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> 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.