TOPEKA — Democratic Rep. Rui Xu says regressive politics are the driving force behind young Kansans leaving the state.
Xu, of Westwood, joined two other House Democrats — Christina Haswood, of Lawrence, and Brandon Woodard, of Lenexa — in a Kansas Reflector podcast to discuss what it is like being a young representative, running unopposed for reelection, and prevalent political topics.
“What drives me crazy being in the Kansas Legislature is the hypocrisy that we always hear where legislators are like, ‘Why are young people leaving Kansas?’ And then all of us say, ‘Regressive politics,’ and then they just ignore it, and then continue their attack,” Xu said. “… So either stop pretending like you care why young people are leaving Kansas, or actually listen to us and help us address it.”
According to a 2021 study conducted by United Van Lines, which tracks customers’ state-to-state migrations, 55.5% of moves involving Kansas households were outbound, meaning those households moved to another state. Outbound statistics for the state of Kansas have hovered between 55% and approximately 60% since 2014. Kansas places 11th in the number of outbound moves compared with other states and sixth when state populations are factored in.
Many state politicians are focused on Kansans, particularly the young, leaving the state. While filing as a candidate for governor, Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt said one of his main focuses is keeping Kansans in Kansas.
Woodard said lawmakers have a responsibility to represent their districts, “but also to bring issues to light that our young people are facing every day.”
“I feel like our responsibility is to bring up issues to the forefront that are important to young people,” Woodard said.
Some of these issues facing young Kansans, according to Woodard, Haswood and Xu, are affordable housing, education, anti-LGBT policies and abortion rights.
“I think one additional thing that’s unique about the three of us on this podcast as well is that all three of us represent kind of a different minority group,” Xu said. “And so not only do we represent our districts, not only do we represent young Kansans, but I feel like I represent every Asian American in the state, as I’m sure they feel like they represent gay Kansans or tribal Kansans as well.”
House Republicans who are running unopposed didn’t respond to requests to participate in a podcast.
Last month, Xu joined Gov. Laura Kelly in a ceremonial signing of House Bill 2237, which is meant to help balance Kansas’ housing shortage through a bundle of tax credits encouraging investments in residential housing, especially in rural areas.
“If you have seniors who are struggling to stay in their homes because of rising property costs, or if you have young people like us, who are looking to buy a house and are being priced out of the market, hopefully, ideally long term, increasing the housing supply will balance that out a little bit,” Xu said.
Kansas has a deficit in the amount of available and affordable homes for low-income renters. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Kansas is short by 50,860 homes for low-income renters.
More and more teachers are leaving the classroom. As of April, there were 1,381 teacher vacancies in Kansas, according to the Kansas State Board of Education.
“When you have legislators talking about dictating curriculum or saying that you can’t say certain things or that you’re quote-unquote ‘grooming children,’ of course, you’re going to look at what are my other options,” Woodard said.
He said questioning a teacher’s motives is “micromanagement” and is an attempt to “make government so small that it can fit into the classroom and monitor (a teacher’s) every move.”
Woodard said to empower teachers, legislators should focus on fully funding public education and encouraging local school boards to increase teacher pay.
He said he was excited to see House Bill 2626 pass, which doubled the appropriations made to the Kansas Teacher Service Scholarship. Those who receive the scholarship must teach for one year in Kansas and continue to teach for every year they are recipients.
Haswood said she is trying to support educators. She said she often visits classrooms and has toured schools within her district, which includes parts of Lawrence and Baldwin City.
“You know, my district goes to Baldwin City, and when I went and toured those schools — and that’s more rural setting than the Lawrence of an urban setting — I got a tour by the special education teacher, and he was telling me that special education is a little bit of a smaller program, that they have to go to different schools,” she said.
Haswood said she doesn’t understand why special education didn’t receive full funding in the last legislative session.
Haswood, Woodard and Xu want anti-discriminatory policies for statewide LGBTQ protections passed.
“Definitely the policies that get passed, the anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ+ policies, are really driving out folks,” Haswood said. “Not only that as a human issue, but as an economic issue as well — where just so much hate and this rhetoric is just really toxifying the state of Kansas.”
In 2015, Gov. Sam Brownback rescinded Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ executive order forbidding discrimination against LGBTQ state employees. Under Brownback’s reversal, it was legal in Kansas for these employees to be fired or harassed on the job until 2019, when Kelly signed an executive order to reinstate protections.
Woodard said in 2018 he and Rep. Susan Ruiz pushed for modernizing the Kansas act against discrimination so that LGBTQ Kansans were protected. He said at the time it was one of the bills with the most bipartisan co-sponsors out of any bill in the legislative session.
Up until a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2020, it was legal in the United States for private and public employers to fire workers based on their sexual orientation.
“Some of (Brownback’s executive order) has been slightly resolved with employment discrimination at the Supreme Court level, but given the events of the last week, we cannot take any of that for granted,” Woodard said.
Woodard was referring to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurrence to the opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Thomas suggested the court revisit opinions on birth control, same-sex intimacy and gay marriage.
“We have a Supreme Court justice who says that marriage equality is next, or we have an outdated statute on the book that criminalizes homosexuality,” Woodard said. “We’ve got to modernize our Kansas statutes to make sure that all are welcome here, not just to make sure that they can work and live here and spend their hard-earned money here, but that we’re not criminalizing their very existence for who they are.”