Wichita Coalition Against Gun Violence

Mike Poage, along with Michelle Reed, is co-chairperson of the Wichita Coalition Against Gun Violence.  Mike is a retired United Church of Christ pastor who now attends Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita.  Michelle attends a United Methodist Church.  Other active Mennonite leaders in the Coalition include Jerry Truex and Pat Cameron of the Church of the Servant, and Barbara Gingrich and Lois Harder of Lorraine Avenue.  The Coalition is an ecumenical group including Methodists and Quakers as well.

Kansas Mennonites for decades have led in campaigns against the death penalty.  But they have had little to say about gun violence.  The Western District Conference has passed four resolutions on capital punishment but has no official statements against gun violence.   The silence is puzzling.   From 2002 to 2011, 2923 people were killed with guns in Kansas.  Perhaps ending the death penalty is a realistic goal, while ending gun violence seems hopeless.

The Kansas legislature is dominated by religious-right politicians who obey the wishes of the National Rifle Association.  They have turned the state into one of the top ten in the nation in removing limits on gun ownership and use.  In Kansas no local or county jurisdiction can place limits on guns not approved at the state level.  On April 7, 2015, Governor Sam Brownback signed into law a “permitless carry law” (SB# 45) that gave Kansans freedom to carry concealed firearms without having to acquire a concealed carry handgun license.  It was already legal to carry a firearm openly in Kansas.

In 2014, prior to SB# 45, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office issued 20,660 concealed-carry handgun licenses.  During the same period, 82 initial applications were denied, 12 renewal applications were denied, 87 concealed-carry licenses were suspended and 52 licences were revoked.  Why?  Because applicants had criminal convictions and other violent actions on their records.   Today applications are not denied because applications are not required.

The two Mennonites in the legislature were divided over SB# 45.  Don Schroeder of Hesston voted against it.  Steve Becker of Buhler voted in favor.    Becker has said he was not settled on the issue.  He was flooded with messages from his pro-gun constituents, and he was not convinced the law would make much of a difference.  Supporters of SB# 45 were highly organized and vocal, while some polls said that a majority of the Kansas public opposed the measure.

The Wichita Coalition Against Gun Violence is in the early stages of mobilizing for changes in the law.   No member of the Kansas legislature has yet agreed to sponsor alternative legislation.   No plans are in the works for committee action.  There is no state-wide gun violence coalition such as exists for the death penalty issue.

Mike Poage says the primary goals of the Wichita Coalition are to educate the public and to “push for sane legislation.”   They have sponsored public demonstrations to draw attention to, and to mourn, recent multiple deaths due to gun violence.   On the Coalition’s agenda is the possibility of putting up a booth at the Wichita gun show in October.  Interested persons are welcome to join the next Coalition meeting at 11:00 a.m. September 10, Thursday, at the Mennonite  Church of the Servant, 23rd and Woodland.   The Coalition’s web site is at <www.wichitacoalitionagainstgunviolence.org>  .


Jerry Moran and the Iran Deal

At a public forum in Newton’s Chamber of Commerce hall on August 19, Senator Jerry Moran lifted up his Mennonite credentials.  He and his wife, Robba, used to attend North Oak Community Church in Hays, a congregation affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren.  He referred to the competition between Bethel College and Tabor College.  He acknowledged that Mennonites in his audience might not agree with his positions on military matters.  But he was comfortable among Mennonites.

Moran said the pending nuclear agreement with Iran was “a terrible mistake.” He said he plans to vote against it because it offers to Iran a path to acquire nuclear weapons.  Moran asked why Americans should trust a country where they shout “Death to America!”    Most of the fifty-some people in the audience clapped and cheered Moran’s provocative rhetoric.

But the mood in the hall changed when Duane Friesen, retired Bible and Religion professor at Bethel College, said the agreement with Iran was a positive move forward.  If Congress rejects the agreement, said Friesen, war would become much more likely.  Given the involvement of five other nations and the difficulty of continuing sanctions, it is not realistic to think a better deal could be negotiated.   Friesen had prepared a longer set of arguments and documentation on the issue.   Moran thanked him for the spirit of his remarks and promised to read his materials.

Several Mennonites (and others) backed up Friesen’s viewpoint.  Among their questions:   Why do we have a double standard on nuclear weapons for Israel and Iran?  Why do prominent scientists in Israel support the deal?  Is it any more fair to imply that all Iranians want “Death to America,” than it would be to imply that the Westboro Baptist Church “God Hates Fags” hotheads stand for all Americans.”    Moran backed away from his earlier rhetoric.   He said he hadn’t meant to imply that all Iranians were so hateful.

Moran’s voting record is generally conservative.  In his 2010 Republican primary campaign for the U.S. Senate, Moran ran on the extreme far-right in an attempt to outflank his conservative opponent, Todd Tiahrt.    In Newton last week he appeared somewhat more moderate and reasonable.  He said he supported normalization of relations with Cuba, not only because there could be a market in Cuba for Kansas goods, but also because the ending of sanctions could bring improvements to Cuban society.  He did not explain why that logic works for Cuba, but not for Iran.

Duane Friesen’s encounter with Jerry Moran demonstrated the usefulness for political dialog of an ongoing local witness for peace and conflict resolution.  Kansas Mennonites have kept that witness going for many years in local meetings with state and national politicians.  It is especially interesting when it involves politicians who claim at least some kind of Mennonite identity.



Christine Downey-Schmidt

Downey-Schmidt   Christine Downey, a sixth grade teacher from Newton, served as Kansas Democratic Senator for District #31 from 1993 to 2004.   Downey had been raised in a Catholic farm family near Abilene, and had been an observant and active member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Newton while her three children were growing up.  Her youngest child was a freshman in high school when Downey was elected to the Senate in November 1992.   A month after the election her husband told her he was leaving the marriage.   Two and a half years later, in July 1995, Downey married Gordon Schmidt, a Mennonite farmer and member of the Hoffnungsau Mennonite Church in southwestern McPherson County.

Downey-Schmidt had her first marriage annulled.   She and her new husband regularly attended the Hoffnunsau church.   Although she became alienated from St. Mary’s Church—in part because the priest wanted to annul Gordon Schmidt’s first marriage and in part because St. Mary’s supported her opponents in subsequent elections—she did not officially leave the Catholic Church.  For practical and political purposes, however, her identity was Mennonite.  She told one persistent casino supporter who wanted her vote, “Look.  I’m married to a Mennonite.  I worship with the Mennonites.  I live in a Mennonite community.   I’ll never vote for gambling!”

The 31st Senate district included all of Harvey County and part of southeast Sedgwick County (Bel Aire, Kechi, Park City).   Only about a quarter of the registered voters were Democrats.   Downey-Schmidt won all three of her elections (1992, 1996, and 2000) by narrow margins.  Martin Hawver, political commentator in Topeka, attributed Downey-Schmidt’s success in a dominantly Republican district to her “unique personality.”  She was an engagingly self-confident, articulate, and well-informed person.   She listened well to opponents, stated her own positions clearly, and sought bi-partisan compromise.

Downey-Schmidt was a member of the Newton Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  In 2000 she received a Chamber “Friend of Business” award for her pro-business voting record.  A three-term member of the Senate Education Committee, and ranking minority member in her third term, she strongly supported funding for education.  She introduced a bill for monitoring pollution in the Equus beds water supply.   Governor Bill Graves (Republican) enacted her proposal by executive order.  Downey opposed voucher programs to give public tax dollars to private schools.  She criticized the National Rifle Association’s positions on guns:   “After 20 years in elementary classrooms teaching kids how to solve problems in nonviolent ways, I’m having difficulty understanding how we will make Kansas safer by encouraging citizens to carry and conceal weapons.”  Downey-Schmidt consistently opposed the death penalty.

The issue of abortion dominated Downey-Schmidt’s third election campaign in 2000.  She had opposed abortion.  She had voted for a 24-hour waiting period, for parental notification bills, and to ban the procedure known as “partial birth abortion.”   However, she had voted against one anti-partial-birth abortion bill that she knew was “clearly unconstitutional” and that would have involved the state in expensive litigation.

Downey-Schmidt declined to run for a fourth term in 2004.  She served on the Kansas Board of Regents from 2005 to 2013.  For seven years she was adjunct professor of education at Bethel College.  Although she did not formally join a Mennonite congregation, she deserves to be included in the roster of Kansas Mennonites in politics.

John Waltner

John Waltner. Photo by Kelley DeGraffenreid     John Waltner, current County Administrator for Harvey County, is one of the many dozens of central Kansas Mennonites who have served in local government.  In 1985 he was elected mayor of Hesston, an office he held for 25 years.  Along the way he had his eye on service in the Kansas state legislature.

Waltner’s interest in public service has multiple sources.  He spent his early years in India, the son of missionary parents.  He attended Woodstock School, where one of his classmates was a future king of Nepal.  His father was informed and concerned about the political scene, both in India and the United States.  Waltner graduated from Bethel College with a history major and planned to be a public school teacher.  In graduate school at Kansas University he was inspired by writers on urban community development as diverse as Robert Dykstra, who wrote about American frontier cattle towns, and Francisco Guicciardini, who wrote about the history of Florence, Italy.

As mayor Hesston, Waltner’s biggest challenge–and opportunity–was helping the town recover from a devastating tornado in the spring of 1990.  Senator Bob Dole helped the town with an Economic Development grant of two million dollars.  As a history teacher at Hesston High School from 1990 to 2001, Waltner attempted to encourage student interest in local, state and national political issues.

In 1998 John ran for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives left vacant with the retirement of Ellen Samuelson.  Four years earlier, in 1994, John had set aside his Democratic party identity to co-chair Samuelson’s general election write-in campaign after she had lost the Republican primary to a religious right-wing Mennonite candidate–Cedric Boehr.  Samuelson won in the general election.  It was a magical moment–the only time in Kansas political history that a candidate defeated in a primary came back to win in the general election.

But in 1998 the magic did not work for Waltner.   One disappointment was that Samuelson and other Republicans did not cross party lines to reciprocate his support of 1994.  Waltner’s Republican opponent in 1998 was Carl Krehbiel, president of an independent telephone company in Moundridge.  Waltner and Krehbiel had traditional “Mennonite” names, but Krehbiel’s family had left the Mennonite church in an earlier generation.   Waltner was a member of the Bethel College Mennonite Church.  Both candidates were middle aged (52 and 49) political moderates who agreed on the major issues.  Both were pro-choice on abortion, supporters of a new state highway plan, and advocates of funding for public education.  Krehbiel had the advantages of a majority of registered Republicans in the district, and of superior funding resources.   The Democrats, in a last-minute campaign blitz of radio advertisements and printed flyers, questioned how out-of-district contributions by supporters in the telephone industry would affect Krehbiel’s judgment in office.   But Krehbiel won the election handily by 3,509 (55%) to 2817 (45%) of the votes.

Waltner went on to a number of different positions of public service.   For nine years he served as Harvey County special projects coordinator, and as chairman of the Regional Economic Area Partnership.   In December 2009 he was appointed Harvey County Administrator.  He remains a strong advocate for involvement in local government.  “For most people most of time,” Waltner says, “local issues have a greater impact than state or national issues.”

Peter Goerzen

IMG_0962[1]  Peter Goerzen, chairman of the Western District End Death Penalty Task Force, is the latest in a long line of WD denomination leaders who have mobilized public opinion against capital punishment in Kansas.   In this photo, taken July 29,  Goerzen (with laptop) is chairing a task force meeting.   Kristin Bollig Hammer, representative of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty is on the left, and John Tyson, associate pastor at Bethel College Mennonite Church, is in the center.  Among four others not in the photo is Judge Steven Becker, member of the Kansas House of Representatives and chief sponsor of a bill to abolish the death penalty.

At the July 29 task force meeting Hammer congratulated the WD Mennonites for generating 380 letters to Kansas legislators during the 2015 session.  Would it be possible to duplicate that effort in 2016?  Goerzen and other task force members were confident that church members would rally once again, as they have been doing for over half a century.

Why did the campaign fail in 2015?  Judge Becker reported that the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, John Barker from Abilene, was his “relatively close friend.”  Early in the session Becker personally asked (and then pleaded with) Barker to schedule a judiciary committee hearing on the death penalty bill.   Barker refused.  The friendship was strained.

One alternative way to get the bill before the whole house is to attach it to a larger bill on a related issue.   Becker attempted to attach the abolition bill to other bills related to budget and to criminal justice.   But the chairman of the rules committee excluded the death penalty bill on grounds that it was not germane.

Also militating against movement on the death penalty was the chaos and hostility in the legislature about tax and budget matters.  “The Republican Party was imploding,” said Becker, “and we had almost no leadership from the speaker of the house or from the governor.”  It is not clear how matters will change in the 2016 session as the state’s financial situation remains in crisis.  Becker does hope for better results from the judiciary committee.   The chairman has promised him, at least orally, that the committee will have hearings on the death penalty this time.  Friendship restored.

Goerzen reported a conversation with his own representative, Mark Rhoades from Newton.   Rhoades defends the death penalty because it is commanded in the book of Genesis.   Rhoades grew up in the Bethel College Mennonite Church.  Goerzen holds out no hope that he will change his mind on this issue.   The task force will give greatest attention to legislators who are persuadable.

The Western District Conference adopted resolutions against the death penalty in 1961, 1976, 1991, and 2009.  Mennonites had a key role in early 1979 when Governor John Carlin reversed a campaign promise and vetoed a capital punishment bill.    Years later, in retirement, Carlin expressed his appreciation for the Mennonite support:  “I always enjoyed going to Newton, McPherson, Hillsboro and Marion.  Someone would always come up to me and say ‘thank you’ for vetoing the death penalty. . . . It was the only place in the state where I felt the majority was with me.”  In 1994 Kansas reinstated the death penalty when Governor Kathleen Sebelius allowed it to become law without her signature.  There have been no executions in Kansas since 1969.

Peter Goerzen is campus pastor and director of church relations at Bethel College.  From 2009 to 2014 he and his wife, Katherine, were co-pastors of the Grace Hill congregation east of Newton.