Top officials in the Kansas Democratic Party say southwest Kansas is ripe for a blue turnout, and that the winds of change suggest a coming shift in regional politics.
To ensure area Democrats get all the nurturing they need, the KDP held its first ever Kansas Democratic Party Training Academy in Garden City on Saturday, a session that instructs political enthusiasts on fundraising, campaign recruitment and effective use of new technologies on the campaign trail.
The event was held in the Hampton Inn’s conference room and attracted a small group of Garden City and Dodge City residents, many of whom were politically motivated Hispanic citizens who feel their communities’ voices are not being heard at the voting booth or in the Legislature.
KDP Executive Director Ethan Corson said the academy’s launch in Garden City was “very intentional” and underscored the Democratic Party’s growing interest and commitment in southwest Kansas.
“I feel really excited about what’s going on with the Democratic Party in this part of the state,” he said. “The county parties we’ve met with are energized, they’re growing, they’re really motivated. I think we’re going to have some Democratic candidates out here who are going to be really strong, and I just think this is really fertile territory for Democrats."
Corson graduated from Garden City Community College in May 2003, and he said he's optimistic because he feels the Garden City community’s values are in sync with what Democrats have to offer.
Roxana Arjon, an 18-year-old from Dodge City, said she came to Saturday’s event to get ideas for a Young Democrats club she’s trying to start in Ford County.
A member of the LGBTQ community, Arjon said queer issues are important to her and she wants to keep lawmakers on track in their representation of queer constituents.
She noted that Dodge City has a large Hispanic population, and many don’t vote, so she hopes the burgeoning Young Democrats club can help get young Hispanics to the voting booth to “let their voices be heard.”
Though she’s not sure where the future will take her, she said she might one day run for office, “if I had to shoot for the stars.”
Nhicolas Aponte, a 21-year-old attending GCCC, said the event taught him about technical elements of a campaign he hadn’t previously considered.
Though he’s still not sure if he personally wants to run for office, he said he intends to remain “as involved as possible” in politics at the college through his ongoing activity in the Student Government Association.
“For right now, I’m OK with just learning more about the political system,” he said. “To me, it’s a good sign to see the Kansas Democrats becoming more active.”
Another attendee, 22-year-old Miguel Coca of Dodge City, says he intends to run for the House seat serving the 115th District in the upcoming election. Thus far, he said, he stands to run unopposed in the primary.
Coca said he attended the Academy session to learn more about voter outreach.
A major impetus in his coming run for office, he said, is the paucity in Latino representation in state government, despite the large Hispanic population in western Kansas.
In Dodge City, he said, mental health issues often resulting in suicide are affecting the Hispanic population, especially among members of the LGBTQ community who feel disenfranchised by the conservative atmosphere. He said his platform would emphasize the implementation of mental health outreach programs and training.
“It really has to do with feeling ignored and feeling like you’re lost with no place to go,” he said.
Coca said he also would fight for more equitable distribution of education funds in Dodge City to rectify what he feels is disproportionately lower funding among community pockets with larger minority populations.
Pedro Rodriguez, a former candidate for the Garden City Commission who lost the election in November, was also at the academy session. He said he’s now interested in running for the Kansas House of Representatives.
Rodriguez drew the least amount of votes of any candidate on the ballot in 2017 with 6.65 percent of the vote, though he served two terms as the first Hispanic city council member in Denison, Iowa, a community with a population of around 8,000.
Rodriguez said there needs to be more unity and representation among different cultures to foster a sense of comprehensive belonging.
His House platform, he says, would focus on rectifying housing shortfalls in the state and reconfiguring tax dollar distribution to state agencies.
He said the Academy session updated him on Kansas voter registration laws, which do not permit same-day voter registration. He said enforcing a preregistration deadline penalizes people who turn 18 after the deadline and infringes upon the democratic process.
Zach Worf, chairman of the Finney County Democrats, said he hopes the event increases Democrat involvement in local politics.
He said area representatives Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, and John Wheeler, R-Garden City, don’t “always” speak to the motivations and values of Democrats, “so we definitely want to see all areas of Finney County get represented, and we’re not always representing our minority communities.”
Worf said the turnout at the event, which drew eight area residents, is a “great start.”
“We definitely need more, but this is a candidate training,” he said. “We got eight people in Finney County interested in being candidates and helping candidates and transforming our area into what it could be.”
Worf said he learned from Hispanic attendees at the event who raised concerns about campaign cash contribution limits of $250. He said cash is a primary transaction method in many minority communities, and the campaign process should be approached in a way that takes that into consideration.
Worf ran to represent the state’s 39th Senate District in 2016 against then-Republican John Doll, but ultimately dropped out of the race.
Worf said the “scariest” part of running for office is galvanizing the necessary support.
“Just because you want to make things better doesn’t mean you know everything you need to know, so having that support is key to running a big campaign,” he said.
As for the academy’s inaugural Garden City session, Worf said it shows the KDP’s commitment to southwest Kansas.
“The blue wave is coming,” he said.
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org.