Democratic delegates to head home, campaign in a Republican state

Amber Versola will leave the Democratic National Convention and go home to Lenexa to campaign for a Kansas House seat.
Amber Versola will leave the Democratic National Convention and go home to Lenexa to campaign for a Kansas House seat. Eagle correspondent

For four delegates wrapping up their time at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the work and campaigning is just beginning.

Delegates Amber Versola of Lenexa, Paul McCorkle of Olathe, Rick Cortez of Topeka and Gabriel Costilla of Derby will all return home this weekend and resume their campaigns for state Legislature. None has held elected office before, but a mix of dissatisfaction with current state conditions and energy from this year’s presidential race have inspired them.

It’s hard to run as a Democrat in a state that has been dominated by Republicans for so long, Kansas Democratic Party Executive Director Kerry Gooch said. But it’s far from impossible.

“It’s tougher to get the recognition and to get the name out there,” Gooch said of local elections. “But we preach that if we’re going to change the direction of our state, we start with local elections.”

Costilla, a teacher at West High School in Wichita, was approached by party chair Lee Kinch about running for state Senate in District 16. His biggest hesitation was the idea of not being a teacher, he said, but the idea of being able to create positive change made him say yes.

He said he realizes it will be a hard fight in a red state. He’ll face the winner of the Republican primary between incumbent Ty Masterson and Troy Tabor in November. He described campaigning as “grassroots,” knocking on doors, meeting neighbors and getting people excited.

“I don’t apologize for being a Democrat,” Costilla said. “When you look at the votes that are cast, across the board, the Democrats are voting for the things that Kansas wants.”

The convention has been a great place to spread the word about local campaigns, Gooch said, and to recruit other delegates to help.

“Delegates have the chance to talk to all kinds of people who are going through the same types of situations that they’re going through,” he said. “We’re encouraging them to talk to these people and see what they’re doing and bring those ideas back with them to Kansas.”

Costilla said the biggest issues facing the state are budget problems and getting more funding for education.

McCorkle, who is running for the state House seat in District 15, has heard the same.

“It’s budget and education, budget and education,” said McCorkle, a government teacher in the Raymore-Peculiar school district in Missouri. “That’s what everyone wants to talk about, that’s what they want fixed.”

He will face the winner of a Republican primary contest between Erin Davis, Bo Dostal and Kim Palcic.

In Senate District 20, Rick Cortez says he wants to address higher wages and union rights for other trade workers like him. He said it was exciting to see so many people register to vote this year to vote for Sanders.

“I would have run when I was 20 years old,” he said. “But I felt that I had to make a living at least, take care of myself at that particular time, and then of course I had kids.”

At 58, Cortez is running for the first time against three other Democrats – Candace Ayars, Clarence Hinchy and Dennis L. Rogers – in the primary election Tuesday. He said he’s thankful for the people who are at home knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets.

“I’ve been an underdog my whole life,” he said about running in a red state. “Getting knocked down and getting back up is not a problem for me.”

Versola, who’s running for a state House seat in District 23 for the second time, says she wants to influence policy and make the world a better place. She said being a Democrat in Kansas isn’t difficult, but winning might be.

“I had always thought there were people that were more qualified or that know more than I do,” she said. “But I decided to go for it.”

She faces Republican incumbent Linda Gallagher in November.

Versola said she relies on a group of friends, neighbors and business owners for support and advice. Hillary Clinton’s nomination Tuesday night, Versola said, was important for women everywhere, but also to remind those in Kansas that representation is important on a local level.

“These are people who are engaged and know what’s going on,” Versola said of her constituents.