By Lisa Rodriguez
Kansas is a red state. In western Kansas, it’s deep red. But it’s also one of the most demographically diverse regions in the state. The population in several cities in the southwest corner is almost 50 percent Hispanic.
In Finney County, a small group of young Democrats are working to engage that huge group of potential voters who have long been in the background.
The Finney County Democratic Party had fallen apart about 10 years ago, over a divide between blue-collar Democrats and environmentalists about the expansion of a coal-fired power plant in Holcomb.
Since then, Johnny Dunlap, the 1st Congressional District Chair for the Kansas Democrats, has watched party organization come and go with elections.
As Democrats flounder, demographics change
The first time Dunlap tried to organize Democrats in Finney County was in 2012, but the group stopped meeting after the presidential election.
“In 2014, I went over again and organized them, and they knocked on doors, and made phone calls for (gubernatorial candidate) Paul Davis. … And then the election came and went and it, sort of, fell off – they stopped meeting,” Dunlap said.
At the same time, the Hispanic population has continued to grow steadily. Latinos make up nearly half of the total population in Finney County.
“He’s a Democrat, running in the 39th. For us that’s like … a unicorn.”
– John Doll, Republican candidate for the Kansas Senate 39th District seat
Dunlap is a high school English teacher in Garden City, and he said most of his students speak Spanish at home.
Waves of immigrants have been drawn to the region by its prospering beef industry.
That industry is celebrated each year at Beef Empire Days festival in Garden City. Along the festival’s parade route, you could hear a mix of English and Spanish.
The parade is a required stop on the campaign trail. All of the candidates in Senate District 39 are there, including one of Dunlap’s young recruits: Zach Worf.
“He’s a Democrat, running in the 39th. For us that’s like … a unicorn,” Republican candidate John Doll said.
Doll would know — he used to be one, but that’s another story.
Few Latino office holders
While Democrats are like unicorns around here, Hispanic candidates are even more rare.
But in nearby Dodge City, which resembles Garden City demographically, Johnny Dunlap found one Latino willing to run: 22-year-old Miguel Angel Rodriguez.
Rodriguez grew up in Liberal, and his parents both work for the National Beef Packing Company in Dodge City.
Rodriguez said he’s trying to appeal to a broader audience than just Latinos, but he admits that his candidacy is significant, because it means someone is making an effort on their behalf.
There’s only one Latino office-holder for miles around — the city clerk in Garden City.
“They see a Hispanic going into there with their voice, and growing up in the community and knowing what their hardships are,” Rodriguez said.
Nearly 40 percent of the voting-age population the 38th Senate District — where Rodriguez is running — is Hispanic.
But if finding a Latino to run for office is hard, try getting thousands to vote.
“When you look at the number of registered Hispanic voters, versus the number of registered Hispanic voters who actually voted, there’s a huge drop-off,” Dunlap said.
Registered Latinos often don’t vote
Dunlap crunched the numbers for Ford County, which is in the 38th District. Although voter registration forms don’t ask for race or ethnicity, he used information from the Kansas Democratic Party to determine the number of registered Hispanic voters.
According to his research, in the 2014 general election, just shy of 15 percent of registered Hispanic voters actually voted. That’s compared to 54 percent of all other registered voters.
Garden City restaurant owner Jorge Guzman admits he doesn’t vote.
“The thing of it is, like a lot of people like soccer and they go for a certain team. Well, I don’t like to be disappointed, so I don’t go for any team at all,” he said.
He said he understands the argument that if you don’t vote you can’t complain.
“Well I don’t complain either,” he said.
Guzman’s restaurant, Las Margaritas, is a popular spot in Garden City. His wife is a real estate agent. His family gets along just fine. He said he has no reason to complain.
Guzman’s cousin and business partner, Maria del Rayo, disagrees.
“Yo creo que es la problema de los Latinos que no nos comprometemos en la política … Estamos demasiado preocupados por sobrevivir, porque nos vaya bien, pero no nos unimos y exigimos nuestros derechos en este país.”
“I think that’s the problem with Latinos – that we don’t get involved in politics. We’re too worried about surviving, because we do well, but we won’t unite and demand out rights in this country,” Del Rayo said.
She said Latinos are scared of getting more involved. A lot of immigrants feel like even though they might have proper documentation to vote, they don’t want to become targets, she said.
At Beef Empire Days, the Finney County Democrats were registering voters in Spanish.
Worf, the Democrat in the 39th District, is still trying to get Latino votes, with campaign materials in English and Spanish.
Doll, for his part, said his campaign is focusing on Republicans and independents, including Latinos, though his campaign materials are all in English.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter for KCUR.