Bruised Kansas

FILE - In this Jan 9, 2012 file photo, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback listens to a reporter's question during a news conference in
FILE - In this Jan 9, 2012 file photo, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback listens to a reporter's question during a news conference in his Statehouse office in Topeka, Kan. Republicans set out a bold conservative agenda after taking control of state capitols across the Midwest and South in the last general election. But after a series of notable achievements last year, the largest Republican wave in statehouses since the Great Depression now is splintering and action on key issues is stalled despite little meaningful opposition from outnumbered Democrats. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Kansas has become the caricature of the starkly red state the nation always thought it was. Only it wasn't. Until now.

I grew up in west Texas -- Midland, to be exact, the hometown claimed by George W. Bush -- and I experienced roguish conservatism. When I moved to Kansas to attend Kansas University in 1967, I was struck by the state's comparative progressive spirit and also the green, rolling hills of its northeast corner. I found the national stereotype of a flat, conservative state dead wrong.

I married a Kansas history buff who educated me on the proud history of women in politics: Kansas was the first state in the nation to elect a woman mayor, the first to swear in an all-female town council, an early state to pass the women's suffrage amendment. We've had two female governors when many states, such as neighboring Missouri, have had none. My present hometown of Topeka had enough people of character to fight school segregation, and is now the signature birthplace of Brown v. Board of Education, with a National Park Service site commemorating the end of separate but equal. My 16-year-old son attends diverse Topeka High School, where minorities make up the majority of the student body.

Contrast that with my stomping grounds of Midland. I graduated from lily-white Robert E. Lee High School, home of the Lee High Rebels, in May of 1967. We sang "Dixie" in a gym where a Confederate flag hung. Lee High wasn't integrated until 15 years after the Brown v. Board decision, and then only under the threat of federal marshals.

Despite its proud history, Kansas seems always maligned. In his famous editorial, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" published in the Emporia Gazette in 1896, our own William Allen White wrote: "Go east and you hear them laugh at Kansas, go west and they sneer at her, go south and they 'cuss' her, go north and they have forgotten her." Regional one-upmanship forgets that almost every state has its internal political and social contradictions, reflecting east-west, north-south, urban-rural interests. Why pick on Kansas, I've asked myself? Until now.

When Sam Brownback was elected governor, I defended him. I had met him years ago when he was enrolling one of his children in a summer camp program. In running shorts, he was charming and affable. I admired his work as senator in Darfur. Now he is indefensible. "Santorum without the warmth, Huckabee without the charisma," one wag described him.

Brownback entered the governor's office with national ambitions and a boilerplate political agenda that he has imposed autocratically. Despite widespread protest, he gutted the Kansas Arts Commission, losing over a million dollars of matching funds, and replaced it with the starchy-sounding Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission. His draconian tax cuts are actually tax shifts -- away from the more progressive income tax and toward regressive property and sales taxes. Brownback's game of budgetary roulette seems to be backfiring, as Kansas is one of only two states in the nation with negative revenue projections in 2013.

Instead of exercising the art of governing diverse populations and interests, he has used a pre-cut template that leaves public schools sagging and the social safety net in shreds. He has trampled on the constitutional separation of church and state. In a supreme irony, the day before this year's State of the State address, the Old Supreme Courtroom in the Kansas Statehouse was reserved for a prayer fest, the second year this event has been held. Separation of religion and government has gone the way of the Kansas Arts Commission.

In that recent State of the State speech, Brownback stressed his goal of eliminating the state income tax.

"Look out Texas," he declared, "here comes Kansas."

Last fall, a mocking missive to the red states circulated on the Internet and on Facebook suggesting that the blue states, dubbed the "The Enlightened States of America," secede. They would have most of the country's fresh water, fruit, wines and Ivy League colleges. The red states would have "88 percent of all obese Americans and their projected health care costs," "nearly 100 percent of the tornadoes," and the likes of Todd Akin.

When a Topeka friend of mine saw this on Facebook, she commented that she lived in Kansas and disputed the generalizations. She is a Seven-Sisters grad, Marcia wrote, and her home has a book collection larger than some libraries, her daughter runs an LGBT program at Stanford, her political views are to the left of Obama's, and she believes most states are not red or blue but purple.

The person who shared the Facebook post jokingly asked her how many Confederate flags she saw on any given day. She responded that she had never seen a Confederate flag in Kansas, as the state was founded by abolitionists and women's rights activists.

When Marcia told me this story, I joked that the Facebook poster must have confused Kansas with Texas. When I attended my high school reunion in Midland a few years ago, I was stunned to see a massive Confederate flag banner above the registration table. When the very nice organizer of the event sent an email asking what changes could be made for future reunions, I suggested that tired symbol be retired.

I would like to believe with Marcia that most states, even Texas, are not starkly red or blue, but more purple. I would like to echo the sentiments in Obama's second inaugural address: we must move forward "together, as one nation, and one people."

I would like to second the words of the inaugural poem of openly gay poet Richard Blanco that we are living in "one today," moving on "one ground," under "one sky."

My daughter is gay, a dancer, married -- though not legally, because she lives in Pennsylvania -- to a visual artist. My library is not massive, and my politics are pretty much on par with Obama's. But I always considered Kansas not tomato red, but purplish. Until now. Now the purple I see is bruised Progressivism, Kansas history pummeled by extreme right-wing politicians who do not represent me or countless others who call the state home.