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I Was a Local Newspaper Reporter Who Became an Elected Official Overnight

When my friend died unexpectedly, I was chosen to take her place in the Kansas House of Representatives

Every time Patsy Terrell and I shared dinner together, we’d talk for so long afterward that the waiter or waitress would begin to frequently interrupt us — a not-so-subtle hint that it was time for us to move along so they could go home. Those conversations moved across the spectrum of life: The deep, personal topics we otherwise kept to ourselves. The childhood experiences that shaped us. The dreams we hoped to fulfill.

On the last point, in early 2016, the discussion turned to politics and the prospect of launching a campaign against Jan Pauls, the incumbent state representative for the 102nd House District of Kansas. A few years earlier, Pauls had been instrumental in pushing forward legislation designed to legalize discrimination against the LGBT community under the guise of “religious liberty.” Patsy and I abhorred that such backward thinking defined our state.

We weren’t alone either. Both the local Republican and Democratic parties had already reached out to me about running for Pauls’ seat. The Democrats also had contacted Patsy about launching a campaign of her own against Pauls. “If you’re going to run, I’m not going to,” she told me while seated in a booth at Chili’s, probably long after the wait staff had hoped we’d relinquish it. “But if you’re not going to run, I think I want to do it.”

I thought for a moment before offering a definitive answer: “I’m out.”

It just made more sense for her to run. She was self-employed and had a flexible schedule. I, on the other hand, worked for the local newspaper. That meant long hours. It also meant that I’d have to resign the moment I announced my candidacy since it would’ve been perceived as a conflict-of-interest. The job wasn’t exactly lucrative, but I wasn’t ready to give it up for something that paid just $88 a day — or the going rate to serve in the Kansas House.

In the end, it didn’t matter anyway: Patsy won handily (55.5 percent to 44.4 percent) and took to the role wholeheartedly. She had a keen understanding of the issues affecting our state, and most importantly, Gov. Sam Brownback’s political experiment that allowed for more than 300,000 businesses to evade income taxes, which eroded the state’s finances, forced dramatic cutbacks in state services like education and borrowed from the pensions of state employees.

Toward the end of the session, which had been long and contentious, Patsy called me. She’d been involved with a “Women’s Caucus” — a group of women from both sides of the aisle who had gathered to find a solution to the state’s budget crisis. She was excited. The new crop of legislators had refused to budge. In fact, they’d gone on the offensive and passed a tax-and-budget bill that unraveled Brownback’s corporate tax breaks. He, naturally, vetoed it, but just before daylight on June 7th, Patsy and the other Kansas lawmakers voted to override the governor. Her Facebook post touting the achievement read: “You’re waking up in a Kansas where the Brownback experiment has ended. Good morning!”

Then, tragedy.

Around 6 p.m. that evening, I received a call informing me that Patsy had been found dead in her hotel room. The legislature had been scheduled to meet that afternoon, but no one had heard from her. A welfare check to her room at the Ramada Inn near the capitol building revealed that she’d died in her sleep from a pre-existing heart condition.

Two days later, I left for the annual Biking Across Kansas (BAK) event, a 533-mile bicycle tour that stretches across the state — starting in the desolate, arid plains of the west before moving to the rolling hills of the east and ending at the Missouri River, where bicycle tires are dipped in the water for photos and posterity.

There’s a lot of time to think during BAK. In Kansas, there are no grand mountains to enjoy or oceans to witness. But there is beauty in the vast horizon and all the fields filled with wheat or wild prairie glass. And in those seemingly never-ending miles between small towns, the mind can dive deep into a single thought. Mine was centered on Patsy. In particular, I kept thinking about how her and I had bought each other the same book — Daring Greatly by Brené Brown — as a gift one Christmas not that long ago. It’s built around a quote from Teddy Roosevelt’s famous 1910 “Man in the Arena” speech:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

It was a quote that I felt acutely. Up until that point, unlike Patsy, I’d been the critic (assailing government with op-eds), not the doer of deeds (forging the legislation that would actually change things). But now, I had my chance, as well as an opportunity to honor Patsy’s memory. “I’m at the Democratic Party meeting,” a friend wrote to me via text as I biked outside of a small town named Lincoln (population: 1,297). “I’m going to throw your name out there. Are you okay with this?”

I stopped my bike at the side of the road to think about how to answer.

I was afraid — mostly of letting go of a career that I’d spent 15 years building at The Hutchinson News. During that time, I’d crafted an identity for myself as a capable reporter and fiery editorial writer. I managed a staff and had become well-known in the community. All things that would be hard to give up.

Yet running for political office was something I’d long thought about doing. I’d often felt the people of my hometown hadn’t been well-represented — forgotten and ignored by the state government (and everyone else, really). They’ve struggled to find good jobs, and chronic poverty spans across generations. Neighborhoods are filled with dilapidated housing and isolated from development in other parts of the area. Put together, that means more people are on food stamps than are considered affluent.

In this role, I thought, I can help change that.

The next Wednesday I was standing in front of nine precinct committee members that made up the nomination committee, trying to convince them that I was the best of the three candidates vying for Patsy’s place. “I’ve lived in this district for 21 years,” I argued. “Raised my two children in it. Went to its schools. Played in its parks. Worked in its businesses. I think this experience closely matches the experience of most people in the district.”

I won by a 6–3 vote.

A few days later, I travelled to Topeka, where I was sworn in and sat in the House chambers for the last day of the session, a largely ceremonial event that officially closes the legislative session. In the weeks since, I’ve discovered that if you allow it, this job will consume every minute of your life. Between meeting with constituents and lobbyists and learning about byzantine campaign-finance laws, there’s little time for anything else.

That said, I’m currently trying to find the time for a second job. Because Kansas has a “citizen legislature,” the pay for state lawmakers is low — roughly $29,000 a year, most of which comes during the legislative session that’s scheduled to begin in January. So I’ve spent much of the summer working for free and living off of my modest savings while looking for some form of employment. But that’s easier said than done: Not many people are thrilled about hiring someone who requires four or five months off every year, and whose very public decisions might anger potential customers.

Also not easy? Being a Democrat in Kansas. Voters here tend to elect Republicans by default. After all, this is the state that produced obstinate Congressman Tim Huelskamp — not to mention Brownback. It also went for Trump by nearly 57 percent.

Practically speaking, that makes both getting votes and raising money an uphill battle. And I hear about money a lot. “To govern, you have to win,” I’ve been told by party officials, other candidates and current and former lawmakers. “And to win, you need money.”

It’s true: Business cards, handouts, websites and advertising all come with a cost. So does not having the necessary elements to carry out a successful campaign. The official election season won’t begin until next spring 2018, but the foundation of a campaign began almost immediately — namely, fundraising. In the meantime, my efforts to learn more about the inner-workings of state government will continue until January when the legislative session begins and I’ll begin spending weekdays in Topeka, under the bronze dome where the state’s business takes place.

“Politics isn’t for the faint of heart,” Patsy often told me.

She was right about a lot of things, but maybe this most of all.

Still, it’s something I want to do — and do well.

I’d be lying, though, if I said that sometimes I don’t feel a little out of place. I wasn’t born into a political family. I was raised poor in a small farming community in the middle of Kansas. My dad was a welder; my mom a housekeeper. Neither graduated from high school, and college wasn’t a consideration. My own family started when I was 19 and earning $250 a week. I worked whatever job would pay the bills, and later, I attended college in the evenings in the hope that someday I’d make enough money so that paying the bills wasn’t quite as hard.

But in my heart, I know that’s what makes me perfect for the job. I was forgotten and overlooked, too. Nor is my story some trumped-up Horatio Alger story spun for political gain. It’s just what my life has been like: A typical Kansas existence but for this one crazy turn that now allows me to speak up for all those out there whose lives aren’t any different than mine.