Hodge vs. Kelly

Tim Hodge of North Newton, Democrat and current state representative from the Kansas House District #72, will will have a strong Republican opponent in the November 2018 election.   Running against Hodge will be Steve Kelly, former president of the Medical Center in Newton.

Hodge won  in 2016 over the conservative Republican incumbent, Marc Rhoades.   Rhoades was a dogmatic “trickle-down” capitalist who opposed taxing businessmen.   He strongly supported Governor Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax “experiment” that blew a hole in the Kansas budget.  The failure of Brownback’s “experiment” helped Hodge win a close election.  The campaign was contentious.  The candidates bitterly denounced and insulted each other.

Hodge will face a very different candidate this time, in 2018.   According to an article by Adam Strunk in the June 7 issue of Newton Now, Steve Kelly defines himself politically as “right of center”–quite unlike the far right-winger Rhoades.   Kelly wants to be known less for his political ideology, than for his personal commitment to consensus building.  Strunk quoted Kelly:   “There needs to be more listening and less talking.  There needs to be more work to solve the issues instead of staying ‘look at me.'”  Kelly says his listening ability and consensus building enabled him to promote the takover of Via Christi Clinic by Health Ministries in Newton.

Kelly’s position on two issues suggest that he is not on the far right.  He says that he was for repealing the 2012 Brownback tax cuts.  He also argues for the expansion of Medicaid and for the acceptance of federal funds to closed the “Medicaid Gap.”  His experience in health care has taught him that hospitals and retirement homes could make good use of federal funds that Kansas has so far turned down.

On other issues Kelly seems to be further to the right, but his responses are vague.   He says he is “against abortion,” but does not explain what anti-abortion legislation he supports.  He says he “supports the second amendment” but “with responsibilities.”  It is not clear whether he favors the sale of assault rifles.   He says he needs “time to think about” tax policies.   No doubt Hodge, a strong proponent of reducing the state sales tax, will challenge Kelly to take a clear stance on that issue.  Hodge is a co-sponsor of legislation to end the death penalty in Kansas–another issue that Kelly will need to address in the upcoming campaign.

Kelly claims Hodge as a friend.  Remarkably, in 2016 Kelly twice contributed financially to Hodge’s campaign for the legislature.   It seems that the 2018 campaign will not be scarred by the same hostile denunciations and insults as two years ago between Hodge and Roades.

The count of voter registrants by political party indicate that Republican candidates have a major advantage in the 72nd district.   The number of registered Republican voters (6,284) in Harvey County is more than twice the number of registered Democratic voters (3077).   There are also 3,883 unaffiliated, and 101 Libertarian, registered voters.  The 72nd district also includes to town of Whitewater in Butler County.  We may well wonder if the natural advantage of incumbency will help Hodge overcome the disadvantage of political party registrations.



Koontz Israel Boycott

Esther Koontz, a member of First Mennonite Church in Hutchinson, has undertaken a project to change one Kansas law.   Her strategy is quite different from that of the three Mennonite representatives currently  in the state legislature (Schroeder, Becker, and Hodge).  Koontz  is challenging the constitutionality of a state law that bars Kansas from entering into contracts with individuals or companies that boycott Israel or products made there.   The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state of Kansas in her behalf.

For nine years Koontz worked as a math teacher and curriculum adviser in the Wichita public school system.  She recently applied for a contract to work as a trainer in a statewide Kansas Department of Education teaching program.   On July 1, 2017, a new law went into effect that required her to sign a statement that said, “I am not engaged in a boycott of Israel.”  Koontz refused to sign.  She was denied a contract.

Some twenty-one states have similar laws.   If Koontz and the ACLU win their case in Kansas, it will have nationwide implications.

Is Koontz in fact boycotting Israel?   That question is less relevant than the fact that she will not sign the Kansas statement.  She says she is following the lead of the Mennonite Church USA that in 2017 adopted a denominational resolution that urged avoiding “the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation.”  The resolution did not call for a boycott of all Israeli goods.   It did call for Everence, a Mennonite financial agency, to take leadership in discouraging Mennonite agencies from investing in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  The resolution, in a not completely convincing attempt at balance, also spoke against anti-Semitism.  News reports so far have given no examples of individual or institutional Mennonite investment strategies or boycotts that have specifically implemented the resolution.

But there are early indications that the Koontz vs. Watson case can spark a firestorm of  protest.   One Jewish journalist, Edwin Black, has published a hostile response titled “The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions)  Movement Has Come to Kansas”.    Black’s essay was published in the History News Network, an online publication of comments by prominent historians on current events.  <http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/167580&gt;

Journalist Black alleges that Koontz’s action “re-affirms the anti-Jewish campaign begun by Adolf Hitler on April 1, 1933” and extended by subsequent anti-Semitic movements through the decades.  Black claims to be a long-time student of Mennonite history, though his review of that history includes some notable errors.  He tells of German Mennonite collaboration with Nazis–a theme highlighted in recent months by the writing and speaking of Ben Goossen.   But Black’s  trump card is his final condescending paragraph, which is worth quoting in entirety:

“If Koontz will return to any of the simple Mennonite churches in central Kansas, she can refresh her knowledge of history and the restoration of the Jews in Israel.  She can read the one international law that predated the League of Nations, the Arab invasion, and even the Roman expulsion.  She can refer to Leviticus 25:10 which commands the Israelites to ‘proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property.’  No Hitler decree, Arab League boycott, BDS chant, MCUSA resolution, or ACLU lawsuit can erase those words from the churches of Kansas–or from the courtrooms.”

The Koontz vs. Watson case is in its early stages.   It is not yet clear why the ACLU has apparently given priority to the law in Kansas rather than to one of the more prominent states of the union.   Is this some kind of reprise of  Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education?  For the time being, both parties (ACLU and State of Kansas) are waiting for a District Court decision on whether it will issue a preliminary injunction in the case.  Stay tuned for more developments.

Hillsboro and Tabor College in Bicentennial 1976

Del Gray, associate professor of Bible and Religious Studies at Tabor College, recently posted a statement critical of American Evangelicalism on Tabor’s “Wittenberg Door.” Gray modeled his statement after Martin Luther’s 95 Theses of October 31, 1517. The statement was intended to contribute to conversations on the Tabor campus. Now distributed by Mennonite World Review, the statement is taking on its own life on the internet. Gray’s first thesis begins, “The evangelical church has lost its soul, trading the teachings of Jesus for politics.”
I don’t intend to comment on Gray’s 95 theses, except to say that it reminded me of an earlier lively conversation at Tabor–during the American Centennial Year of 1976. I wrote about that 1976 conversation in my book, A People of Two Kingdoms II, Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics (Bethel College, 2016). Gray is clearly in the tradition of those called “Neo Anabaptists” at Tabor in 1976. Below is an except from chapter 8 of that book, pages 169-174. The chapter is titled “Bicentennial 1976.”

Hillsboro and Tabor College, 1976

The town of Hillsboro, population about three thousand, outdid all other towns of south central Kansas in bicentennial celebrations. Governor John Carlin of Kansas designated Hillsboro an official “Bicentennial Town.” Hillsboro’s civic leaders managed to attract two nationally-sponsored exhibitions—an “Official Bicentennial Wagon Train” in March and the “Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan” in October. The Bicentennial Wagon Train was one of several in the country that traversed historic national trails and converged at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on July 4. The Hillsboro Star-Journal estimated that five thousand people attended the Main-Street parade, and some four thousand stayed for the evening program in Memorial Park for a program that included a choral group from Pennsylvania University. The Wagon Train had national corporate sponsorship, but the Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan was a public relations project for the U. S. Department of Defense.
In addition, the local Hillsboro Bicentennial Commission, co-chaired by Carol Wiebe and Ray Baker, organized its own Memorial Day “Bicentennial Birthday Celebration” on May 29. The parade included a 13-man military color guard from Fort Riley, American Legion members and the Boy Scouts. Garner Shriver, fourth-district congressman, spoke at the dedication of a new civic center. Golfers participated in a bicentennial golf tournament, one of many community events. The Hillsboro Star-Journal, published a special 24-page issue, including a “Special Bicentennial Section.” On the first page were illustrations of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of Independence Hall, of a fife and drum corps, of a patriot lighting a cannon to shoot ships in the harbor, and of a Betsy Ross sewing thirteen stars onto an American flag.
The Mennonites of Hillsboro had mixed reactions to the bicentennial celebrations. One enthusiastic supporter was Elmer W. Flaming, president of the First National Bank and leading member of the Parkview Mennonite Brethren church. Annoyed by articles in the MB denominational periodical, The Christian Leader, that were critical of American civil religion, Flaming wrote an essay titled “Why Celebrate the Bicentennial.” He said, “The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of their belief and faith in God. It is a religious document from the first sentence to the last. It affirms God’s existence as self-evident truth which requires no further discussion or debate. The nation it creates is God’s country.” For Flaming the bicentennial celebrations represented “our opportunity and challenge to revive America with an injection of the same religious faith and dedication that brought about the birth of a great nation.”
On the opposite side were some teachers and students at Tabor College, located a few blocks south and east of the center of town. Tabor was wrestling with its identity as a Mennonite Christian liberal arts college. One new faculty member who arrived at Tabor in January 1976 found Tabor to be a “hornet’s nest” of controversy. At the center of debate were a number of young idealistic faculty members who urged Tabor to become a distinctively Anabaptist Christian school with a strong peace emphasis. On the other side were teachers and administrators who promoted a conservative evangelical identity that would attract more students of non-Mennonite background. Students in a college forum presentation identified the parties as “the pacifists versus the patriots. The alleged Mennonite ethnicists versus Protestantism.” One label for the idealists was “radical neo-Anabaptists.”
In the fall of 1975 the Tabor College homecoming committee decided on a bicentennial theme, “Highlights of History,” for the homecoming parade. The committee invited student groups to create floats portraying events from America’s past. Some students and teachers of “neo-Anabaptist” persuasion protested. The student Christian Fellowship Association (CFA), led by Curt Kuhns and Gordon Zerbe, decided to boycott the parade, asking “whether we as a Christian college could celebrate a government that was established by the overthrow of another, has a long history of war, and where so many things are not of God.” Don Ratzlaff, editor of the student paper, critiqued the CFA’s decision: “At a time when our country needs a moral shot in the arm, CFA proposes we give it a mortal shot in the head. America is in dire need of a Christian influence, not a Christian cop-out.”
A year later, in October 1976, the neo-Anabaptist group at Tabor mobilized a public protest when the most militaristic of Hillsboro’s bicentennial events, the Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan, came to town. The caravan consisted of four large semi-truck trailers that contained museum displays for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, “recounting the contributions made to America by her armed forces.” An Army spokesman for the display said it was not a recruiting program, but rather “a concerted effort by the Armed Forces to bring the American Revolution Bicentennial closer to the people of Hillsboro and the surrounding communities.” In the Air Force Van, said the promotion, “Fifteen projectors and more than 700 slides are used simultaneously in the 17-minute show to highlight the Air Force’s role in aviation in its early stages, during the two world wars, in space research and in today’s world.” The Defense Department was spending a lot of money to refurbish its reputation tarnished by defeat in the Vietnam War.
The Tabor College protesters decided to set up a counter-military display, deliberately crude and low-tech to contrast with the sophisticated and expensive military caravan museums. For a display table for peace literature they rolled in a large wooden utility-wire frame and tipped it on its side. They parked their bicycles in front of the gas-guzzling military semi trailers, and put up a sign, “CHRISTIANS ARE CONCERNED, HAS WAR EVER MADE PEACE?” Visitors to the peace display engaged the protestors in friendly as well as hostile conversation. At his noon break, a young mechanic from the nearby Ford Company came to argue that the military forces celebrated in the Caravan museums were the reason the protesters had the right to free speech. K. B. Bruce, editor of the Hillsboro Star-Journal, made the same point editorially: “The history portrayed in this fine caravan gave those few individuals Saturday their right to distribute material for peace in this country.”
Intense reaction to the Caravan confrontation put Roy Just, Tabor College president, in a difficult situation. Elmer Flaming, conservative Main Street banker, called Just and asked him to rein in his protesting students and faculty. On the other side, Ben Ollenburger, professor of religious studies and philosophy, distributed a statement for the “Tabor Forum” scolding the college for failing to support the protesters. They should rather be commended for “an act of courage and faithfulness in giving public testimony to the New Testament message of peace.” And, said Ollenburger, the college should renew its commitment “to be faithful to the tradition and theology which is the reason for this school’s existence.” President Just attempted to mediate between his radical faculty members and conservative major donors. According to Frank Brenneman, one of the faculty protesters, Just agreed with the ideals of the neo-Anabaptists. But he wanted the radicals to know that Tabor College could not ignore someone like Flaming, a major financial contributor whose bank held the major share of Tabor College’s debt.
The “Caravan confrontation” prompted G. George Ens, a medical doctor in Hillsboro, to write out his own version of the underlying issues, and to send them to President Just with copies to three of Tabor’s neo-Anabaptists (John E. Toews, Ben Ollenburger, and Al Dueck). In Ens’s view, two “philosophies” were contending for the minds of Tabor students. One was the “Christian capitalist” philosophy that had sustained the Mennonite Brethren Church. It held to an atonement theology with salvation in Christ followed by evangelism and mission work; believed in the validity of capital and benevolence; valued a thrifty and frugal life-style; and respected government as instituted by God. The alternative “socialistic” philosophy, which was threatening to undermine the church, criticized “cheap grace;” thought money was evil; advocated poverty and communalism; was anti-American and avoided involvement in government except for negative prophetic witness.
The Bicentennial-related events and discussions of 1975-76 were one part of an ongoing social and theological process among the Mennonite Brethren and at Tabor College. Roy Just, president of Tabor from 1963 to 1980, was widely perceived as having shifted sharply conservative in the latter years of his presidency. According to Lynn Jost, co-author of the history of Tabor College, President Just after 1973 envisioned Tabor as “a school of evangelistic mission,” but the faculty resisted, “insisting on the historic liberal arts mission.” In 1976 Just hired Calvin Redekop to the position of Vice-President, knowing that Redekop would be a strong advocate of Anabaptist identity at Tabor. However, the outspoken neo-Anabaptists, including Redekop, all left Tabor College in the late 1970s, convinced that Tabor had chosen definitively to move in a conservative evangelical, rather than an Anabaptist, direction. The American bicentennial dialogue in Hillsboro illustrated the acculturation process of Mennonite Brethren toward conservative evangelicalism.

Duane Goossen’s Influence

On June 6, 2017, the Kansas legislature voted to override Governor Brownback’s veto of its vote to overturn tax policies that had bedeviled the state’s finances since 2012. The vote was national news. To understand what happened in Kansas, the Washington Post turned to Duane Goossen, former Kansas legislator (1983-1996) and state budget director (1999-2011). Goossen had become the pre-eminent critic of Brownback’s failed “tax experiment,” and arguably the most influential voice in turning public opinion in Kansas toward change.

Goossen was not an elected official. What accounted for his extraordinary influence? According to Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Goossen shaped the statewide debate through “his monthly newspaper column that ran in over twenty newspapers across the state, his blog writings, his radio and TV interviews, and public seminars.” At the outset in 2012, Goossen’s critique was a lonely one. But over the months and years, as Beatty summarizes, events proved him right: “He predicted the tax cuts would not produce the estimated tax revenue windfall; they didn’t. He predicted the tax cuts would blow a giant hole in the Kansas budget and necessitate budget cuts and borrowing; that happened.”

The Kansas primary and general elections of 2016 were an important turning point. Many far right conservatives were turned out of office, and newly elected moderates were more willing to listen to alternative voices. Goossen became popular on the lecture circuit—invited to speak two and three times a day. His exceptional knowledge of state budget and finance history ensured that he would be taken seriously. He illustrated his points with graphs that made complex relationships understandable. Defenders of Brownback’s policies were unable convincingly to contradict Goossen’s data. They rather resorted to tired repetitions of the “trickle down” ideology that did not agree with the facts.

Goossen’s arguments were enhanced by his personality. Mark Peterson, chair of the political science department at Washburn University, has said that Goossen is “one of the least egocentric individuals I’ve ever met.” He did not take obvious delight in destroying the arguments of his opponents. “His Mennonite background has created a real conviction in the good of service to others.”

Peterson also emphasized Goossen’s professional credentials. “I think the thing that makes Goossen so effective is his vita — 7 terms in the state house (Republican), a Masters from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and his service as budget director from 1997 for the Graves administration until the end of the Sebelius administration. In that time he became both parties’ and most lobbyists’ go to guy for the straight up on revenue and the impact of contemplated changes to the state’s budget.” While Goossen was a registered Republican during his political career in Kansas, he has subsequently changed his registration to Democrat. But his contribution to the tax debate has been strictly non-partisan.

The national press has been interested in the wider relevance of the Kansas model. The Washington Post article based on conversation with Goossen was titled, “Kansas’ collapsed tax-cut plan will provide political fodder for Democrats for decades.” Recent commentaries on Fox News suggest that supply-siders will simply ignore Kansas, and continue to claim that tax cuts under President Reagan fostered national prosperity. Meanwhile Goossen warns about the looming tax plan of President Trump: “It’s the Kansas experiment on steroids.”

We might wish that Goossen could exercise the same kind of influence on national policy that he has had in Kansas.

As Kansas Goes, so Goes the Nation

Before 1960, the state of Maine held its political elections in September, ahead of elections in November in nearly all other states.  So often did the outcome of Maine’s choice of president prefigure the national outcome that the state got the reputation of a political  bellwether:  “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

That old slogan comes to mind when one listens to current commentary about Kansas and the course of its economy in the past four years.  Has Kansas under Governor Brownback prefigured what will happen in America generally if President Trump’s proposed budget is adopted?   Does the nation face the prospect, “As Kansas goes, so goes the nation?”

Duane Goossen, former Kansas legislator and state budget director, has published an open letter to the  Kansas congressional delegation, warning that Trump’s tax proposal is remarkably similar to Brownback’s experiment.  That experiment shifted the tax burden from the upper classes to the middle class.  The result has been an economic disaster for Kansas.  The Brownback tax cuts, in Goossen’s words, “broke the state budget, wiped out reserves, significantly boosted state debt, and put public education at risk.”  The dream that tax cuts for the wealthiest would “trickle down” to the lower classes and generate economic growth proved to be a great delusion.

The three Mennonite state representatives—Don Schroeder (R), Steven Becker (R) and Tim Hodge (D) agree with Goossen.  They all joined with a majority of fellow legislators to vote to reverse the failed tax policies of 2012 and to override Brownback’s veto of that decision.  But the legislature did not get the two thirds majority necessary to override the veto.  The state has not found a way to bring in enough revenue to provide essential services.  The Kansas Supreme Court has ordered the legislature to fix school finance by June 30.

The anemic Kansas economy has discredited the ideology of “supply side economics.”  The state has one of the lowest job growth rates in the nation.  While Kansans generally believe that the 2012 tax policies were responsible for the state’s economic downturn, the governor argues that the problem is caused by declines in the oil, agriculture and aviation industries.  But that doesn’t explain why Kansas’ economy has not kept up with that of neighboring states.

Will the national legislature take the federal budget down the same road that Kansas has gone?   If so, will the economic results be similar?   Conservative Republican legislators, in Kansas as in the rest of the country, are indebted to wealthy businessmen who stand to benefit from tax cuts for the rich.  Kansas Representatives Marshall, Jenkins, Yoder and Estes, along with Senators Roberts and Moran, are hostage to those who have financed their campaigns.  They have political reasons to support Trump’s proposed budget.

The Kansas experiment may indeed be the bellwether for the country.  The rich may get richer, the gulf between the upper and lower classes may widen, and the national economy  may suffer.  There is indeed reason to fear that “As Kansas Goes, so Goes the Nation.”



No Common”Mennonite Personality”

There are three Mennonites in the Kansas House of Representatives:   Steven Becker (R), 104th district (Hutchinson-Buhler);  Don Schroeder (R) 74th district (Hesston); and Tim Hodge (D) 72nd district (North Newton).   Anyone looking for a common “Mennonite” personality among these three men is bound to be disappointed.   They have very different personal styles.

Becker, who is retired from a full career as district court judge, has the earnest, serious, and grave demeanor of a long-time public servant.   His full mustache, short beard and receding hairline lend a certain dignity.  He speaks with clarity and passion.  He communicates with his supporters on the internet with two-to-three minute extemporaneous  video messages.  His style is friendly, but marked with a certain charisma.

One of Becker’s main passions, derived from the tenets of his “faith community,” is opposition to the death penalty.   He has introduced a bill, HB2167, with fifteen bipartisan cosponsors, to repeal the death penalty.  That bill is scheduled for a hearing by the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee on February 13, 2017.   Becker’s leadership is critical to the success of the bill.

Don Schroeder, who like Becker qualifies as a “moderate Republican,” is a much more low-key politician.   Schroeder’s newsletters and newspaper reports are cautious and non-confrontational.   He doesn’t want to be “political.”  He is less intent on identifying his own point of view, than on reporting what is going on in the legislature.   As far as I know, he is not the primary sponsor of any legislation.  He smiles and makes friends easily.

Schroeder says he voted against Governor Brownback’s widely condemned tax policy of 2012.   But he has not been an outspoken critic of the governor, as Becker has been.  In a recent community forum in Moundridge, Schroeder excused the legislature by saying that the law is very “complex” and would be difficult to change.  “Our hands are really tied.”  Some of the frustrated folks in Moundridge were not convinced.

Tim Hodge, a youthful Democrat from North Newton, is new to the legislature and is just beginning to establish his profile.   In his first campaign, running against the incumbent Republican Marc Rhodes, Hodge came out slugging.  He attacked Rhodes for supporting governor Brownback and his tax, education, Medicare and other policies.   He has signed on as co-sponsor of Becker’s bill to repeal the death penalty.

Hodge defeated Rhodes by a small margin.   He has given new energy to the Democrat party in Harvey County.   It remains to be seen whether such a youthful and vigorous liberal Democrat will be able to win the support of the Republicans who are a strong majority in his district.  Will he be a one-term politician?  At least is already clear that Hodge will carve out his own personal and political style–quite different from Becker and Schroeder, his Mennonite colleagues in the Kansas House.



Duane Goossen Proposals


DECEMBER 7, 2016 5:09 PM

Former Kansas budget director leads call for lawmakers to make tax changes