It was January, bleak and freezing, when Brandon Woodard first started walking the neighborhoods of Lenexa and Olathe that make up Kansas House District 30. Last week hit near record-breaking heat for the middle of September, and Woodard was still walking, the back of his green polo dotted with sweat.
“I’ve put in a lot of steps. My jeans are a little looser,” he said, as if he hadn’t anticipated that benefit of campaigning.
One of his political mentors warned him: When you go to the grocery store, save the frozen-food aisle for last. That’s because you’ll get to know so many people that they’ll want to stop you and talk, and this way your ice cream won’t melt. He didn’t believe her at first, but now he does.
Another race in this part of Kansas is drawing national attention: Sharice Davids’ thrilling challenge to Kevin Yoder, in which the Native American/lesbian/Ivy League-educated lawyer/White House Fellow/mixed-martial artist badass has the four-term congressman, whose votes are 92 percent in line with the current president’s, on the ropes.
Woodard’s race is obviously less headline-making. But if he wins, he’ll be the first out gay man in the Kansas Legislature. (An out lesbian candidate, Susan Ruiz, is running in the 23rd District. And the other Democrat in Woodard’s primary was the also-openly-gay Matthew Calcara.)
Woodard is running against another first-time candidate named Wendy Bingesser, both of them seeking to replace the ultra-conservative Randy Powell, who made the decisive vote in favor of the anti-gay, so-called Adoption Protection Act this past session and who succeeded the ultra-conservative Lance Kinzer. On the surface, Bingesser’s campaign materials look Johnson-County-moderate, but her endorsements from Kansans for Life and the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas put her on a slate of religious-right, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ candidates in the mold of Powell and Kinzer.
But while this district of Johnson County has reliably elected far-rights candidates in the past, Woodard has looked at the demographics and studied vote tallies from recent elections enough to know that people’s attitudes have been changing. He also hears that directly from voters.
“We just got push-polled with a robo-call from our opponent, and I had conservative people call me and say, ‘I don’t have a problem with you being gay — what I have a problem with is opponent attacking you for your stance on LGBT issues.'”
Woodard isn’t even campaigning on LGBTQ issues. The fact that he was the first openly gay student body vice president at the University of Kansas is on his printed materials, but when he knocks on doors, he talks about public education and the fact that some Johnson Countians pay some of the highest food taxes in the country.
That’s when people open their doors. Mostly, on the night I walked with him in a winding neighborhood of cul de sacs, the only signs of life were dogs barking between the curtains of living-room windows, and Woodard didn’t ring doorbells twice before leaving a flier in door handles. He spoke with only a handful of people. A couple of them said they hadn’t really thought about the upcoming elections.
One guy, a small business owner, said his main issue was getting rid of Obamacare — he said the fees were killing him. Woodard engaged, saying he understood but that Kansas wasted $2 billion of this man’s tax dollars, letting it go to other states that have expanded Medicaid (including Mike Pence’s Indiana). It was a polite exchange, but the guy had a faraway look in his eye as he ended the conversation with a bro-y “Good luck, my man.”
It’s fascinating, at this point in Kansas politics and life, that the LGBTQ candidate is not only out, but gets support from conservatives when his opponent tries to use that as a wedge issue, and can genuinely describe himself as “a common-sense moderate.”
Born and raised in Topeka, Woodard knows how to talk with Republicans because he was surrounded by them.
“I turned 18 the year that Obama won the presidency,” he said. “I came of age in a Republican family at the time that all of this hope and change would be happening, and I was excited. I saw my parents were just as excited to vote for John McCain, and I thought, ‘What part of his policies and platform do you stand for?'”
Woodard came out the summer before his junior year of high school, though he’d known he was gay for quite a while before that.
“It was not the most easy time as a family. Mom cried, dad freaked out, we talked about the Bible. A month or two later, I got to the point where I was over it, and had the conversation: ‘This is who I am, I’m sorry that’s tough for you, and if you need time that’s fine. I’m going to hopefully do really good things with my life and I want you there. This is your time to decide whether you’re there or not.'”
This resonated with them, and over last decade they’ve learned and grown. Now, Woodard said, his parents (who have since split up) are his biggest fans — though their politics are still evolving.
“My mom is still a registered Republican. Dad has since seen the light and become a Democrat,” he said. “They’re just traditional Kansas voters who always voted Republican. I’ve come to realize now that they never did a ton of in-depth research on candidates. It was just that their friends were Republicans, their family was Republican, so that was always there.”
That’s a story I heard over and over again while researching No Place Like Home. But the 2016 election may have finally encouraged people to pay more attention. Woodard said he’s excited about Sharice Davids’ campaign not only because of Davids but because it’s brought so much attention to the district overall.
“My friends who have never cared about anything but presidential elections are now interested in Congress, the Statehouse, up and down the ballot,” he said.
Woodard had always been interested in government and politics. He majored in political science at KU, and as vice president of the student body when the legislature debated allowing concealed weapons on campuses, Woodard gathered a coalition of students to go to Topeka and lobby against that and for increased higher-ed funding.
“Frustratingly, even some Democrats voted for that conceal-carry bill,” he said. “That was my first insight into how Topeka works.”
He began to think that if he were ever in a position to run, maybe he might.
After college, Woodard went to work as a fundraiser for KU Endowment, moved to Lenexa, and got involved in politics. He chaired the Johnson County Young Democrats and was vice chair of the county party. When re-energized, post-2016 Democrats started stepping up to run for city councils, school boards and other local elections, he saw an opportunity to put himself out there, too.
He talked with his bosses at KU Endowment, who supported his run. Thanks to his job as a fundraiser, he had one skill essential for a campaign. But he was also fortunate that his employer would allow him to work around the legislative session.
“I’m younger – I’m 28 – and I live in one of the youngest Statehouse districts in Kansas. Not a lot of people my age can afford to run. Not a lot of people are super eager to make $88 a day.”
Like half the people in his district, Woodard is a renter. His understanding that Johnson County’s true economic situation is more complex than its wealthy stereotype comes from another key aspect of his identity.
“My mom graduated high school and my dad got his GED,” he said. Throughout grade school and high school, Woodard ate on the free-and-reduced lunch program. He went to KU on a Pell Grant and worked multiple jobs.
“So I know what it’s like to grow up and struggle and work for a living,” he said.
Walking these neighborhoods of Johnson County over the last nine months, Woodard has come to know more about some of its residents than they probably know about their own neighbors.
Rounding one corner, he was distressed to see a “For Sale” sign in a yard up ahead. The last time he was there, he said, the woman who answered the door told him her husband had just died, and she was sad his vote wouldn’t be counted in the primary. He wonders what became of her.
Two other people who open their doors are fired-up women, Democrats Woodard knows from previous stops.
He’ll see them at least once again, walking this neighborhood one more time before November.
Corrections: I’ve fixed a couple of errors. Thanks to the reader who brought them to my attention.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.