Susan Ruiz was tired of being angry all the time.
The newly elected Democrat from Shawnee, who defeated incumbent Republican Linda Gallagher in the 23rd District House race, wanted to harness anger inspired by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies. She thought she could make an impact by running for political office.
“I was just always seething and just being angry,” Ruiz said, “and always getting angry with other people because they were also angry with the Trump administration and everything that comes with that, and just the way he demonized the Latino population. I’m Mexican-American. That just pissed me off a lot.”
Like Brandon Woodard, a Democrat from Lenexa, Ruiz ran on issues important to residents in a diverse district -- health care, education and voting rights. Their sexual orientation seldom came up when talking to voters.
Next month, the two will take office as the first openly gay elected representatives in the Legislature. They joined Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, an LGBT advocacy group, for a discussion with Capitol Insider, the podcast of The Topeka Capital-Journal that explores people and ideas in state government.
Witt said their election is an example of how much the world has changed in the past decade and a half.
In January 2004, he participated in a protest at the Statehouse while clergy convinced lawmakers to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Later that year, Kansans overwhelmingly voted to ban same-sex marriage --a ban lifted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015.
That amendment led Witt to become a lobbyist for the LGBT community. In addition to fighting hateful laws, he has worked with candidates who were defeated on the basis of their sexual orientation.
For years, he said, he worked to get an LGBT lawmaker elected to the Legislature. Now, he said, there are two and nobody cares.
“Beating up on the gays is not as politically useful as it used to be,” Witt said. “Fifteen years ago, it was all the rage: ‘We’re going to make the LGBT people the scapegoats of all of our social ills. They’re going to destroy society. They’re going to ruin our marriages.’ “
Woodard’s campaign emphasized the idea that food should be accessible to everyone. If you spend $200 on a grocery bill for your family, he said, you have to pay another $20 in sales tax. He wants to exempt food from being taxed.
He is also interested in Medicaid expansion. Before going to college, he spent five years working at hospitals in Topeka and Lawrence, where he saw how “messed up” the health care system is.
“Medicaid expansion for me is a human obligation that we have to our neighbors,” Woodard said.
As a clinical social worker, Ruiz said she has seen the benefits of having access to mental health care and costly medication. She also thinks about rural areas of the state, where people lack access to health care because doctors are scarce and hospitals are closing.
The incoming lawmakers will join a body that in the most recent session passed a bill that gives faith-based groups legal protection for refusing to place a child for adoption with gay parents.
Ruiz said such discrimination is hurtful. Woodard said it is unfortunate that some lawmakers, including Rep. Randy Powell, the Republican whose 30th District seat he replaces, choose to use the LGBT community as a punching bag.
For Witt, the “despicable” adoption law was the punctuation mark on the administration of Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer. He is hopeful for change under the direction of Gov.-elect Laura Kelly, who has promised to restore LGBT protections with an executive order like the one Brownback repealed in 2011. Discriminatory actions taken in the past eight years, he said, have been an aberration.
“It’s the same people making the same arguments that Kansans of a certain ilk shouldn’t have to be in the same room with LGBT people,” Witt said. “They’re so put off by being around other human beings that they want to pass laws that will exclude us from participating in the same life everybody else participates in, and they’re doing it with our tax dollars.”