenge.  Mennonite votes in Harvey County were crucial to McGinn’s political survival.  If and when the death penalty is abolished in Kansas, there will be no doubt that Mennonites played a major role in the outcome.

For several decades Kansas has had something of a three-party system:  Conservative Republicans, Moderate Republicans, and Democrats.   It was possible for the Democrats and Moderate Republicans to combine and win the governorship—as in the election of Kathleen Sebelius in 2002.  Governor Brownback in 2010 successfully campaigned to replace Republican moderates with right-wingers.  The resulting supermajority of right-wing Republicans enabled the governor to push through dramatic income tax reductions for small businesses, assuming that the Kansas economy would grow fast enough to balance the budget.  The assumption was false.  The economy did not grow and the state was unable to adequately fund education and other programs.

Brownback has attacked the Judiciary for the consequences of the budget shortfall—as well as for other court decisions relating to abortion and gay marriage.  Brownback attacked the “unelected activist judges” who ruled that his switch to block grants for funding for education in Kansas is unconstitutional.   Regarding the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, Brownback said, “Activist courts should not overrule the people of this state.”  Becker asks, “Does this apply to Brown v. Topeka Bd. of Ed?”

Now Becker, using unusually harsh language for one Republican attacking another Republican, has critiqued Brownback’s “continual assault on the Judiciary.”   On June 28 Becker wrote in a blog that “The Governor is like some parents I know who blame the referees and the umpires when their child loses the game.”  Becker wrote, “I strongly believe the rule of law also should always take preference over the political preferences of the majority.  To believe otherwise means no one is protected from the rule of the majority.  Following the Governor’s faulty reasoning, in his world no law could ever be found unconstitutional:  the legislature and the Governor could never be wrong.”

At a political forum in Hutchinson on July 7, Becker predicted that the Kansas legislature will face an ongoing budget crisis next year.  “We did not do anything to secure a long term sustainable revenue reform.”  The big obstacle is to get the legislature and governor to admit that eliminating taxes on businesses in the first place was a mistake.  But public opinion is growing, he believes, both to reinstate at least some of those taxes, and also to accept Medicaid Expansion Funds from the federal government.