Elections

Kansas Democrat delegation agrees on issues, struggles with unity

Reece Rogers, a 21-year-old alternate Bernie Sanders delegate from Wichita, said he will support Hillary Clinton, though reluctantly, if she gets the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. He wants the strongest defense against Republican nominee Donald Trump come Election Day.
Reece Rogers, a 21-year-old alternate Bernie Sanders delegate from Wichita, said he will support Hillary Clinton, though reluctantly, if she gets the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. He wants the strongest defense against Republican nominee Donald Trump come Election Day. The Wichita Eagle

Anna Hand of Ellsworth dreamed of making American history as a child.

“I walked around telling people I was going to be president,” she said.

Hand, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention pledged to Hillary Clinton, is 22. Her dream didn’t start too long ago, but she’s OK letting the title go to another woman.

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As a political science major at Fort Hays State University and president of the Kansas Young Democrats, Hand is excited to represent a demographic group usually known for low voter turnout and low political engagement at the convention that starts Monday. Nearly half — 49 percent — of the state’s 33 pledged delegates and four superdelegates are under age 35.

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Kerry Gooch, who became executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party in 2015, brought on a team of young people to re-energize the party. Gooch, 25, leads a staff he believes is one of the youngest in the country, with the average age matching his.

“If we’re going to reach out to young people, we need young people doing the outreach,” he said.

It comes down to recognizing how to reach out to young voters, he added, like holding happy hours instead of Saturday morning meetings and being present on college campuses.

“We’re even doing a Pokemon Go fundraiser,” he said, using trends to get people excited about voting.

Political factors also have drawn people. Hand said the current administration in Kansas has pushed a lot of young people toward wanting to make change happen this year. And Sen. Bernie Sanders’ grassroots-style campaign and ideals pulled in a lot of young and energized voters, Gooch said.

In turn, the young delegation has affected other aspects of this year’s campaign cycle, like communication and organization within the party, Gooch said. The party has used a communication app called Hustle, mass text chats and Google hangouts to get the group to Philadelphia.

Another consideration is cost limitations, Gooch said. The hotel chosen for the delegation is running upwards of $650 a night for a room. To help, the party gave scholarships to some delegates, focusing on students.

“We knew our young delegates wouldn’t be able to afford $600 or $700 a night,” he said, “People are staying five or six to a room, so it will be fun.”

MOST AGREE ON ISSUES

Justin Kim, 20, a delegate from Derby, didn’t pay attention to politics until he became a student at the University of Kansas. He said he knows the political process can be intimidating, but thinks his generation has a lot to be excited about in this election.

While Sanders’ campaign helped bring Kim into the political sphere, he said, he backs Clinton because she is the most practical candidate.

“This country needs steady hands and a proven track record,” Kim said of Clinton.

He added that his sister just had a little girl, and he would love to live in a country with a female president.

“Representation is important,” he said.

Damien Gilbert of Wichita is the vice president of the Kansas Young Democrats. He said he recognizes a trend in politics to keep older people in positions of power and wants more young people to break into the process.

At 21, Gilbert has more political experience than most, stumping with his mother for Hillary Clinton in 2008. His mother died a few years ago, but Gilbert returned to the same hall and same stage to speak about his passion for Clinton in April.

Gilbert said he admired Sanders’ strong stance on income inequality and sees the effect of the issue “shoved down our throats” on a daily basis.

“The Republicans’ mission is to protect the rich,” he said. “We know this in Kansas. We’ve seen it directly and we’ve seen it’s not true. It doesn’t work.”

Funding for education is a major concern for most delegates, whether they are students seeking higher education or enrolling children in public school.

Hand is excited that Clinton adopted some parts of Sanders’ education reform policy and sees the pair coming together to represent the party.

Sarah Parrish, a 34-year-old owner of a small, green cleaning company from Merriam, said she and her husband are still paying off thousands of dollars in education loans, even with help from the GI Bill. Parrish worries too for her daughter, 7, who is in elementary school.

“It’s not in their interest to have an informed and educated populace,” Parrish said of what she views as a lack of support for schools by state officials.

Also on Parrish’s list of key issues is protecting the environment. She said current national legislation doesn’t do enough to protect it and threats like fracking are “reckless.”

All delegates say they believe the current state administration is hurting the livelihood and success of Kansas residents. Another goal at the convention is to focus on getting Democrats elected to state and local positions. Republicans hold all six congressional positions, all statewide offices and strong majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature.

“We’ve seen what these conservative values can do in Kansas,” Hand said. “And we don’t like it.”

BUT UNITY IS FAR AWAY FOR SOME

“We have one goal,” Hand said of the delegation’s mission for the convention. “To make sure the White House stays blue for at least the next four years, if not eight.”

Earlier this month, and to much dismay of many Sanders supporters, the Vermont senator endorsed Clinton for president, effectively ending his campaign.

Shortly after, Kansas’ three remaining unpledged superdelegates — Party Chair Lee Kinch, Vice Chair Melody McCray-Miller and National Committeeman Bill Roy — joined National Committeewoman Teresa Garcia-Krusor in her support of Clinton, officially pledging their votes to her.

Sanders won big over Clinton in the state’s Democratic caucuses in March.

Those who still “feel the Bern” plan to passionately represent their candidate at the convention and hope there’s a fighting chance for him to walk away representing the Democratic Party.

At 32, Chris Pumpelly of Wichita considers himself one of the “older” delegates.

“Bernie reflects the enthusiasm and energy of a lot of young people,” he said. “He got them inspired.”

Some Sanders delegates, like Pumpelly, are prepared to unify the Democratic Party and support Clinton if she is announced as the party’s nominee at the convention as expected.

“There’s a lot of narrative happening between the candidates, but really, we agree on so much,” he said.

Reece Rogers, a 21-year-old alternate Sanders delegate from Wichita, said he will support Clinton, though reluctantly, if she gets the nomination. He wants the strongest defense against Republican nominee Donald Trump come Election Day.

“It’s important Democrats unite behind whoever represents us after the convention,” he said. “Just because you support someone doesn’t mean you’re non-critical of their policies.”

Parrish doesn’t think it’s that easy.

She said she understands Clinton’s nomination would be a historical event, but doesn’t think the delegation should ignore that Kansas turned out in such high numbers for Sanders. She said she wouldn’t be participating in the electoral process if it wasn’t for Sanders’ grassroots campaign, and she knows others stand with her.

Parrish said if Clinton does win the nomination, the party risks not having a Democrat in office.

“If that ends up being the case,” she said, “We can come together, but there’s going to be fracturing in the party.”

United or not, Kim is excited to be in attendance for a historical moment. But he said his biggest goal is to make participation in politics accessible to other young people.

“It is a place for you, and it takes work,” he said, “but we would love to get you involved.”

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