TOPEKA – Stephanie Mott stands in the Kansas House of Representatives and, misty-eyed, talks about how much history has taken place in this room.
She’s been in the building before, but this is the first time she has been on the House floor. She walks slowly as she surveys the seats of Democratic lawmakers and pauses when she sees a name she recognizes.
“He’s one of our champions,” she says, pointing at Rep. John Carmichael’s name tag. Carmichael sponsored an unsuccessful bill last session to protect gay and transgender Kansans from workplace discrimination.
Mott, who wears a rainbow bracelet, hopes she will have a seat close by next year.
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If she does, she’ll be making history.
Mott would be the first transgender member of the Kansas Legislature if a small group of Topeka Democrats pick her to fill a seat that opened when Rep. Harold Lane, D-Topeka, announced his retirement in October.
She faces competition from another trail-blazer, Carolyn Wims-Campbell, the first African-American to serve on the Kansas Board of Education.
Ten years ago, Mott, a 57-year-old Kansas native, was homeless and “still trying to live as a man.”
In 2006, she began attending the Metropolitan Community Church of Topeka, a church that supports gay rights and that Mott describes as “a little church where I could be authentic. I could live as my true self.”
She began living as a woman full time in 2007 and has since emerged as one of the state’s leading voices for transgender rights, spearheading the campaign to add gender identity to Topeka city government’s nondiscrimination policy last year.
She also became sober and went back to school.
Mott, who said she is closing in on 10 years without a drink, earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Washburn University and has begun work on her master’s degree. She said that she couldn’t function until she accepted her gender identity and that faith played a major role in enabling her to do that.
She now speaks at churches throughout the Midwest about being a transgender woman of faith. “It’s important to me to have that relationship with God, and I thought for a while, for a huge part of my life, I thought that I couldn’t do that,” she said.
Mott’s first foray into politics came in 2009, when she spoke out against a campaign to restrict access to gay-themed books. That effort was led by Kim Borchers, now Gov. Sam Brownback’s deputy chief of staff.
Mott now is a member of Topeka’s Human Relations Commission, a city advisory board aimed at eliminating prejudice, and is a community liaison for transgender inmates at the Shawnee County Jail.
If Mott is selected for the legislative seat, she would be the first openly LGBT member of the Kansas Legislature and one of only a handful of transgender officeholders nationwide.
“This would be an incredible opportunity for people to be able to see a person who happens to be transgender who has all the same values that they have, who believes in God, who believes in faith, who believes in fairness,” she said.
Her selection would come after the governor eliminated anti-discrimination protections for LGBT state workers and would make her a member of a House that voted overwhelmingly for a bill that would have enabled court clerks and other public employees to refuse to serve same-sex couples.
Tom Witt, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, called Mott “a great voice for the transgender community in this state.”
“I think it would be fantastic for her to serve in the Legislature,” he said. “It would be a historic first.”
Wims-Campbell, 73, also has made history. She became the first African-American elected to the Kansas Board of Education in 2008. Wims-Campbell, an executive member of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP, called it unfortunate that it took until 2008 for that to happen. She had previously served on the Topeka school board.
“I’m a product of segregation,” said Wims-Campbell, who attended an all-black elementary school in Topeka before the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision.
She was the second African-American hired by the Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. in Topeka in 1961. She remembers getting onto an elevator and having a co-worker say, “Oh, you’re the other one.”
Wims-Campbell has worked as a secretary at the Legislature since 1992, serving on the staff of Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, since 2004.
She calls Hensley her “No.1 mentor” and said that working in his office, she’s “always in the know.”
“She’s been around this process during 25 different sessions and understands it as well as anybody,” Hensley said.
Wims-Campbell said she already had planned to run for the Legislature in 2016. She touted her connections and experience as reasons she should be Lane’s successor. The person who is selected will serve through the 2016 session and then face re-election that fall.
“I know I can raise the money to retain the seat,” she said.
Wims-Campbell said she would focus on improving public education and the juvenile justice system.
Mott said her priorities would be pushing for Medicaid expansion and making it easier for people to vote. “These are the things that are hurting everybody,” she said, noting that many families in the 58th District are low income and would benefit from Medicaid expansion.
The Nov. 14 precinct election is unusual in several respects.
Lane’s decision to resign was unexpected and came about a month after the Topeka Capital-Journal reported that his personal e-mail address had been linked to an account with Ashley Madison, a website for people looking to cheat on their spouses, which was hacked in August.
Lane has denied visiting the site and said the story played no role in his resignation.
Only six people will vote on his replacement, because the Democratic committee in the 58th District is made up of only six people right now.
Hensley said the committee would have 30 members if every position were filled. Democrats blame the low number of members on a Republican mailer in the nearby 56th District that included the personal information of Democratic precinct committee members. They say that has scared off some who might have served.
One of the six people is Mott. Another is Hensley, Wims-Campbell’s boss. Also on the committee are Wims-Campbell’s colleague the Rev. Ben Scott, the president of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP; his wife, Gwendolyn; Pamela Renovato; and Debra Snow.
Hensley said he would not recuse himself from voting in an election in which one of his staff members is up for a position in the Legislature. He plans to nominate Wims-Campbell.
“If she wins, I lose her on my staff, so I’m making a sacrifice in some respects,” he said.
Mott also said she has no plans to recuse herself from voting, reasoning that she would not do so if she were running in a primary or general election.
In the Capitol, Mott visits the room that once was home to the Kansas Supreme Court and studies the faces of justices depicted in paintings on the wall. She is once again taken aback by the building’s history. She remarks that the Capitol needs to be a place that gives people hope.
When Mott takes the elevator back to the ground floor to exit the building, she smiles and says, “Yeah, I can do this.”