State Rep. Jan Kessinger’s defeat in the August primary at the hands of challenger Jane Dirks has opened up political possibilities. Voters in House District 20, which covers parts of Overland Park and Leawood, have the opportunity to shift the district’s representation to the right with a Republican or elect a Democrat this time around.
Kessinger, considered one of Johnson County’s last moderate Republicans in the Kansas House, fell to Dirks in the August primary after his voting record drew opposition from Kansans for Life, Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber. Dirks ran on a platform of limited government, low taxes and the right to life, and is emphasizing lowering the tax burden, free-market health-care reforms and pushing education dollars into the classroom for the general election.
However, Dirks must overcome political winds of her own to keep the seat in Republican hands. House District 20 is the one of the few Republican-held House seat to have gone for Hillary Clinton in the 2020 presidential election. It also voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Laura Kelly in the 2018 governor’s race.
The Democrat in the race, Mari-Lynn Poskin, supports Medicaid expansion, which Kessinger voted for while in office. Dirks opposes expansion.
In her responses to The Journal, Poskin said the stalemate on Medicaid expansion, which has persisted for several years, shows how balance is needed in the Legislature. Kansas Democrats have a goal of picking up at least one seat in the Kansas House to end the Republican super-majority in that body. That shift would allow for Kelly’s vetoes to be sustained on a party line vote when it comes to contentious issues such as redistricting.
“When one party has a super majority, they can just push things through or block things,” Poskin said. “I was very proud of Governor Kelly’s bipartisan approach working with Senator Jim Denning in the 2020 legislature. And I really thought that this wouldn’t be an issue that I’d be looking at in 2021. If we break up supermajority, it forces people to come to the table and hammer out some sort of compromise … In a compromise, you’re not going to get your perfect plan. But we cannot let this go any longer.”
Here’s a look at how the candidates see key issues in this year’s elections based on answers they provided to questions from The Journal and publicly available information:
Kansas House District 20
Jane Dirks (Republican) and Mari-Lynn Poskin (Democrat)
The Journal did not receive answers to its questions from Jane Dirks. Below is a summary of her views based on publicly available data.
From her website:
“My name is Jane Dirks, I am honored to be the Republican nominee to be your State Representative in District 20. The General Election is on November 3rd.
My husband Aaron and I have lived in the 20th District for 35 years at two different addresses. Up until 2004, we lived in Nall Hills before moving to our current neighborhood near 127th and Metcalf, where we have lived ever since. We love this area of our county and we want to see our community prosper in the years ahead.
Since the time I entered the race in February, our country and state have changed dramatically. As we worked to flatten the curve and defeat COVID-19, our economy ground to a standstill, and tens of thousands of Kansans lost their jobs. Many small businesses have already shuttered for good, and even as the economy begins to reopen, the road to recovery will be a long one.
As a result of these unique challenges, our leaders must be fully committed to representing our values and be transparent about what they believe and how they will vote. As a Republican Precinct Committeewoman, I believe in limited government, free enterprise, keeping taxes low, and a commitment to a culture of life. I hear and share constant concerns regarding soaring property and sales taxes, health care access and affordability, and whether our schools are focused on student success.
I know many are quite anxious about the future – for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren. As a married mother of four children with seven grandchildren, I echo these worries. I believe it is imperative that the legislature be prepared to act swiftly to ensure that our state is in the best position possible to bounce back strongly.
Even before the onset of the coronavirus, we were facing a number of challenges here in Kansas. People are choosing to leave Kansas at concerning levels. Our income, property, and sales taxes are all very high and are placing a burden on both our families and small businesses. It is time we meet that burden with strong leadership who understands the needs of families and small businesses.
The Kansas Legislature is a “citizen legislature,” and as such, citizens must step up and run when they feel led to do so. My involvement in Kansas politics dates back two decades and I have closely followed the issues facing our great state and am prepared to fight for the people of this district. I recently retired from working at Whitefield Academy; that has provided me the time to step forward and, if elected, serve my state in this new capacity.”
Views on Medicaid expansion:
Told The Shawnee Mission Post in July that she opposes Medicaid expansion:
“I am opposed to Medicaid expansion. As an alternative, we need to expand health care choices in the private sector, short term medical plans and encourage the federal government to expand health savings accounts. There should be free market alternatives so people can purchase affordable, portable, plans that meet their needs. Medicaid was never meant to cover able bodied people of working age who are not working. This expansion would do that and move many people from government supported plans that they have to Medicaid and this would overwhelm the few doctors that are accepting Medicaid patients.”
Views on COVID-19 pandemic:
Dirks told The Shawnee Mission Post that while she believed that Gov. Laura Kelly responded to pandemic appropriately in most cases, the stay-at-home order created confusion about which businesses were essential and not essential. She indicated she was pleased with a compromise between Kelly and the Legislature that put some limits on the governor’s emergency response powers.
“What is right for a small rural community may not be the same for an area like Johnson County, so the increased local control was appropriate,” she told The Post. I am very concerned about the small businesses that were hurt by the shutdown and I would have preferred that instead of picking which businesses could stay open and which should close, provide a set of guidelines for safety that every business must meet and then let the businesses figure out how to make those work for their business.
Views on criminal/racial justice:
Dirks told The Shawnee Mission Post that she is always open to reviewing laws to ensure fairness for all.
“However, I do believe our law enforcement, both locally and in the state, do a wonderful job and I support fully funding the police including additional training where that is needed.”
In a few sentences, please explain your thinking on how the Legislature should resolve the Medicaid Expansion debate and your views on the issue.
My position is that Medicaid expansion is both a moral and economic imperative. We should absolutely stop fighting in the legislature over something that 75% to 78% of Kansans approve of. We’ve sent over $4 billion in Kansans’ hard earned taxpayer money out of state. We can reclaim over $500 million per year for our state economy and create approximately 13,000 jobs in the health care industry. We all know that under covered individuals forego primary care, and end up in our emergency rooms, which is the most expensive form of health care. That drives up costs for everyone with that uncompensated care. Medicaid expansion could cover 150,000 Kansans, and maybe more due to the job losses that we’ve experienced in the pandemic, including an estimated 7,400 veterans … Health care is the number two industry in House District 20 and both our Leawood and Overland Park chambers of commerce include Medicaid expansion in their legislative priorities. So to me, it’s a win-win on both fronts.
What we need is to create balance in our legislature. When one party has a super majority, they can just push things through or block things. I was very proud of Governor Kelly’s bipartisan approach working with Senator Jim Denning in the 2020 legislature. And I really thought that this wouldn’t be an issue that I’d be looking at in 2021. If we break up supermajority, it forces people to come to the table and hammer out some sort of compromise …In a compromise, you’re not going to get your perfect plan. But we cannot let this go any longer.
What should government’s role be in facilitating economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there specific things you would like to see done or not done?
I would like to see the legislature build on our economic successes. One of the things that we have overlooked is that our economy in 2019 was named by CNBC as the comeback economy of the year. We moved up 16 spots in the best states to do business in. When Governor Kelly came to office, she and Secretary of Commerce Secretary Toland worked out a plan that was called the Kansas Framework for Growth. It is the first comprehensive economic development plan the state has had since 1986. So combined with the repeal of the failed Brownback tax experiment, and this very comprehensive framework for growth, we achieved that sort of economic comeback in 2019. What I would like to see is continued emphasis on that … Economic development is going to be the key to rebuilding our economy and Kansas. The other side, of course, is our small businesses … What I would propose for that is I want to hear from my constituents in District 20 about what they need the legislature to do. In fact, they can call me at 913-735-0064 and let me know what they need the legislature to do.
The pandemic further exposed a lack of broadband access in parts of the state and other divides in access to Internet service. What do you think should be done?
We do need to put a priority on that. Obviously it has been highlighted in education as our students are attending school virtually and our college students are doing the same. But it’s also a group issue.
We have fallen in rural Kansas to 28th in the nation for broadband access. I fully support the improvements that are put forth in the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program because it is just as important as infrastructure like our roads and bridges. One of the problems is even if we build all of this, that is not going to reach our students in this semester. So I know that we have been working on hot spots, to try to improve that in the short term. But we also need to hold our telecom industry that has received grants and so forth to build this infrastructure and hold them to proper use of those funds.
How would you evaluate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Kansas thus far? What key lessons would like to see Kansans take away from the pandemic and the response to it? Do you see the need for changes as a result of what’s happened?
This is like an enemy that is attacking the entire country. So I would have liked to have seen a stronger federal response and more consistent messaging around the virus … If we could have just shut down the virus in the beginning, then we wouldn’t be in where we’re at right now. I was disappointed again by the partisan game playing that hindered Gov. Kelly’s response. It was one that was predicated on science and public health expertise … not to mention praise by our president. So you can’t look backwards. We’re gonna have to look forward. And so from here forward, I would like to see the government’s role be consistent, science-based, evidenced-based, best-practice public health policy, in terms of containing the virus.
Some of the things that have happened in the state are a reflection of the ills of our nation in general. The divisiveness that you could equate a virus with a political outlook. I think that, at our very core, Kansans are the kindest, most compassionate people in the country. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that I relocated my family here almost 20 years ago. I think that we need to come back to that and understand that we are not our brother’s keeper, but that we can protect and take care of our brothers. Wearing a mask should not be political. Looking into science should not be political.
Yes, 2020 has turned our world upside down. But one of the things it’s given us permission to do is turn some things on their head. The pandemic is going to give us permission to review top to bottom and not rely and not turn away good common sense answers, because it’s quote unquote, not the way we’ve always done things.
How should legislators respond to the events of this summer (such as the prison outbreaks of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and concerns about preserving law and order) in shaping the state’s criminal justice system for the future?
My three priorities are education, strong and healthy communities, and a vibrant economic development plan for our state. So obviously, racial injustice and unrest and concerns fall under strong and healthy communities. For our community to be healthy and strong, we have to value every single member of that community and understand that the protests that we saw this summer are the cries of people who have been systematically defeated. There is absolutely racial bias in our system. It is my responsibility to bring that to the legislature and address it in every institution in our state.
One of the things that I did was speak to the Overland Park chief of police … I wanted to ask him, “What can state legislators do to support the police?” … He said, the best thing that the state legislature can do for our police forces is to fund mental health services. And that is one of my top priorities already The Brownback years decimated our mental health service beds and providers and access.