Kansas Democrats kicked off their annual Demofest convention Friday by announcing that state chair Larry Meeker had resigned after only five months on the job.
Meeker, a former mayor of Lake Quivira, has been vocal about his desire to rebrand the party to appeal to more conservative voters and distinguish itself from the national Democratic Party.
But his message about fiscal conservatism and his perceived indifference to gay rights and abortion rights caused an uproar among the party’s more progressive members.
“My priorities may be diverting us from our primary goal of electing Democrats and restoring common sense to Kansas government,” Meeker said in an e-mailed statement announcing his resignation Friday.
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Some sponsors for Demofest at the Wichita Marriott pulled out this week after Meeker’s comments to The Eagle and other media, said Kerry Gooch, the party’s executive director. He would not say how much money the party lost.
The party will select a new chair Oct. 3 in Salina. Kathryn Focke of Manhattan, the party’s vice chair, will serve as interim chair until then.
Democrats lost all statewide elections in 2014 and saw Republicans strengthen their hold on the Kansas House. With both the House and Kansas Senate up for election in 2016, the party has been seeking a new path forward.
Progressive Democrats say the party needs to focus on registering more voters – especially in minority communities – and offer a message that appeals to working class voters. They want to broaden the party’s message beyond education – the main focus of Paul Davis’ unsuccessful run for governor – and press issues such as tax fairness, Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum wage.
Meeker, on the other hand, said the party needed to do more to sway Republican-leaning voters and pushed a concept that the party could rebrand itself for a red state.
“We’re looking to re-message how we speak about our party and our issues. At the end of election cycle, as you well know, we are Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Obamacare, Obama, anything bad they can figure out going on in Washington, and the Republicans brand us,” Meeker said Wednesday. “That’s not who we are. Kansas Democrats are very different from Massachusetts Democrats or California Democrats.”
Meeker said Kansas Democrats were fiscal conservatives and emphasized that there was room in the party for people who were pro-choice or pro-life, for same-sex marriage or against it. He said conveying this to voters would serve as “a pickup line” in a more conservative state.
But that message alienated some Democrats.
The liberal blog The Daily Kos called Meeker’s rebranding idea “a white flag of surrender.”
Tom Witt, a gay rights activist and member of the party’s executive committee, said Meeker should read the party’s platform, which includes support for same-sex marriage and opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I look forward to supporting a chair who will support our party’s platform,” Witt said Friday when asked about Meeker’s resignation.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who had nominated Meeker for party chair in March, called the rebranding idea a waste of time on Wednesday.
“It’s well understood that the party stands for education and for working people and women,” Hensley said Friday, and against what he called Kansas’ unfair tax structure.
“We already have a Republican Party in this state, and it has moved so far to the right that it’s turning people off,” Hensley said. “We need to stand by our values.”
‘Fact of political life’
Gooch downplayed the connection between criticism of Meeker’s comments and his decision to resign.
“Larry believed this was the best thing for the party moving forward,” Gooch said in a phone call. “I deeply respect Larry’s decision to put the priorities of the Kansas Democratic Party first.”
Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, Kan., said he thought Meeker’s goal to broaden the party’s appeal in a red state made sense.
“It’s just a fact of political life,” Haley said. “The Kansas Democratic Party in its core values is more conservative on various issues than the national Democratic Party.”
On Friday, the party executive committee closed its meeting at the Wichita Marriott to the public, including elected officials, according to Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita.
“I was startled when I arrived here to learn that the doors had locked to members of the Legislature. Let alone that the press and the public had been thrown out,” said Carmichael, who previously served as the party’s secretary.
Carmichael called Meeker’s resignation necessary. “There had been talk for weeks that he was going to advocate renaming, rebranding the party and there were a number of us who were very disappointed to hear that,” he said.
Carmichael said that he wants a new party chair “that respects opinions from Democrats from around the state” and is not focused “on four or five counties in the northeast portion of the state.”
Fodder for Republicans
The conflict between Meeker and the party’s more progressive elements served as fodder for the Kansas Republican Party, which sent out a release Friday mocking the “Red State Democrats” idea.
State GOP chairman Kelly Arnold contended that moderate Democrats were “being dragged down by their extremist base.”
The Democratic party’s disarray frustrated Bruce Tunnell, executive vice president of the Kansas AFL-CIO, a union that represents more than 95,000 workers in the state.
“It’s not looking good for the party right now,” Tunnell said. “We really don’t need this going on. We need to have this stuff together because this next election’s going to be huge.”
Tunnell wants former state Treasurer Dennis McKinney to replace Meeker as chair. McKinney was floated as a possible candidate for chair back in March, but chose not to run.
Hensley said a name that came to mind quickly for him was Lee Kinch, a Wichita attorney who has served as a party vice chair.