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.