TOPEKA — Kansas Democrats pondered Saturday how to rebuild after last year's disastrous elections but found encouragement in a rally that brought hundreds of people to the Statehouse to wave signs, sing protest songs and show support for the party's union allies.
Democratic activists and elected officials from across the state gathered in Topeka for Washington Days, the party's biggest annual convention. The Democratic State Committee elected former state Revenue Secretary Joan Wagnon as the party's new state chairwoman.
As some Democrats participated in caucus meetings at a hotel, others took part in a "Save the American Dream" rally on the south steps of the Statehouse.
Progressive groups and unions organized such events across the nation to show solidarity with public employee unions in Wisconsin, which are fighting Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to strip them of most of their collective bargaining rights.
Kansas Republicans last year swept all statewide and congressional races and increased their legislative majorities.
Rally speakers suggested the result was an extreme-right, anti-worker state government.
"I don't think it's any secret that the Democratic base wasn't energized in the 2010 elections," state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said after the rally. "The Republicans are doing a great job of rallying our base."
At least 500 people participated in the event, though organizers put the count at 1,200.
Chuck Tribble, an Overland Park truck driver and International Brotherhood of Teamsters member, said he was impressed by a fiery pro-union speech Saturday from state Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka. Tribble said it typifies what Democrats need to do to reconnect with voters like him.
"They need to come out here today when stuff like this is going on, and be with us," he said. "I'm ready. I'd stand with them in a moment."
But Ashley McMillan, the Kansas Republican Party's executive director, was skeptical that Democrats can reconnect with Kansas voters. She said voters will assess GOP officials on how well they create jobs and revive the economy.
Rally speakers compared the pro-union demonstrators to protesters who've toppled repressive governments in Tunisia and Egypt and are threatening to do so in Libya. They described Walker's proposal on collective bargaining in Wisconsin — which the governor says is needed to help balance that state's budget — as part of a national attack on workers' rights by GOP conservatives and their big-business backers.
"I'm a crazy, red-blooded Kansan that says, 'We must stand together,' " said rally speaker Teresa Molina, a Wichita high school Spanish teacher and board president of Sunflower Community Action, a local community advocacy group.