The room was packed at Leavenworth’s Riverfront Community Center last week for a town hall meeting on a proposal by President Barack Obama to move maybe 100 or so prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison to the hometown high-security prison.
All but a handful were absolutely against having those foreign prisoners anywhere near their homes, businesses and families. And, you gotta think if some of those Gitmo detainees — most not charged with any formal crimes against the United States but who are likely at least terrorists — are moved to Leavenworth, well, they might have their families and friends join them. That can’t really happen at the Gitmo facility in Cuba, but, well, things are different here.
Even those who question why the U.S. is holding prisoners at the military prison at Gitmo didn’t say aloud they’d like to see them moved to Leavenworth.
While the issue of the prisoners is a real one for the folks living and working and raising their families in Leavenworth, some Statehouse-watchers were wondering what’s in the controversy for Gov. Sam Brownback.
Obviously, it’s anti-Obama, and presidents have broad power when they, like governors, are in their last term in office.
The anti-Gitmo prisoner transfer clan is large and for good reasons. But this was an event organized by Brownback, who is in the first year of his last four-year term as governor in a state with economic/budget/education problems staring it in the face.
The event would have been seen as just an outright political maneuver by Brownback last year, in the campaign months before his re-election.
This year? It’s probably — and again, nobody’s talking out loud about it — a way to put the governor in the lead of a parade with broad Kansas voter support, even if there ultimately isn’t a lot the state can do to prevent the movement of those prisoners to a federal prison on federal property operated by soldiers who are federal employees.
Brownback is serious about keeping those detainees out of his state because of the security problems they and their friends could cause. But the issue also is one that can pump the power of a state political leader to draw support on other issues, or at least it is a reasonable and powerful distraction from state government issues.
The governor has one more biennial budget to propose and champion, but at this point, well, his political horsepower is down a bit just because of that end-of-power issue arising in 2018 when a new governor is elected.
Although there are Republicans in the Legislature who aren’t Brownback fans, there aren’t any who want to say anything out loud about the Gitmo move issue, and though it isn’t a state legislative issue, it is one that will surely make its way onto palm cards at next year’s Statehouse elections.
Moderate Republicans who generally wouldn’t stand next to Brownback for a photo might be moved to stand beside him to “protect Leavenworth and Kansas” on the Gitmo issue. Or, at least they wouldn’t want Brownback to call aloud for a group photo of Gitmo transfer opponents, and then have to figure a way to disappear.
That’s the politics of this deal, and it remains to be seen how cannily the governor will be able to use this powerful issue to broaden his influence on other issues within the state: Say, school finance, tax policy, judicial reorganizations and the slow elimination of Civil Service job protections for state workers.
If there’s a political parade to lead in Kansas, Brownback has found a dandy that might spread to other issues and bolster the GOP’s grip on the Statehouse.
The issue can be presented in many ways and is powerful, and well, politics is about issues and power, and how they intertwine and can be combined for maximum effect.
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of Topeka, Martin Hawver is publisher of Hawver’s Capitol Report.