While a snowstorm canceled a Hays visit by Gov.-elect Laura Kelly on Saturday, it didn’t stop Ellis County Democrats from gathering for the scheduled day of service in celebration of her Monday inauguration.
“She was the one who originally suggested we do something in Hays,” said Janis Lee, vice-chair of the Ellis County Democratic Party. “She told us last weekend if we do something, she’d come.”
A clean-up of Aubel Bickle Park and food drive originally was on the agenda, but with the impending storm, the clean-up was canceled and the food drive moved to 1502 Vine, an office that served as the local Democrats’ field office during last year’s campaign.
Kelly’s flight from Topeka was canceled late Friday afternoon.
“We can’t control the weather and neither can she. So yes, we’re disappointed but glad that she’s safe in Topeka where she should be,” Lee said.
Lee and party chair Henry Schwaller said Kelly will reschedule a visit to Hays soon.
A couple dozen people — many of them among the usual party supporters — came and went throughout the two-hour event, bringing non-perishable goods that will be distributed among area food pantries. Many stayed to enjoy coffee and hot chocolate and talked about what they envision for the upcoming legislative session.
Both houses will adjourn for 2019 at 2 p.m. Monday. The executive branch will come under Democratic control for the first time in eight years, while the House and Senate will both be majority Republican. For the most part, the local Democrats think Kelly will be able to overcome any differences.
“She has many good relationships with people of both parties in the Legislature,” said Lee, a former state senator who shared an office suite with Kelly for six years. “I’m hoping that will carry through and help her to bring Kansas forward, help her work with the Legislature to make the progress we need to make.”
Zetta Hamersley, a Fort Hays State University sophomore and member of the Ellis County Young Democrats, agreed.
“I think it will open a lot of eyes in Kansas that just because someone belongs to the Democratic Party doesn’t mean they fulfill stereotypes that most people have of them,” she said.
Lee plans to be among the Ellis County Democrats attending Kelly’s inauguration Monday and her State of the State speech on Wednesday, along with long-time party member John Bird.
“I make a joke about it every eight years,” Bird said. “Every eight years, the Democrats have to clean up the mess the Republicans have made. That is, to be blunt, what we’re getting ready to do.”
But he also said Kelly is already making strides to work with the Republican party.
“You can see already she’s really doing a good job of reaching across the aisle, getting along with moderate Republicans, or the Republicans in general. I don’t think she’s pigeonholing them the way maybe they do themselves,” he said.
Among the issues local Democrats expect to get much attention this legislative session are the expansion of Medicaid, education funding and highway funding.
Schwaller said re-establishing the Kansas Arts Commission is important to Kelly, but he expects a slow approach. He expects a task force will be formed to research the best method to restore state funding to the arts after Gov. Sam Brownback abolished the Kansas Arts Commission in 2011 in favor of a non-profit foundation funded by private donations.
“It’s important to get buy-in from as many communities as possible and really do the research of what’s happening in the nation, what’s the best models for a new arts commission,” Schwaller, a former chair of the state arts commission, said.
“I understand there is support in the Legislature for increasing funding for the arts, and that is encouraging,” he said.
Eber Phelps, who lost his bid to continue representing the House of Representatives 111th District encompassing much of Ellis County, said he wasn’t sure what his future plans would be, although that’s a question he has heard frequently since his loss to Republican Barb Wasinger.
“What I respond is that until Nov. 6, I was planning on spending my winter in Topeka, so I didn’t really have a plan B so to speak,” he said.
He said he’ll spend some time on taxes and filing campaign finance reports and writing thank-you letters. He has submitted his name to Kelly’s administration for possible appointment to committees or boards, he said.
“I’ll just keep my options open,” he said.