March Madness on the Prairie, Minus the Politics

An unaccountably warm February got all the trees and flowers budding around here, but March has thus far been back to its usual cold and windy way on the Kansas plains. The Kansas State University Wildcats played themselves into the round of 64 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual men’s basketball championship tournament on Tuesday, though, and thus pretty much all Kansans are once again warmed by the fever of March madness.
Every state has its own distinct sports culture, but especially here in the hinterlands where there’s not much else to do. Down south in Oklahoma they’re mainly concerned with football, although they can boast about Oklahoma A&M’s basketball championships back in the ’40s with original big man Bob Kurland and many other big-time players since, and our kin in Oklahoma City do love that Thunder team in the National Basketball Association, and they can also boast about that injun Jim Thorpe as an all around-athlete and such stalwart baseball white boys as Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench. The sparsely populated eastern part of Colorado that looks just like the sparsely western Kansas plays eight-man and six-man football and mostly concerns itself with five-man basketball just like western Kansas, but in the western half of the state they seem to ski and root for the Denver Broncos in the National Football League. Up north in Nebraska they only care about football, and although the baseball’s not bad they don’t seem at all embarrassed that except for Omaha’s Catholic Creighton University their basketball is abysmal. Back east in Missouri baseball’s the big thing, especially the Kansas City Royals and more especially the St. Louis Cardinals, and although they used to wreak occasional havoc in the old Big Eight’s basketball competitions they’re seemingly content as an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference.
Here in Kansas we take football and baseball seriously enough to have produced our per-capita share of top-notch players, and we’ve got high schools girls winning Olympic gold in skeet shooting and can boast of some legends in track and field and the skateboarders aren’t bad, but the big game by far around here is hoops. There’s no professional franchise in a state where the biggest city has only a half-million or so in its metro area, but we’ve got three state universities competing in the collegiate championship, several more playing in their lower divisions’ tournaments, the state’s highly competitive community college teams are always contenders, and even at the small school tourneys the state high school championships always feature enough talent to draw the recruiters for the next level.
Even the kids who didn’t make the high school teams are playing in the driveways and playgrounds all over Kansas, and we’d put them up against the kids playing in the driveways and playgrounds anywhere else. Folks have been playing the game around here ever since it was invented by James Naismith for the Young Men’s Christians Associations that were here from the start, and ever since they’ve been pretty good at it. Naismith coached at the University of Kansas, where he’s the only coach with a losing record, and its program has won multiple national championships and is one of the most blue-programs in the country, with another number one seed in this year’s tournaments and a decent shot at winning it all. The land grant cow college Kansas State University has some big time wins to brag about, including several notable ones over the the snooty KU, many provided by those tough-nosed kids from the hard-luck small towns that those small school championships always seem to turn up.
As good as those small town Kansas kids are, we’re from the big bad city of Wichita and take a particular pride in our local brand of ball. The City League has sent several players to the pro ranks, including a couple of nice guys we went to school with, and many more to Division I collegiate glory, and we recommend that you get in shape for a pickup game around here. Although we spent a couple of all-too-carefree years at K-State and only a couple of hours at Wichita State University we root for the WSU Wheatshockers, because Wichita is our city and the ‘Shocks are its team. Back in the ’30s and ’40s they used to play their homes games at the old Forum building downtown rather on the campus, and tended to draw more from the local factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados rather than students, and although a local haberdasher built a roundhouse on campus in the ’50s and a local oil-refining billionaire rebuilt to state of the art more recently the Shocks still belong more to the factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados than the students. Over the years, Wichita State fans have had some lulls but also some things to cheer about.
Back in the ’60s WSU had some championship years in the then-feared Missouri Valley Conference, went to a Final Four in ’64, had another run in the ’80s that would have resulted in a Final Four if not for some recruiting violations and probations, made a few tournaments and won a few games in the ’90s, and for the past decade have been on another tear. Coach Greg Marshall inherited the team at a very down point, immediately started bringing it up, and has since notched a National Invitational Tournament victory and a Final Four and a 35-0 streak and a run of tournament appearances with at least one victory that bests some of the blue-blood programs, and we hopeful that will continue. As always the ‘Shockers are under-ranked as a 10 seed, but most of the sportswriters regard them as a favorite in their first-round matchup against Dayton University, and the Vegas line has the ‘Shockers as a 6.5 point favorite, and with all due respect to the hard-working factory of Dayton we like our chances. In the second round they’d most likely meet the University of Kentucky, which is about as blue-blooded a program as there is and the same ones who ended that 35-and-0 run in a down-to-the-final-second thriller, but who knows? The Washington Post’s supposed expert ranks the ‘Shocks as the sixth most likely winner overall, just behind KU and just ahead of Kentucky, and a Facebook friend altered us to some site that predicts WSU beating not only Kentucky but also the blue-blooded University of California-Los Angeles and University of North Carolina to get to another Final Four. Those scribes rightly note that “Wichita thrives on beating up snobs from the rich side of town and will relish giving UK a bloody nose,” and predicts “Wichita is going to the rich side of town with a pack of matches and a five gallon tank of gasoline and try to burn everything to the ground.
As nice as it sounds that’s a bit optimistic for our dour prairie souls to believe, but one can always hope. Next year the ‘Shocks are bringing everybody back from an already 30-win team, and they’ll all be one year better if Marshall’s methods once again prove true, and they’re also bringing in a juco player of the year and this 7’2″ Danish guy that looks pretty good from the YouTube videos, and the thought of how good that team will be should get us though one more change of the damnable seasons we experience around here.
In the meantime Kansas has three teams still playing, and even the hoops-crazed and more densely populated states of North Carolina and Indiana and Kentucky and New York and California can’t match that, and we’re even rooting for that snooty KU and hoping for a rematch next year, which would allow the ‘Shocks to go 3-and-0 against the rich kids in tournament competitions, and we’ll still put our Kansas kids in the driveways and playgrounds up against anyone. Back in the day we had a pretty mean hook shot ourselves, even if we never came close to playing on the high school team with those future pros, and on these cold and windy days that’s a warm memory of a cold wintertime’s most beautiful game.

— Bud Norman

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The Sunflower State’s Momentarily Embarrassing Moment in the Sun

The national media usually pay no attention to what’s going on in Kansas, which is fine by most Kansans, but they have taken notice of the state’s recent budget problems. Our state government’s revenue collections are once again short of projections, this time around by $350 million or so, and although the sum must seem quaint to a New York or Washington newspaper editor they can’t resist the angle of a cautionary tale about Republicans and their crazy economic schemes out here on the prairie.
There’s no denying the angle has some validity, and the hook for the latest stories is that even the Republican-dominated legislature came up just three votes short of overriding a Republican governor’s veto of tax hike bill, which is the sort of internecine Republican squabbling that always draws national media to even the most remote portions of the country. Although it pains our old-fashioned Kansas Republican souls to admit, there’s also no denying that all that tax-cutting that started about six years ago has not yet kept all the extravagant promises that were made. Even after six years there’s still a plausible argument to be made for patience, and the dismal science of economics cannot prove for certain that higher taxes would have proved a boon to the Kansas economy, and we can think of some tax-and-spend states that also have newsworthy budget problems, but for now there’s no denying the $350 million shortfall or any of the fun the press is having with it.
The tax cuts are the creation of our ultra-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who of course has long been hated by Democrats everywhere since his days in the United States Senate for his unapologetic anti-abortion and pro-free market beliefs. Although he has a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University’s world-class agricultural economics department and a law degree from the University of Kansas and is married into the family that owned the newspaper chain that owned The Topeka Capitol-Journal and served in the United States Senate and has been in politics since he became national president of the Future Farmers of America and the KSU student council, Brownback is still considered an anti-establishment type, so he’s also been a controversial figure even within his own party. Starting with all those high-minded New England abolitionists who poured into the state for the Bleeding Kansas battles that presaged the Civil War, the Kansas Republican Party has always been the establishment around here and long fended off the scruffier sorts of populists. Even with the help of the Emporia Gazette’s great William Allen White they had to resort to firearms to expel the Prairie Populists who gained a brief majority in the statehouse on a program of nationalizing everything and coining endless free silver and all sorts of other craziness, and they only kept the notorious quack and shrewd showman “Doc” Brinkley from becoming governor by not counting all the misspelled or imprecise write-in votes that were cast, but for the most part they’ve kept a steady course down the middle of the road over the many years, and at first they balked at Brownback’s admittedly radical fiscal policies.
Despite the intra-party resisters and their unified allies among the Democratic minority Brownback got most of what he wanted, and then he egged on the anti-establishment sentiment that was taking hold among Republicans in every state, and saw many of his longterm Republican adversaries ousted from office by more hard-core primary challengers, and then he got the rest of it. It was all very acrimonious and much mud was slung and it was not at all the sort of thing that Kansas Republicans like, and the Democrats everywhere greatly enjoyed it until the saw which side had won, and of course it didn’t end there. With like-minded Republicans firmly in control of both sides of the capitol building Brownback surely knew he would be due all the credit or blame that might accrue in the aftermath of his policies, and at the moment that’s a $350 million shortfall.
The notion that lower taxes are more conducive to economic activity than higher taxes has long been generally accepted by all sorts of Republicans, from the country clubs to the union halls, and although you might not find it in Kansas at the moment there is plenty of evidence to support that notion. The doubling of federal revenues that followed Reagan’s admittedly radical tax cuts is one example, and despite our doubts about this Trump fellow he might yet provide more proof. We can hardly blame those back east newspapers focusing their attention on Kansas, and we’ll give them some credit for acknowledging deep into their stories that it’s all very complicated. There are any number of reasons why the Kansas economy hasn’t outpaced even the sluggish growth of the nation at large over the past six years, many of which can plausibly be blamed on the policies of the D.C. Democrats and the eight years of Democratic governors who preceded Brownback, one of whom was that Kathleen Sibelius woman who got kicked out of the Obama administration for bungling the the Obamacare rollout, and the dismal science of economics being what it is there’s always that very real possibility things could have been worse.
There’s also an argument to be made that Kansas had the right idea but went about it the wrong way. Tax policy is mind-numbingly arcane, and all the newspapers in the state are pretty much broke and nobody’s paying us to wade through all that stuff anymore, but so far as we can tell the bill that Brownback vetoed would have rescinded a previous measure that nearly eliminated taxes on income from certain legal entities used by small businesses, which is apparently known as “pass-through income.” This sounds like the sort of pro-Mom-and-Pop policy that every variety of Republican can support, but apparently some 330,000 Kansas businesses started passing all their income through those certain legal entities, and in a state of only 2.5 million people that’s a lot of Moms and Pops and probably enough to make a dent in a $350 million shortfall, and apparently that particular lower tax rate does yield to the usually reliable Laffer Curve.
After the first couple of shortfalls happened the establishment sorts of Republicans started winning primary challenges against the newly-minted anti-establishment types, and the paleolithic Sen. Pat Roberts won re-election despite an anti-establishment challenger that all the talk radio hosts loved, Brownback won re-election against one of those crazy tax-and-spend Democrats by a slighter margin, and the Kansas Republican party largely returned to its stodgy budget-balancing and non-boat-rocking ways. With help from the unified Democrats it came within three votes in the Senate from overriding the veto, and when everything’s up for grabs in Kansas’ off-year elections two years hence we won’t be betting on that pass-through exemption lasting long. The first rounds of shortfalls were met with spending cuts, which struck us as entirely reasonable after eight years of spendthrift Democratic administrations, but there are roads to be paved and bridges to be buttressed and kids to be educated in the state, and the biggest chunk of the state budget is obligated by the feds, so after the first few rounds of plucking there got be some squawking in even in the most Republican precincts. We read there’s a similar exemption included in the much speculated-about tax proposals from President Donald Trump, who won the state’s electoral votes just like every Republican does but finished a dismal third in the state’s Republican caucus, and we wonder how many Grand Old Party establishment types will be around to raise any objections to that.
We really don’t want to be ragging on Sam, as we call him, because we do like the guy. It’s an annoying stereotype about Kansans that we’re all supposed to know one another, but we have known Brownback since our teenaged days as interns with the famously Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole, and we’d run into him on the KSU campus where he was king and the Kansas State Fairs that he ran as Kansas Agricultural Commissioner and along his endless campaign stops, and we’ve always known him to be a very nice guy with a good enough sense of humor that he got our jokes. We also remain steadfast in our old-fashioned Kansas Republican belief that lower taxes are indeed generally more conducive to economic activity than higher ones, but we’re the old-fashioned sort of Kansas Republican who would prefer to get things right enough to balance the budget. Tax policy is arcane stuff, but if you delve deep enough into you’ll find that some tax cuts are better than others, and that sensible policies elsewhere would make it all less important, and that it’s all very complicated, and sometimes you have to pay at the bottom line. We rather like that some stodgy budget-balancing Republicanism is still afoot in the country, too, and hope that the old adage about lower taxes and economic activity will survive. May God have mercy on our souls, but we also hope they can work something out with those damned Democrats.

— Bud Norman

An Balance of Power and an Imbalance of Everything Else

For some reason or another a few of the votes cast in this crazy presidential election year are still being counted, but by now it seems certain that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote by a comfortable margin. This doesn’t change the more salient fact that Republican nominee Donald Trump won by a similarly comfortable margin in the electoral vote and is thus the president-elect, nor should it, but the final tally of votes cast across the country is still a fact worth pondering.
This crazy election year has resulted in a slight Republican majority in the Senate and a more sizable majority in the House of Representatives, a recent Republican of unproven Republicanism in the White House, a good shot at a Republican majority in the Supreme Court for another generation, and a number of Republican governors and state legislatures and county commissions and small town councils and school boards not seen since the days of Calvin Coolidge. At such a moment of seeming political triumphalism as this, unseen since the eight short years ago when Democratic nominee Barack Obama became president with a more impressive electoral majority and the Democrats had a bigger edge in the House and a filibuster-proof advantage in the Senate and another generation of the Supreme Court suddenly within reach, something in our instinctively gloomy conservative soul is struck by the unavoidable truth that the GOP has now lost six of the past seven presidential popular votes.
Take a look at an electoral map of any of the past several presidential election years, not just this crazy one, and you’ll immediately notice that the Republican red portions take up far more space than the Democratic blue portions. That long swath of blue running down the west coast and the blue patch in the southwest and those usual blue suspects in the northeast have as many people packed into them as that vast red splotch, however, and although they’re now narrowly missing a couple of those rust-belt states along the Great Lakes it would be foolish to assume the Democrats and their popular vote plurality are a vanquished foe. The recent Republican of questionable Republicanism who is now the president-elect has often seemed eager to please that portion of the popularity market, and some of the more longstanding Republicans who won more votes in their states are already set to clash with their newly-fledged party leaders on a variety of issues, and there’s no telling what strange bed-fellowships might spare us from or lead us into the worst of it. It’s bound to be contentious, and as the president-elect might say, that we can tell you, believe us, OK?
We’ll hold out faint hope that the same crazy constitutional system that somehow resulted in this crazy election year will once again withstand such craziness. Surely the founding fathers didn’t intend the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, any more than they would have desired the election of Hillary Clinton to that office, but from our perspective in the middle of the country we think they were wise to devise a system that prevented those small but densely populated blue dots from imposing their will on those vast yet sparsely populated red splotches, and made it hard for either one to ultimately vanquish the other. California and New York can do any constitutional yet crazy thing they want to so long as we hayseed Kansans and our mere six electoral votes are free to pursue whatever craziness we might choose, as far as we’re concerned, and we still think that’s the best arrangement for 50 very different states striving to form a more perfect union. Our liberal friends here in Kansas won’t like it, and we’ve got a rock-ribbedly Republican brother stuck in California who’s just as disgruntled, and there’s no guarantee that anyone will like how those matters of unavoidably national interest are settled, but it might just turn out to be at least tolerable to everyone.

— Bud Norman

This Crazy Election Year, Right Down to Our Neighborhood

This crazy election year has been especially crazy here in our beloved Kansas, where we have our own problems, which those of you who are out of state probably won’t want to hear about might want to ponder. That awful presidential election is of course the main topic conversation around here, but there’s avoiding all the talk about those five state Supreme Court justices who are on the ballot or that congressional race up in that most citified and northeastern-most district of the state or that contentious Sedgwick County commission race going on just south of us here in Wichita, not to mention all the statehouse seats and other offices we’ve never paid much attention to all being up for grabs, and all lately all of it seems even crazier than usual even by our local standards.
Our oh-so-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has already won hviciously-contested second term a couple of long-ago years in our state’s off-year election schedule, but he looms even larger in all these matters than either that awful Republican nominee Donald Trump or that awful Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. To summarize the recent history of Kansas politics as best we can the former Senator and failed Republican presidential nominee won the governorship by promising a radical regime of tax-cutting and budget cutting, then won a sufficient number legislators in the ensuing anti-establishment Tea Party revolution of Republican primaries to get it enacted, and at this point the promised economic benefits haven’t closed the revenue gap and the resulting budget-cuts are irking a lot of the less rock-ribbed sorts of Republicans as well as every last one of the state’s Democrats.
Even the matter of those of five Supreme Court justices who are on the ballot is largely about Brownback, who would be charged with nominating their replacements. They’re all in the unusual danger of not being retained partly because they all agreed to grant a dubiously technical re-trial to a couple of thugs who sexually tortured four entirely innocent people here in Wichita and then killed three of them, along with a dog, in a decision so stupid than the United States Supreme Court and its four liberal Justices overturned their ruling on an 8-1 decision, as well as the more outrageous fact that they found the state legislature’s executive-signed funding of the state’s school system’s per-pupil funding at levels higher than the national average and higher than all but two counties somehow unconstitutional, but all the ads are warning that Brownback would be naming all their replacements. All of those state’s congressional candidates are being hit with Brownback, especially in that northeastern district that’s dominated by the Kansas City suburbans, and right down to the County Commission level here in out south-central portion of Kansas, where we notice that all vandals are sticking “Brownbacker” labels on the the Republican candidate’s yard signs rather than stealing them.
All of which makes for an especially crazy election year here in Kansas, at least from our simultaneously old-fashioned Republican and crazy Tea Party and entirely idiosyncratic perspective. We first met Sam Brownback when we were interns to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who was at the time the notorious right-wing hatchet-man of establishment Republican nominee President Gerald Ford and is now fondly recalled by the local Democrats as one the more reasonable that have since faded away, and we also fondly recall running into him when he was the student body president at Kansas State University and how he urged against our decision to drop out, and that  time when when we ran into him as the main political reporter for the state’s biggest newspaper despite his advice and how very sorry he was to hear about recent divorce. We can’t help liking the guy even if his tax-cutting and budget-cutting ideas haven’t worked out as promised, and neither will we concede that it won’t work out yet, and at this point in this crazy election year we’ll be voting against all of those Supreme Court Justices and trusting our old pal Sam to come up with at least four-out-of-five suitable replacements.
In such a crazy election year as this we’re disinclined to offer any predictions, but we will go so as far to venture that the Republican presidential nominee wins Kansas’ electoral votes but not by the usual two-thirds majority, that the state government remains Republican but with more of those old-fashioned types, and that crazy-but-likable Democrat will beat that sensible-but-obnoxious Republican in that district just to the south of us. We don’t see the country coming out ahead no matter the results of this crazy presidential election year, but we’ll hold out hope that Kansas and Sedgwick County and Wichita and our neighborhood will somehow muddle through it all.

— Bud Norman

Another Trip to a Republican Primary

At some point today we’ll stroll a few blocks over to the lovely Gloria Dei Lutheran Church here in the fashionable Riverside neighborhood of Wichita and cast our vote in the Republican primary, mostly because we always vote on an Election Day. This year there isn’t much reason other than ingrained habit for doing so, except for a certain old-fashioned sense of civic duty and a self-interested point of pride to keep a 38-year perfect attendance streak intact.

There’s a hotly contested and highly intriguing primary race going on just west of the county line in the huge but rural and sparsely populated First Congressional District, but here in the smaller but mostly urban and more densely populated Fourth District our very acceptable Republican Congressman is running unopposed. Across town an old buddy of ours who is a notoriously stingy bare-bones government right-winger of a County Commissioner is in a too-close-to-call race against a challenger who promises to be just slightly less stingy and a bit more generous to the locally beloved Sedgwick County Zoo and more amenable to accepting federal dollars for whatever crazy schemes the feds are offering, but that crosses jurisdictional lines so there’s nothing we can do about it, and our own district’s even more notoriously stingy bare-bones government right winger of County Commissioner isn’t up for re-election in this staggered year. We’ve been so busy brooding about that godawful presidential election to find out if any Republicans are even bothering to run for our state house seat, but in any case we live in such an anomalously hip part of this otherwise reliably Republican town that it is still sprouting “Bernie 2016” yard signs all over the place and will surely wind up once again with the crazy-assed tax-and-spend nanny-state liberal Democrat who also happens to be an old buddy of ours. Kansas chooses its governor in off years, the more-or-less acceptable Republican Senator who happens to be up for re-election this time around is facing only token opposition from one of those no-name and no-money cranks who always shows up on the ballot, and the only voting we’ll do with any gusto is against that Republican district court judge who was ordered to undergo some sort of “sensitivity training” after confessing to a long history of sexual harassment.

Still, the privilege of participating in the primary process is enough, for now, to keep us officially registered as members of the Republican Party. George Will and Jay Nordlinger and other conservative writers we have long admired have recently penned their reasons for disassociating themselves from the party that nominated Donald J. Trump as its standard-bearer, and we can’t find fault with any of it, but none of them live in a state such as Kansas where the Republican Party still means something and just what it means is still very much up for vote.
That hotly contested congressional race over in the First District is a highly intriguing example of the Republican internecine warfare, and because the First District gets its talk radio and other media advertising from here in the urbanized Fourth we’ve been able to follow all the mud-slinging. Regular viewers of the as-the-GOP-turns soap opera know there’s been a trend in the past eight years or so for hell-bent hard-core conservative “tea party” types to challenge the squishy moderate “establishment” types in primaries, which explains how Tim Huelskamp became the incumbent Congressman in the same First District that had previously produced such stereotypically squishy moderate “establishment” Senators as Bob Dole and Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. Huelskamp has proved so hell-bent and hard -core that he got kicked off the agriculture committee and voted against the pork-laden Farm Bill that his challenged was backed by the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Livestock Association, which can hardly be considered special interests in the First District, but Huelskamp had the backing of the Wichita-based Koch Brothers, which is as deep-pocketed and just as dear to our Kansas hearts, and contributions were also coming from all sorts of donors invested in such Republican squabbles, and all the national talk radio hosts were weighing in, and it wound up a mud-slinging fest with both candidates looking bad. After the initial Marshall argument that Huelskamp was too much an anti-establishmentarian bomb-thrower to get along the challenger wound up going with the theme that Huelskamp was a “career politician” dubbed “Washing-Tim,” which is so utterly ridiculous that we’re now rooting from across the county line for Huelskamp.
We’re rooting for our slightly more stingy bare-bones government right winger of a County Commissioner, too, but we will accept whatever verdict the Republicans in that part of town might render.

We’ll also happily cast a pointless vote for the unopposed Rep. Mike Pompeo here in the Fourth District, as he’s been just as conservative as Huelskamp or any other hell-bent type but has done so with the kind of tactful grace that has actually won him some plum assignments from the party bosses and good ink from the national press and a rising star status in the party. While we’re at it we’ll vote for that squishy establishment Senator running against the no-name and no-money kook who always shows up on the ballot, and figure we could do a lot worse. All the other Republicans down-ballot will get our support, too, and with similar sorts of holding majorities in state houses and occupying governor’s mansions and holding County Commission seats across a wide if sparsely populated swathe of this nation we’ll continue to cast our primary votes and hold out some hope for the Republican Party.

— Bud Norman

Up the Lazy River

The weather on Monday was far too uncommonly perfect in our portion of the Great Plains to worry about politics or economics or other such dreary matters, so after a frustrating hour or so of getting the e-mail working again, and then another couple of hours of composing and sending out some pressing e-mails and doing other unavoidable chores, we vowed to take a day off from the news and instead ventured into the heart of the River Festival. For those of you who aren’t so lucky as to live in Wichita, Kansas, on a such a glorious Great Plains day in early June, and are therefore unlikely to be familiar with the River Festival, suffice to say it’s the big annual civic celebration around here, and it’s really something to see.
The festival is also quite an inconvenience to those of us who live in the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of the city, which is bounded by the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers that give both it and the River Festival their names, and especially to those of us Riversiders who also frequently do business in the downtown district just past the nearby confluence, where most of the action takes place these days and many of the streets are suddenly and rather unaccountably blocked off and the usual free-flowing traffic is now just dreadful, so that just seemed all the more reason to take advantage of it. Being wised up to all the short cuts in our city we successfully motored our top-down way to the parking lot of the huge Metropolitan Baptist Church, listening to some swingin’ Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’67 on the old folks’ AM station en route rather than our usual right-wing talk radio fare, then walked across scenic McClean Boulevard and past the nice fountain monument to city father Ben McClean and over the Douglas Bridge that spans the Arkansas River into downtown. Along the way we encountered some ugly old women and some pretty young girls and some surly skateboarding young punks with tattoos and a genial old fellow in a a fine straw hat who handed us some Biblical scriptures and an invitation to the services at the Temple Baptist Church, “If you don’t already have a church home,” and when we told him that we did have a church home but very much appreciated the invitation he seemed pleased by the response, and in such perfect weather it all felt quite pleasingly like Wichita.
When we flashed our reasonably priced button and entered the festival area without any intrusive pat-downs, gospel music was blaring, and it was glorious. The annual “Gospelfest” concert was taking place on a temporary stage at the Kennedy Plaza next to the big circular Century II concert and convention and exhibition and theater and whatnot building, and an all-star choir from the city’s many mostly-black churches and an absolutely brilliant fellow named Cameo Profit from St. Mark’s Church of God in Christ in the lead were kicking out some Holy Spirit with a more beguiling backbeat than you could find at the sleaziest nightspot anywhere even on a Saturday night, and the old black women in their church hats were waving their hands and a handsome young black man was doing that gospel two-step just behind us and even our stiffly Church of Christ white knees were moving in that sanctified time. We happily absorbed that for an hour or so, then wandered past the food courts with their steak sandwiches and chickens on a stick and other culinary delights, and the t-shirt stands and the street musicians and the statue of Prairie Populist heroine Mary Elizabeth Lease and the gorgeous old Proudfoot and Bird-built City Building where an old friend of ours now runs the Sedgwick County Historical Museum, which is well is worth a visit if you’re ever in town and have time, and then toward the “Waterwalk” area that was supposed to be a garden spot by now according to some well-connected real estate mogul’s grandiose plans but is still mostly a parking lot, where Brave Combo was set to play a concert.
If you’re not fortunate enough to have been in on the punk-polka movement that swept the hipper portions of the Great Plains back in the early ’80s, suffice to say that Brave Combo is one of the very best bands in the entire history of music. We’ve been fans for the past 30 years or so, ever since they first wandered out of Denton, Texas, and into the old Coyote Club on that rough patch of North Broadway, and with the most excellent musicianship they play polkas, polka nortena, rhumbas, cha-chas, fox-trots, twists, tangos, horas, waltzes, show tunes, chicken dances, and anything else that people might dance to anywhere in the world, and always with the most hilariously punk sense of humor. We rather liked it that they’d moved from that rough patch on North Broadway to that parking lot in the heart of the big civic celebration, not so far removed from the “Gospelfest,” and we had the good fortune to run into our old friend Teri Mott and thank her for making it happen.
We go way back with Mott, to the early ’80s days when she was spinning discs on the local college radio station’s very alternative “After Midnight” show and we were both promulgating our own notions of musical rebellion in the local media, but by now she’s insinuated herself so far into the River Festival organization that she’s turning it into a 10-day musical festival that beats Woodstock for sheer eclectic weirdness. We’ve already missed performances by the Violent Femmes and the Meat Puppets and the missing-its-big-star Black Flag, who we once spent a memorably hazy night with at a friend’s cheap apartment after their shut-down-by-the-man performance on at a tiny joint on North Market, and if you’re not hip to the seminal punk scene suffice to say they were all notable, and there’s some old-school hip-hop names that even we recognize. The obligatory country-and-western offerings are hipper than usual, and there are some intriguing jazz offerings and the annual appearance by our better-than-you’d-expect local symphony orchestra, and Mott was especially proud of that all-star choir kicking out that great gospel music over in Kennedy Plaza, even if she is the unchurched sort.
Still, it’s all rather odd to anyone who’s been through so many River Festivals. The whole hubbub started with the city’s centennial in 1972, when the Century II building was unveiled and a two-day “Wichitennial” celebration marked the occasion. There was a big parade, featuring ourselves riding a unicycle decorated as a cardboard horse, a “bathtub race” down the Arkansas River and a “bed race” down Broadway, and a performance by the local Midian Shrine Dixieland Jazz Band, which was also one of the greatest bands in the history of music, and it was such an endearingly corny big city version of a small town celebration that the city decided to do it again the next year. What started as a yearly custom soon became an annual tradition, and it grew to include canoe races along the Little Arkansas river and tug-of-wars on the sand bank of the Arkansas and a “block party” on a strip just east of downtown that was slowly converting from skid row to a yuppie zone and turned into a bloody brawl, and a popular blues concert that was cancelled when the local Blues Society couldn’t afford the big fees that the increasingly corporate Wichita Festivals Inc. was charging for inclusion in the increasingly corporatized event, and now it’s evolving into an eclectic musical festival where the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen and her rather handsome young mother were gleefully doing the chicken dance with Brave Combo.
We’ll get back to the dreary business of politics and economics tomorrow, but with a bolstered hope that it somehow leaves us the hell alone to have our parties as we see fit here in Wichita, Kansas, and that the good people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, can continue to hold their annual Groundhog Day corniness and that whatever town in upstate New York it was that always had their annual ice-skating and barrel-jumping competition on “The Wide World of Sports” is still doing that, and that whatever cheers your heart in your hometown will still persist. On a perfect early summer day a free people can do great things, and all that dreary political and economic news should be absorbed with that in mind.

— Bud Norman

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

Another earthquake rattled our old house today, and we still haven’t quite become accustomed to it. It only lasted a few seconds, and doesn’t seem to have done any noticeable damage around here, and residents of Los Angeles and Tokyo and Teheran and other earthquake-prone places probably wouldn’t have thought it worth mentioning, but during our first half-century here on the once-solid plains this sort of thing was unheard of, and even after the last few years of earthquakes becoming a rather regular occurrence it’s still a topic of local conversation.
Before the local old media could provide official confirmation that an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale had emanated toward us from the not far away small town of Crescent, Oklahoma, we were happily assured that weren’t going crazy by all the alarmed posts on our Facebook page. Folks of various degrees of familiarity spread across the entire city were describing the same unsettling phenomena we experienced, with most of them sounding even more rattled that we had been, and of course more than a few them were assuming that all the “fracking” going on down in Oklahoma was to blame.
We remain agnostic about the theory, as we have to admit that the earthquakes didn’t start around here until the “fracking” did, while at the same time we can’t help noticing that earthquakes are happening in all sorts of unlikely places where no “fracking” is going on and that “fracking” is going on in places that aren’t experiencing earthquakes. Most of the scientists who presumably know more than us about these sorts of things are admirably frank that they don’t know what’s going on either, and we rather like having the local convenience stores selling gasoline for $2.41 a gallon, and would be quite annoyed by paying $4 a gallon for Iranian oil and still experiencing an occasional earthquake if the theory is wrong, so we aren’t jumping to any conclusions. Still, we can understand the temptation to believe that there’s something we can do.
One of those Facebook friends from the local university was angrily demanding that these earthquakes be immediately stopped, just as his preferred presidential candidate vowed to stop the rise of the oceans, and if it were truly that simple we’d probably go along as well. Few things in life are so simple, however, and if more of them were we’d also be demanding an end to the tornados and hail storms and droughts and floods and miserably cold winter nights and swelteringly hot summer days that are the more traditional banes of Kansas life. The tornados and hail storms have lately been unusually and quite pleasantly uncommon around here, despite the dire predictions of our university-affiliated friend’s preferred presidential candidate, and last winter was no colder than usual and this summer has been only as hot as our lifetime’s average, with no recent floods but enough rain to bring an unmistakable end to the most recent drought, and the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye and the bumper wheat crops have helped with the state’s budgetary woes. A lifetime on the prairie has left us in awe of nature’s power and skeptical of mankind’s, so we can’t quell a certain suspicion that the former has more to do with these occasional rumblings of the earth than the latter, and we’ll patiently await the conclusions of those scientists who supposedly know more about this stuff than we do. In the meantime we’ll be checking the basement for cracks and perusing the news for about the more consequential earthquakes that seem to keep happing elsewhere, and hope that our brother in southern California doesn’t fall into the Pacific Ocean as has long been predicted, and continue to worry about the national debt and the nuclear bomb that the Iranians are building with their oil revenues and the rise of Donald Trump and the greater possibility of a Hillary Clinton and all of the other disasters that can only be blamed on mankind.

— Bud Norman

Marketing Legalization

Yesterday was “Earth Day,” and we found ourselves in an appropriately unambitious state, so we’ve decided to recycle a script that we wrote for the recent “Gridiron” show. The script was cut from the show, which we took as a grievous insult given the utter witlessness of much of the material that was included, but we found it amusing nonetheless. The vast majority of readers residing outside Wichita should know that it’s pegged to a recent city-wide referendum to lessen the penalties for possession of marijuana, and that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is notorious among the state’s liberals for his strange insistence that voting in Kansas elections should be restricted to eligible voters.
(Scene opens with three hippies seated at a table.)
HIPPIE ONE: Okay, dudes, this meeting of the Committee for the Legalization of Marijuana in Kansas is now, like, you know, in order.
HIPPIE TWO: Wow, “order.” What a concept.
HIPPIE ONE: As you know, our campaign to get weed free and legal here in Kansas isn’t going well. We had a hard enough time getting Wichita to just reduce the penalty for possession, and that’s in Wichita, where if you ain’t smokin’ weed I don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
HIPPIE THREE: That’s a bummer, man, but what are we going to do about it?
HIPPIE ONE:  figured I’d call in a consultant to see if he has any ideas. This guy is a big deal in public relations and marketing and lobbying and all that stuff, so maybe he knows what to do.
HIPPIE TWO: Maybe you’re right. I mean, I’ve had relations in public, and I go to the market when I get the munchies, and I hang out in the lobby with this old wino dude, but I don’t claim to be any big deal about it, so maybe he can help us out.
(A professional-looking CONSULTANT enters.)
CONSULTANT: Hello, I’m Chip Wilson, from the Chip Wilson Public Relations, Marketing, Lobbying, and Pizza Delivery Group. Thank you so much for your time.
HIPPIE ONE: That’s cool, we’ve got plenty of it.
CONSULTANT: It’s an interesting little cause you’ve got going here, I must say, and I’m eager to help with your noble efforts. I’ve been taking a look at the strategy you’ve been employing thus far, and I think I’ve identified your main problem, public image-wise.
HIPPIE ONE: What’s that?
CONSULTANT: Well, basically, the problem is that you’re a bunch of dirty hippies.
HIPPIE THREE: Oh, man, that’s harsh.
CONSULTANT: I mean that with all due respect. Some of my best friends are dirty hippies. My dear mother was a dirty hippie. I’m just saying that it’s not the image that’s going to drive a successful public relations campaign.
HIPPIE TWO: So what do we want?
CONSULTANT: What you want is that white collar, middle class, mostly law-abiding pothoead next door. You want that engineer who’s designing safety systems for Cessna all week and unwinding with a bowl on the weekends, or that winning criminal defense attorney with all the good connections. You want a more upscale, wholesome, mass appeal pothead. Our slogan will be, “Pot — It’s Not Just for Dirty Hippies Any More.”
HIPPIE TWO: Where do we find these people?
CONSULTANT: That’s where we run into a problem. The people you want to be out front on this issue are reluctant to publicly confess their marijuana use.
HIPPIE THREE: What’s the deal with that?
CONSULTANT: They’d be confessing to a crime that involve a potential prison sentence, for one thing. Worse yet, they’re afraid people will regard them as dirty hippies.
HIPPIE ONE: I can dig that, man. I guess I’ll still have to be the spokesman, but hey, at least I’m all articulate and well-spoken and shit.
CONSULTANT: I wouldn’t recommend that. Again, I say this with all due respect, but you’re really not very articulate and well-spoken and … such. In your case, it does seem that marijuana use has impaired your verbal abilities.
HIPPIE ONE: I’m not even high, man. I happen to take this committee seriously, so I’m not indulging until 4:20.
CONSULTANT: That just proves my point. Even when you’re straight, you’re still a dirty hippie. Now, look at me. I took two monster bong hits of Hindu Kush out in the parking lot before I came in here, I’m high as a proverbial kite, and still this presentation has been polished and professional and in the Queen’s friggin’ English.
HIPPIE TWO: Wow, man, you can really handle your weed. Maybe you’re the guy we’re looking for.
CONSULTANT: Sorry, but I’m strictly a behind-the-scenes consultant, and I’m afraid my more lucrative clients in the pharmaceutical field wouldn’t like that. Besides, I like my weed untaxed and unregulated, and it’s not like the cops are profiling a middle-aged white guy in a suit and tie, so what do I care if it’s legal or not?
HIPPIE ONE: So what good are you?
CONSULTANT: We’re still in negotiations, mind you, but I think we’re about to line up a perfect spokesman for your cause. I don’t want to mention any names at this point, but let’s just say he’s a former Choom Gang member and current president of the United States who still takes a puff of that righteous Hawaiian bud to deal with having his mother-in-law living at the White House.
(The hippies look at one another quizzically, unable to guess who the CONSULTANT is talking about.)
CONSULTANT: For crying out loud, you dirty hippies, I’m talking about Obama.
HIPPIE TWO: Oh yeah, Obama. I know that dude. He’s cool. I saw him slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. Do you think he’d do it?
CONSULTANT: Term limits, baby. He’s coming up against them, and at this point he doesn’t care what anybody thinks. He’s vetoing pipelines, making deals with the Iranians, inviting in illegal immigrants, and to hell with the polls or his party’s next presidential election. He’ll be racking up speakers fees and book deals, the press and the Europeans will start being polite, Hillary or some Republican can deal with the Iranian bomb and the rest of it, but he’ll still have that mother-in-law in the house and he figures some legal weed might come in handy.
HIPPIE ONE: All right, then, It looks like we’ll finally get weed legalized here in Kansas.
CONSULTANT: Oh, wait, you’re right, this is Kansas. I’m afraid Obama doesn’t poll well here. In fact, in the latest numbers I saw, about 63 percent of the state thinks he’s a dirty hippie. What was I thinking? And why am I suddenly craving chips and salsa? Would any of you guys like to get a beer and maybe some tamales at this Mexican place I know up on North Broadway? Which reminds me, we should be able to get the Mexican vote on our side, and if that damned Kobach guy doesn’t get in the way I know how to round up a lot more of them …
(Lights fade.)

— Bud Norman

On the Importance of Making Welfare More Fun

On those frequent occasions when the elite eastern press wants to explain the benighted nature of those unwashed rubes in that vast electoral red splotch in the middle of the country, they usually come here to Kansas. The state almost always has a Republican legislature, and these days it even has a governor who obligingly conforms to all the nastiest stereotypes of middle American Republicanism, which allows the likes of The Washington Post to frighten its more sophisticated readership with such headlines as “Kansas wants to ban welfare recipients from seeing movies, going swimming on government’s dime.
Underneath a file photo of some presumably welfare-dependent people happily plunging into an enticingly blue swimming pool on a presumably  hot Kansas summer day, the ensuing article leads with unmistakeable outrage that “There’s nothing fun about being on welfare, and a new Kansas bill aims to keep it that way. If House Bill 2258 is signed into law by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) this week, Kansas families receiving government assistance will no longer be able to use those funds to visit swimming pools, see movies, go gambling or get tattoos on the state’s dime.” To add the horrors that are being visited upon the Kansas poor, the article further notes that the bill “means limiting spending on body piercings, massages, spas, tobacco, nail salons, lingerie, arcades, cruise ships or visits to psychics.” Worse yet, according to the increasingly outraged article, the bill also “forbids recipients from from spending money at a theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility, or sexually oriented establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.”
Lest you think that The Washington Post and its sophisticated readership regard swimming in the rare Kansas swimming pool that charges an entrance fee, watching the latest Hollywood offerings upon their immediate release, gambling, tattoos, body piercings, massages, spas, tobacco, nail salons, lingerie, arcades, cruise ships, psychics, theme parks, gambling on horses and dogs, and adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe are all fundamental human rights a respectable state is obligated to subsidize, and that being on welfare should be fun, be assured that they offer a more nuanced argument against the bill. Even in Kansas they were able to find a Democrat in the legislature who groused that “I just think that we are simply to saying to people, ‘If you are asking for assistance in this state, you’re sort of less than other people and we’re going to tell you how and where to spend your money.'”
Maybe we’ve been living in Kansas too long, but it seems to us that the bill merely restricts how welfare recipients can spend the taxpayer’s money. Should any welfare recipient choose to take a job or swing a lucrative meth deal he would still be able to swim, watch movies, get pierced or tattooed, enjoy a spa or smoke, get his nails done, dress up in lingerie, listen to the dubious predictions of psychics, visit an arcade, gamble on the dogs or ponies, swill cocktails on a cruise ship, ride roller coasters, gamble on the dogs and ponies, or ogle naked entertainers to his or her heart’s content. The article also scoffs at the idea that Kansas’ poor are spending their meager alms on cruise ships and such luxuries, in which case the bill will not affect them at all, and it links to yet another  article arguing that it’s blatant hypocrisy to limit what welfare recipients might spend the taxpayer’s money on when property tax-paying home owners aren’t obliged to prove that they’re not running brothels out of their homes in order to qualify for federal tax exemptions, which is a bit too nuanced for us to wrap our Kansas minds around, but we’ll add our own link and let the reader make up his own mind.
Being on welfare in Kansas might not be as much fun as The Washington Post and its sophisticated readership think it should be, but with the price of wheat being what is and the aircraft industry still struggling under the current administration’s opprobrium the Kansas taxpayer who is expected to pay the tab surely deserves some consideration.

— Bud Norman

Another Election Day

Today is Election Day, at long last, and we are glad of it. No matter how the races turn out, we will welcome a respite from the relentless campaigning.
Kansas is usually spared the worst of it, but this year a confluence of unfortunate events have made the state’s gubernatorial and senatorial elections unusually competitive, and as a result the state’s politics have been unusually pervasive. One can turn off the radio and television to avoid the barrage of advertisements, and curtail the evening walks to avoid all the yard signs proclaiming the neighbors’ poor choices, but there’s no escape in the internet, no avoiding the mailbox stuffed with fliers, and the phone has constantly been ringing with robocalls. Our avid interest in politics led us to consider all of it carefully in the beginning, but by now the fliers go to the trash unread and the commercials are ignored and the robocalls are hung up on as soon as they begin. Not that we’re shirking our civic duty to be well informed, as we knew all the arguments and had made our choices the day after the primaries, and although we’ve taken care to be apprised of any new revelations there haven’t been any worth noting.
The polls and the pundits give no indication of what the results will be, which is also unusual for Kansas at this late date in an election. Part of the problem is that the war within the Republican party between the “tea party” and “the establishment” has been especially hard fought here, leaving its candidates bruised and battered. Gov. Sam Brownback’s aggressive tax-cutting and budget-cutting was accomplished with help from like-minded “tea party” types who pulled off a remarkable primary purge during the movement’s high-water year of 2014, and a number of “establishment” types who had grown comfortable with expensive and bloated state government so long as they ran it have bolted from the party. Their support plus the wrath of the teachers’ unions who resented Brownback’s sensible proposal to allow incompetent teachers to be fire and all the liberals who hate Brownback with a red-hot passion that can not be explained in any possible terms have given a good chance of victory to Democratic opponent Paul Davis, a typical liberal from the typically liberal college town of Lawrence who has plenty of money to spend on adds that make his typical tax-and-spend politics sound some sensible and mainstream. Sen. Pat Roberts would be considered a “tea party” type in most jurisdictions, by contemporary Kansas Republican standards his 86 percent rating from the American Conservative Union is considered wimpy and he barely survived a primary challenge by a more rock-ribbed amateur only because of the opponent’s amateurishness and the fact that a couple of no-name votes split a crucial share of the widespread anti-Roberts sentiment. The Democrats still withdrew from the race, however, in order to clear the way for a self-proclaimed independent named Greg Orman whose personal fortune and the donations of some even more well-heeled out-of-state liberals have allowed him to run a very professional campaign positioning the former Democratic candidate and longtime Democratic donor as a non-partisan centrist. Throw in a widespread anti-incumbency mood among that significant bloc of voters too stupid and lazy to consider which party’s incumbents they hate most, and it’s a rare nail-biter in this state.
We remain cautiously optimistic that both Brownback and Roberts will survive close calls, but won’t make any wagers. All the tiresome cliches about how it all comes down to turnout are applicable, and it’s hard to figure who has the edge in this regard. The Democrats are fired up with their red-hot hatred of Brownback, but his ardent supporters in the anti-abortion movement are reliable voters with the extra incentive of Davis’ radically pro-abortion record and the more libertarian among the party will be spooked by the prospect of handing another two years of control of the Senate to Democrats.and we expect that many of the “establishment” types who don’t actually hold jobs in the state government and party establishment are still Republican enough that they won’t vote for what is after all a tax-and-spend platform. All those Democrats itching to vote against Brownback will also vote against Roberts, even if without the enthusiasm of voting for an admitted Democrat, but we expect that Republicans will also wind up voting for Roberts, even without the enthusiasm of voting for a more full-throated and rock-ribbed Republican. Numerous politicians with impeccably conservative credentials have pitched in on the campaign, that vanquished primary opponent has belatedly offered his endorsement, and the non-stop argument that a vote for Orman could keep the Democrats in control of the Senate should limit the number of conservatives sitting this one out.
So it really all comes down to getting out those voters who haven’t been paying attention, and there’s no telling how that will unfold. The National Rifle Association has spent a great deal of money to get the state’s sizable population of gun owners revved up on behalf of both Brownback and Roberts, a ridiculous referendum proposal to raise Wichita’s already sky-high sales taxes will bring out a lot of tightfisted taxpayers in the state’s largest city and will probably add a few votes to the Republican totals, the weather is forecast to be chilly, Roberts has a party organization while Orman will be piggybacking on the Democrats efforts, Kansas State University’s beloved football coach has come out strong for Roberts, and the same anti-Obama sentiment that is said to be brewing a Republican wave has been washing over Kansas for the past six years. Only the most hard-core of the Democrats seem fired up, too, and the all-important hipsters down at the local dive seem not to have noticed all the pervasive politics. It’s enough to make us confident, but quite cautiously so.
We’ll take our biennial stroll to a nearby Lutheran church and cast our votes, then anxiously follow the results here and across the nation. We’re watching the Wisconsin gubernatorial race and the Iowa Senate contest and of course will be keeping track of the Republicans’ numbers in the Senate and House, so it will be a full day of politics. After that we’ll try to take a day off from the stuff, and savor of the sound of the phone not dining with robocalls.

— Bud Norman