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Longest-serving members of Kansas Legislature talk about career, race and partisan politics


Longest-serving members of Kansas Legislature talk about career, race and partisan politics

Jan 23, 2023 | 10:00 am ET
By Tim Carpenter
Longest-serving members of Kansas Legislature talk about career, race and partisan politics
Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, and Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, are the state's longest-serving current members of the Senate and House. They discussed their political careers during a Kansas Reflector podcast. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Sen. David Haley’s initial attempts to win election to public office were as a Republican in the mold of a father who was the first Black elected state senator in Kansas and a mother who dedicated herself to teaching at Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas.

Haley, a nephew of Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Haley, had followed his father George Haley to Morehouse College in Atlanta. He graduated from Howard University’s law school in Washington, D.C., before returning to Wyandotte County, where his mother, Doris, taught school.

“Between the two, I always saw being involved in issues and public service and getting up and going to forums and what have you — I grew up like that,” Haley said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “The Republican Party was kind of respectable still. I mean, it was the party of Bob Dole.”

In 1994, he decided to run as a Democrat for the Kansas House. He won the primary and the incumbent Democrat resigned. Haley was appointed to the seat in September of that year. He subsequently was elected to serve a full term representing the demographically diverse district as a pro-choice Democrat interested in criminal justice reform.

Haley transitioned to the Senate in 2001 and now stands as the longest-serving current member of that 40-person branch of the Legislature.

His tenure was surpassed in the 125-member House by Rep. Barbara Ballard, who was elected in 1992 and took office the following January. For reference, 1993 was the year in which Beanie Babies went on sale, Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize and Bill Clinton was elected president. No other current House member has served longer than the Lawrence Democrat.

Ballard, too, is a Black lawmaker in a legislative body dominated by white men and women. Ballard said she didn’t exclusively view her public service through the lens of race or gender because those were parts of her life that she had no control over.

She attended an all-girls academy in El Paso, Texas, and the Catholic women’s school, Webster College in St. Louis, and saw girls and women do all kinds of things that might not have been open to them at a coeducational school. Her father was a U.S. Army master sergeant and her mother a nurse, and they instilled in her respect for the electoral process. She was reminded people died for the right to an education and the right to vote.

“You don’t wait for everyone else to make those changes. You get in there and you help make those changes,” said Ballard, who earned a doctorate and served eight years on the local school board. “Race is important to me, because I know how people of color are treated. But does that make me any less than someone else? I have never believed that. You know, I’m not better than anyone else, but neither am I less than they are. I want to have some say so in what happens. I want to look at those people that are most vulnerable, that don’t have a voice or don’t feel they can use their voice, that I can be that person.”

Haley said his district in Wyandotte County was thought to be the fourth most diverse state Senate district in the nation. He recalled that while working as an assistant district attorney he stood in front of bulldozers to inhibit destruction of homes that should have been renovated to alleviate a shortage of housing. That activism helped steer his political career toward moderating class warfare, he said.

“It’s not just housing. It’s not just access to those basics that continues to drive me,” Haley said. “It’s not whether or not this overwhelming, this critically white Kansas Legislature turns a deaf ear or a blind eye or hardened heart to those conditions because of race. It’s across the board. It’s almost an elitism that has nothing to do with race.”

He denounced application by some Republicans of a “woke” label to work creating a more inclusive society as if understanding the history of how the United States evolved were not patriotic.

Ballard and Haley said politics in the Capitol had grown more polarized since the mid-1990s with the demise of so many moderate Republicans and the rise of social media. They agreed Republicans and Democrats had less opportunity to engage in bipartisanship as they often moved to their respective corners.

Ballard said looking back over her House career revealed how important it was to defeat a proposal by then-Gov. Sam Brownback to close Kansas Neurological Institute, a Topeka residential facility for the state’s most profoundly disabled adults. She opposed closure because the state had previously failed to live up to promises to make certain state funding followed individuals removed from mental health facilities. So far, KNI’s doors remain open.

“That was huge. That’s when I decided myself there’s a time to always speak up, and then there’s a time to really speak up and make sure people know what’s really happening,” Ballard said.

She expressed pride in work to create safe facilities for parents with joint custody of children to transfer those kids following visits. Parents had been making these transitions along highways or in the lobby of police stations, she said.

“We still have child exchange and visitation centers. And I am extremely proud of that one,” she said.

Ballard, who has been at the University of Kansas since 1980, said she was committed to gaining passage of gun control legislation. She said it was irresponsible for the Legislature to have authorized the carrying of concealed weapons on state university campuses.

“The last one that still bothers me today is gun control. Or lack of, I should say. Why do we have concealed carry on a university campus?” she said.

Haley said he was pleased Kansas created a system to compensative people incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit. He said he remained committed to legalizing marijuana consumption and abolishing capital punishment despite decades of political opposition.

He was living proof some reforms took many years to enact. The evidence was an eight-year struggle to pass legislation Haley championed to create a felony offense for extreme animal cruelty.