For “Trouble in Topeka,” the first chapter of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas, I spent hours on the phone with Tiffany Muller, spoke with her fellow activists and teachers, and read newspaper stories about her. But I’d never met her in person. Muller left Kansas years before I started reporting for the book, and she now lives in Washington, D.C.
More than one person described her as “a force of nature.”
So in early December 2017, when I got an email invite saying she’d be in Topeka at a campaign event for Paul Davis, a Democrat running for Congress, I went – not to support Davis but because I was eager to finally meet Muller.
After fighting Kansas’ marriage amendment and serving as Topeka’s first openly gay city council person – where she represented a district that was home to the Westboro Baptist Church – Muller moved to Florida and later to D.C., where she started her own research firm and worked on gubernatorial, senatorial, and congressional races all over the country and served as a congressman’s chief of staff.
“I wanted to know if my life could be more than just gay rights,” she told me during one of our interviews for the book. “I easily proved that.”
Now, Muller is taking on one of the country’s biggest political problems.
Since March 2015, she’s been president and executive director of a grassroots political action committee called End Citizens United, which is “dedicated to countering the disastrous effects of (the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in) Citizens United and reforming our campaign finance system.”
The night I went to meet her, 30 or so people were sitting in the dark at Uncle Bo’s Blues Bar, a faux dive inside the downtown Topeka Ramada Inn. The venue could have held many more people, but Muller took advantage of the intimacy.
“I am so honored to be back here with Paul,” Muller said after Davis’s too-lengthy remarks. “I do call Topeka home. This is where I graduated college. This is where I bought my first home. This is where I bought my second home.” She talked about serving on the Topeka City Council with Clark Duffy, who was in the room. “This is where I got my start in politics.”
Back in Washington, Congress was in the midst of passing its grotesque tax-reform bill, what Muller called the “billionaire bailout.”
“Your voices aren’t being heard, because the folks with the biggest pocketbooks are being heard,” Muller said. “The Koch brothers, right here in Kansas, said, ‘If this doesn’t pass, we’re not funding $400 million in campaign donations.’”
But Muller had faith that regular people could change the system. She’d seen that in the brief history of her own organization.
“In just two years we’ve grown from nothing – literally having no organization – to having 3 million members, with 5,000 members right here in Kansas,” she said. “We may not be able to write a check for $100 million, but three million of us together can make a difference.”
For example, she said, the PAC had raised $600,000 for Doug Jones’ race against Roy Moore in Alabama, with tens of thousands of people making an average contribution of $12.
“It adds up,” she said.
Of course, the problem’s big enough to feel hopeless. Actually ending Citizens United would require a new House, a new Senate, a new president and a differently composed Supreme Court, and there was an unmistakable feeling of defeatism at Uncle Bo’s Blues Bar. After all, people in the crowd groused, Kansas’s Republican senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran were proving to be Trump loyalists and didn’t respond to constituents’ phone calls or emails.
Muller said she understood that feeling, but she’d also spent enough time on the Hill to know that flooding Congressional offices with phone calls and emails really does work.
“I know that sounds really lame, but I can’t tell you how many times that has changed the entire dialogue in Washington, just because calls and emails started,” she said. “They want to stay ahead of those waves.”
And electing people to Congress who will support campaign-finance transparency will help, Muller promised.
“We are not lacking for good ideas in Congress, believe it or not, on how to help start fixing this problem. We passed (campaign finance) disclosure in the House in 2010, but it got filibustered in the Senate. If we take back the House – and we’re also on the verge of taking back the Senate at this point – the very first thing that could be passed is disclosure and transparency, which is actually a really huge part of the problem.”
But Muller was also honest about another big problem for Democrats.
“So often, Democrats just pay attention at election time and do nothing afterwards. We have to quit taking voters for granted. We have to quit patronizing them,” she said.
“We know how to register voters, we just don’t prioritize it all the time,” she added. “We know how to do good fieldwork, we just don’t prioritize it. We have to start actually changing a system that only 7 percent of people think works for the benefit of all Americans. Until we start restoring faith, I don’t know why folks would regularly come out and vote for anybody.”
Muller’s up for the fight.
“I’ve always taken on big challenges, it’s one of the things I like to do,” she told the crowd at Uncle Bo’s, some of whom clearly didn’t know she’d been on the Topeka City Council and had tried to pass an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance.
“As you might know, in Topeka that was a tall order, and it was 2005,” she said to laughter. “In 2004, when marriage amendments passed (all around the country), I thought I’d never see marriage equality in my day, and I got to marry my wife in D.C. in 2013.”
In person, Muller was exactly how I’d imagined her to be. I left Uncle Bo’s thinking a post-Citizens United America might actually be possible.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.