Wyandotte County leaders reacted angrily Wednesday to a Kansas Supreme Court decision upholding a new congressional map that divides the solidly liberal, racially diverse community for the first time in 40 years.
The opinion, rejecting a legal challenge to the Republican-drawn boundary lines, stung activists, legislators and others who had fought the map for months, first in the Legislature, then in the courts. They had hoped that Kansas’ highest court would, for the first time, place limits on how far GOP lawmakers could go in gerrymandering districts.
Instead, they are now vowing a long-term struggle for better maps that will last a decade or more.
“It’s clear that to accomplish what needs to be done for equity to exist in Kansas, that is not going to come from the courts, it’s not going to come from the Legislature, it will have to come from the people,” said Marcus Winn, an organizer with Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity, or MORE2.
“What’s obvious now, from this and so many other decisions where communities like Wyandotte County have been used as political pawns, is that we have to build relationships and do that same work statewide.”
Tyrone Garner, the mayor of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, said he hoped the decision won’t shatter a “spirit of shared values and interests” in the community. He called Wyandotte County a resilient community.
“In light of the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling, to say we are disappointed is an understatement,” Garner said in a statement. “In my opinion, the challenges it poses for Wyandotte County to have representation that reflects a unified vision for the interest and values of our residents has in effect been compromised.”
Wyandotte County had previously been entirely within the 3rd District, held by Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids. The county had been in a single district for the past 40 years.
Under the new map, the county is now split roughly along I-70, with the southern half remaining in the 3rd. The northern half will move into the 2nd District, held by Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner.
Kansas Congressional map
Kansas lawmakers approved a congressional map that splits Wyandotte County along Interstate 70. Type in your address in the search bar to see where you live within the districts.
Davids will face a more difficult path to re-election in the new 3rd District, which includes additional conservative-leaning counties. She is expected to face Amanda Adkins, a former Cerner executive and Kansas Republican Party chair, in the general election.
People on the street approached by The Star in Kansas City, Kansas, after the court ruling either didn’t know about it or were only generally aware of the controversy surrounding redistricting.
Alfonso Martell, an auto mechanic who lives south of I-70, said he had seen the case on the news but hadn’t paid much attention. He said he plans to vote for Davids in November.
Jorge Ramos, who works at Ramos Upholstery, also didn’t know about the decision.
“I see no issue with it, but if it changes the tax and all that, I would say that would be an issue,” Ramos said, referring to local sales tax rates.
Uphill battle for Wyandotte County Democrats ahead
The district lines had drawn sharp condemnation from Democrats since the moment they were introduced in January. Wyandotte County is a major Democratic stronghold and Kansas’s most racially and ethnically diverse area. More than half of the population is Black or Hispanic, compared to 18% statewide.
“It will prevent a certain profile of Kansan from having any voice in a Washington delegation,” said state Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, who is one of only two Black lawmakers in the state Senate.
Republicans said throughout the redistricting process that nothing in the Kansas Constitution governs gerrymandering. Lawmakers, not the courts, should decide have the final say over district lines, they argued.
“We were pleased to see the decision of the Kansas Supreme Court today upholding the redistricting maps drawn by the people’s legislature. The court recognized what we have said all along, these maps are the result of a fair, open and thorough process based on public input and grounded in constitutional principles,” Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch and Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, all Republicans, said in a statement.
Democrats and numerous progressive groups argued that splitting the county apart would dilute the voting power of racial minorities. Wyandotte County District Court Judge Bill Klapper, an elected Democrat, agreed in a decision issued last month striking down the map.
But the Kansas Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned Klapper’s decision and lifted an injunction blocking the map from going into effect.
“I’m extremely disappointed and maybe I’m naive, I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t expect the Supreme Court to go along with the Republicans’ slash-and-burn ‘let’s defeat diversity any possible way we can,’” said Tom Alonzo, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the map.
Alonzo, a Wyandotte County voter, was in the 3rd District but will now be in the 2nd District. Still, he said will work to help re-elect Davids. At the same time, Alonzo emphasized the need for Democrats in the new 2nd District to work together to challenge LaTurner and the Republicans.
An analysis by the Campaign Legal Center gives Democrats just a 5% chance of winning the 2nd District under the new map. Democrat Patrick Schmidt, a former Naval intelligence officer, has filed to run. He’s taken in about $486,000 in total receipts compared to roughly $1 million for LaTurner.
“The bottom line with a lot of this stuff is we have to get up off of our behinds and do something,” Alonzo said.
Democrats in the area need to make room for the voice of young people, he said, adding that is the “only thing that’s going to save us.”
Connie Brown Collins, a founder of the Voter Rights Network of Wyandotte County, sounded a similar note, saying the county needs elected officials who will fight.
“Maybe we need some changes in those areas and some new blood,” Collins said.
In some ways, the Kansas Supreme Court decision has offered clarity to organizers in Wyandotte County, making clear they can’t depend on the courts for change but instead face an uphill battle for electoral and political change.
“I don’t think it’s a battle we cannot win,” Collins said. “I just think it takes ongoing effort and ongoing work on our part.”
The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed reporting.