Susan Ruiz’s decision to run for office parallels the thinking of so many other people after the 2016 presidential election.
“I could either complain and bitch about it, as all of us did” — Ruiz was especially angry about how the president spoke of the Latino community — “or be much more involved. We can’t afford to not vote, but we all need to do something more than that.”
Ruiz is one of two openly gay candidates for the Kansas House of Representatives in Johnson County. She’s running in District 23, which includes 21,500 people in parts of Overland Park, Lenexa and her home town of Shawnee.
“Hillary Clinton won this district by double digits,” she notes.
Ruiz was not, however, an eager candidate.
Her efforts to step up after 2016 began with canvassing for a Shawnee City Council candidate; then she became chairwoman of her precinct committee. This year, when Kansas Democrats wanted to make sure no Republican ran unopposed, that meant finding someone to challenge Linda Gallagher, a friendly moderate with solid support from many of the same individuals and organizations that might otherwise have supported Democrats, had any of them run.
“It came down to the wire, almost the last day that anybody could file, and in District 23 the Democratic position was still vacant,” Ruiz says. “I kept telling them, ‘Keep me at the bottom of the list.’ They said, ‘You’re it. There’s no one else on the list.’ So I agreed to do it.”
Ruiz’s run was complicated by health problems over the summer, when it looked as if she might need surgery for a leg problem. She was able to avoid the operating room, but focusing on her health put her behind in lining up volunteers and raising money.
It helped that she didn’t have a primary, and Ruiz got a boost when the Victory Fund, a national organization that raises money for LGBTQ candidates, endorsed Ruiz along with her fellow Kansas House candidate Brandon Woodard and Congressional candidate Sharice Davids.
“Seeing how many more LGBTQ+ people are running, it’s not just a blue wave, it’s a rainbow wave,” Ruiz says, echoing the Victory Fund’s slogan.
But as Kansas Democrats begin their long-overdue process of building not just a deeper bench but any bench, that rainbow wave has brought complications — I’ll call them growing pains – for Kansas’ tiny LGBTQ political infrastructure.
That’s because, amid the grueling and frequently ugly machinations of every Kansas legislative session, elected officials often take big political risks to support the LGBTQ community. Equality Kansas makes a point of rewarding that courage. Since its inception in 2006, the organization’s policy has been to endorse incumbents who’ve supported civil rights for LGBTQ people, regardless of their party — or, now in Ruiz’s case, their sexual orientation.
“Equality is a non-partisan issue, and we’ve had a policy of endorsing friendly incumbents since day one. Republicans, Democrats or Martians, I don’t care which — we’re going to support them when they run for re-election,” explains Equality Kansas’ executive director, Tom Witt.
To be able to do its work in the Statehouse, Witt says, Equality Kansas must maintain its relationships with those friendly incumbents. “If we campaign against them, we won’t have any friendly incumbents to work with,” he says. “I really wish we could endorse Susan. Should Rep. Gallagher chose to retire, I hope Susan will run again.”
Not getting Equality’s endorsement hurt, Ruiz says, but she understands the organization’s strategy.
“They were very nice in the fact that they called me and told me,” Ruiz says. “They could have just put that in a letter or email, like other organizations have done, but they didn’t. They at least called and I was thankful for that.”
It’s an unheard-of situation for LGBTQ voters and their allies in Johnson County: Support a Republican who’s been a strong ally, or support an openly lesbian Democrat. One could consider the race a win-win.
“We’re very similar,” Ruiz acknowledges of Gallagher. “She’s voted more like a Democrat than a Republican. She’s standing up for her own convictions in spite of what her colleagues might say to her.”
And the race is about more than LGBTQ civil rights.
Originally from Houston, Ruiz earned a master’s degree in social work and moved to Kansas 25 years ago. Her jobs at community mental health centers have given her a street-level view of how public resources do, and don’t, serve the whole public.
“I love working with adults with a severe and persistent mental illness,” she says. “Part of it is experiencing the resilience that people have. I’ve come to admire how people have been able to live their lives in spite of very debilitating illness, and I’ve come to appreciate how they see their world.”
Her direct experience of how state government affects real people includes being laid off from a job at the Wyandotte Center for Community Behavioral Healthcare after Sam Brownback was elected in 2010.
“Before he became governor, he met with leaders of the 26 community mental health centers of Kansas and right off the bat, he told them he was going to cut $10 million off the budget for mental health. And he lived up to that promise.”
Ruiz navigated the recession by taking another job at a much lower salary before landing at Truman Medical Center (in Missouri), where she manages a team of case workers and a nurse.
Thanks to the relatively open-minded people who gravitate to social work, Ruiz says, she’s never encountered problems at her job because she’s gay.
“But throughout my career, I have had people come to me and say, ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever known who is gay and I look at people who are gay differently now because of you.’”
Ruiz would bring her partner, Ann McCulley, to Christmas programs and annual picnics.
“I’d say, ‘This is my partner Ann,’ and it was like anybody else introducing their husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever. Because I’ve been comfortable, I think it’s made an impact with people.”
So much so in June 2015, when news broke that the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized marriage equality, her coworkers immediately started up with: “You guys can get married! We need to start planning a wedding! These people were all straight,” Ruiz remembers with a laugh, before growing quiet.
“We were planning the wedding, and everything that’s exciting about a wedding, and she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just out of the blue,” Ruiz says. “We rushed the wedding. We had it in our home, the reception and everything. We were able to get married, but she passed two months after she was diagnosed.”
The election results that came soon afterwards only added to Ruiz’s grief.
“We all knew the writing on the wall. We knew where the country was going to go if Trump got elected, and it’s all been fulfilled,” she says. “So I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit back and wallow in the anger and the rage that we all felt. It was just eating at me.”
Channeling her energy in this way also goes back to her earliest childhood — and one part of the story about how this country got built.
“My dad grew up in Mexico. I don’t know all of the details, but when he was in his 20s, there was a big shortage of men to work in industries. Dad was recruited with many other men who came from Mexico to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company in Houston.”
Southern Pacific promised to teach him a trade — he became a welder — and guaranteed him a salary and benefits and eventual citizenship. Her father was a proud union member, she says.
“Later on, he helped to organize classes at our church, where he would teach other people what you have to learn to pass the citizenship test,” she says. “He understood what you had to go through to vote if you were a minority.”
Part of what minorities had to overcome was the Texas poll tax, high enough to discourage people of color and poor whites from voting, until 1966.
“Growing up, that’s all I knew: him being civically involved as a citizen,” Ruiz says of her father. “He only had a third-grade education, but people thought he was more educated because he watched the news. Every night, before we could watch our TV shows, we had to watch the news.”
Because she was the youngest, he had refined all of his speeches about what his children should know. “You had to have respect for everybody — when he went to parent-teacher conferences, what he wanted to know most was whether we were respectful; grades were less important. The other thing was you had to vote.”
After she left home, he still reminded her: Don’t forget to vote.
“And you couldn’t go in to vote and just guess — you needed to do your homework ahead of time. It was a big deal in our family. That really got passed on.”
Now, after her less-than-eager-to-run beginnings, Ruiz has warmed up to her role as a candidate.
“It’s been the right thing to do. It just felt so right,” she says. “It’s like I’ve got this new energy that I didn’t have before.”
The same is true for Kansas Democrats. In just over two weeks, we’ll know whether that energy translated into wins. If it doesn’t, they’ll need new energy even more.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.