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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Why Councilmember Brandon Johnson Matters

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

My title is pretentious, of course; Brandon Johnson—the councilmember representing Wichita’s heavily African-American and traditionally Democratic District 1, a longtime community activist and an alum of Friends University where I teach, as well as someone I have a friendly (if not close) relationship with—matters to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons, most of them far beyond the specifics of current Wichita City Council debates. But as a someone who has spent decades observing and thinking and writing and teaching about politics, Brandon Johnson’s comments, towards the end of another marathon session dealing with the proposed non-discrimination ordinance before the council, were, whether he realized it or not, a deeply profound perception about the nature of political life, and it speaks well of his intelligence and perception that he said them. Watching the whole thing is a revealing as well as often depressing slog, but if you zip to the 4 hour and 6 minute mark, you’re hear this (edited slightly for clarity):

A 'community divided' [over]...a non-discrimination ordinance? I don't know if I would go that far. There are upset people. There are people who have questions right now. I forget how many e-mails I've gotten; from organized groups I may have had six or seven hundred e-mails. We may have seen the people outside. But [whether the delay is] 90 days or 90 years, there are going to be people who are concerned about this because it is offering protection to groups who are discriminated [against]....Whenever those opportunities come up, there is disagreement; there is division. Folks [will be] upset....Everybody's not going to agree with protecting folks. It's not going happen. There are folks who want to be able to do what they've been doing, think how they've been thinking. We've seen that outside...in the/ 'locker room' talk. We've seen this in some of the stuff we heard today, the 'I love you, but'. That doesn't change in 90 days. It's not. They are going be folks who are upset, still in 90 days.

The context, and the primary point, of his comments are actually quite straightforward, I think, even if that straight path is only clear in hindsight. So bear with me as I quickly run through the past four weeks….

A month ago, a proposed ordinance that would specifically require that national and state anti-discrimination laws regarding housing, employment, and public accommodations be enforced locally appeared upon the city council’s docket. The actual details and timeline of its preparation remain unclear--though it should be emphasized that Wichita currently has no locally specific civil rights ordinance at all, and it is to Mayor Brandon Whipple’s great credit that he saw the need for one. Unfortunately, in the originally presented ordinance, many of the terms describing those classes of individuals that would be protected were vague or undefined, and despite its stated intention, it actually included no specific enforcement mechanism, nor did it identify penalties should such a mechanism be put into effect. One thing that was clear from the outset, though, was that for both proponents and opponents of the ordinance, the point was the protection it provided to LGBTQ individuals, the state-level protections of which most people sympathetic to their concerns consider lacking, hence the move by several cities to make specific their inclusion. (The proponents of this effort regularly insist that this is a broadly motivated concern—Johnson explicitly says so in his remarks mentioned above—and yet no one really believes this, and no one really should: the arguments over the past month have overwhelming involved matters of gender identity and sexual orientation and the religious—specifically, the overwhelmingly conservative Christian—objections to such.)

The problems with the original ordinance resulted in a flurry of activity over the weekend, as Mayor Brandon Whipple scrambled (while away from Wichita attending a wedding) to placate furious LGBTQ activists and organizations, some of whom saw the proposed ordinance as a hastily slapped together affront to those who take LGBTQ concerns truly seriously. He was successful in this effort: by Tuesday morning, when the ordinance came before the city council for its first official reading, it had been significantly re-written, and it was representatives of Equality Kansas, and not the city’s staff, who providing explanations of the ordinance’s fine details. The frustration over this hurried process was immense (and I think, at that point in time at least, entirely justifiable). Councilmember Jared Cerullo’s objections to having been substantively excluded from the whole drafting process, despite being the only LGBTQ individual on the city council and thus an obvious partner to these discussions, was, I though, particularly poignant. It is very likely, despite Whipple’s impassioned pleading (in contrast to Johnson’s quietly supportive approach), that the whole thing would have been voted down if Councilmember Becky Tuttle hadn’t gotten the city’s legal department to assure the council that the whole ordinance could be effectively re-written again before its second reading. With that, it passed 4-3, with Tuttle and Councilmember Cindy Claycomb joining Whipple and Johnson in voting it through.

By the time the ordinance came before the city council again, however, it was clear that enough changes had to have been made to its language, its details, its definitions, and its enforcement process, that it was substantially a brand new ordinance, requiring a reset to the whole process. The new first reading was an endless, 5+ hour parade of opposition—again, overwhelmingly reflecting conservative Christian concerns—and, in a much smaller key, support. In the three weeks since the prior discussion of the proposed ordinance, there obviously had been a lot of organizing, yet little formal discussion in the venues established for such—specifically, the DABs, the advisory boards established for each city council district. Part of the reason for this was the July 4th holiday, which made it hard for people to get together and actually have an organized conversation. And in this vacuum a lot of misinformation predictably spread, in particular from the Sedgwick County Republican Party, though the local Democratic party’s response to the GOP’s attack got things about the proposed ordinance wrong too. (It’s worth noting that some local conservative activists went beyond talking points to calling upon their followers to contact—or maybe outright harass—certain councilmembers at their homes, and tell them that their election prospects depend upon their changing their votes.)

All of this, from what I can tell, simply served to underline an emerging consensus, one which I heard repeatedly when I attended Councilmember Bryan Frye’s re-scheduled DAB meeting after the first reading of the new, substituted version of the ordinance: this whole discussion has been unnecessarily heated and hasty, and has sown division and disagreement throughout the city, because of both confusion over, and the disrespect shown for, the city’s normal legislative process. For myself, while I have no disagreement whatsoever that the process in bringing this ordinance forward has been a complete mess (and while there is a lot of fault for that, it has to begin with those who wrote it and introduced it in the first place, particularly Mayor Whipple), the result at this point in the process is nonetheless, actually, a pretty excellent non-discrimination ordinance, one that would serve an important purpose. On the basis of some exchanges I both listened to and had with Councilmembers Cerullo and Claycomb at different events during this in-between time (both of them had ended up supporting the ordinance at the previous marathon city council meeting, and both of them are up for re-election this year), I thought sympathy for the resulting policy would win out over anger regarding the process. I was wrong—which is what brings me back, at last, to Councilmember Johnson’s wise comment.

Everyone following the news knows what happened yesterday: another long parade of opponents, though this time with an almost equal contingent of better organized, better informed supporters of the proposed ordinance, followed by an even more contentious display of accusations, insults, apologies, and bargaining involving the five councilmembers who had supported different versions of ordinance at different times (most of which revolved around the mayor, who started out loudly demanding passage but quickly found himself on the defensive—as Whipple himself once quoted his wife as saying during a class I’d invited him to speak at, with his election at least city council meetings aren’t boring any longer). Councilmember Tuttle proposed tabling the ordinance for 90 days, until early October at the soonest, to allow for more DAB participation, a city council workshop day, and the involvement the city’s new Diversity, Inclusion & Civil Rights Advisory Board, which relatively quickly garnered majority support on the council and passed 5-2. (The arguments over the Civil Rights Advisory Board have been interesting—originally it was Mayor Whipple who claimed, when challenged over their lack of involvement in the shaping of the ordinance, that the board was just starting out and couldn’t productively play a role yet, but when Whipple, accepting that he’d lost the votes of Tuttle, Cerullo, and Claycomb, suggested quickly involving the board and bringing the ordinance back for another second reading in 30 days, it was Tuttle who said they board was just starting out and wasn’t organized enough to do so.) It is at this point that Johnson’s comment, which was framed as kindly rebuke to Tuttle’s successful motion, becomes relevant.

In the larger scheme of things, Tuttle’s proposal is perfectly reasonable. As Max Weber famously put it more than a century ago, politics is the “slow boring of hard boards.” It’s a difficult and time-consuming process—so why not take some more time to work through these hard questions? Johnson’s response, which explicitly referenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” with its condemnation of “white moderates” who told King to slow down and wait (Johnson could have just as easily referenced King’s blistering 1964 follow-up to that famous letter, Why We Can’t Wait), puts things in a different context. A focus on the legislative process, and the time and compromises involved, can be civically empowering, and is often central to any serious effort to think clearly about what “government by the people” actually means. But just as often, unfortunately, a focus on process can become an almost rote incantation, something imagined—usually not explicitly stated, though it sometimes is—as an entirely apolitical, non-partisan, and non-“divisive” way to address the reality of disagreement in our pluralistic society. As I observed in a recent column in The Wichita Eagle, this ideal is an old one, but it is also one that has never consistently worked, and today increasingly does not represent reality. The growing recognition by some that the contentious “management” of deep disagreements, through allowing everyone to organize and have their say (sometimes endlessly) and then somehow discovering a compromise in the midst of the fighting, rarely results in a policy that satisfies anybody or even works is, to say the least, kind of frightening.

Johnson’s comments, without ever going into this kind of theoretical detail, foregrounds this reality. When you are talking about really deep disagreements—and you can’t get much deeper than those between people who, on the one hand, draw upon long personal histories with discrimination of and contempt for their sexual identities and orientations, and people who, on the other hand, draw upon devout religious beliefs and (more relevantly) presumptions about the legitimate social expression of those beliefs—why would you think anyone will change their mind? However poor the process of shaping the proposed ordinance was up until yesterday (and it definitely has been poor, though there are examples from recent Wichita history of controversial decisions being made with even fewer and less transparent conversations than this ordinance has gotten over the past month), there is no reason to believe that the process going forward from this point on promises any kind of revolutionary break-through. As Johnson subsequently said, the only options going forward now are maintaining the protections provided by the ordinance, or weakening them by allowing more exceptions to be introduced. (Johnson didn’t mention the third, entirely obvious option: that more discussion might actually result in the ordinance being defeated entirely, despite a clear majority of members of the city council being on the record saying that local enforcement of state and national non-discrimination laws is necessary.)

Tuttle defended herself politely here, insisting that she wanted this ordinance passed, but believed that the delay—with more DAB discussions, with a council workshop, with formal Civil Rights Advisory Board involvement—will actually make it stronger, with broader public support, or at least great public acceptance. Johnson clearly disagreed with her, and I feel he was right to do so. I can’t emphasize this enough: taking the painstaking, slow, civic-minded approach to crafting rules and making decisions is absolutely essential when your goal is to increase public involvement with a problem, because the problem is general and the possible responses to it are multiple and unclear. This is exactly why I and many others have insisted, for example, that the city council must go slow in making decisions about the future of Century II; despite the efforts of some to present it as an all-or-nothing choice, it obviously is and shouldn’t be.

But as you get close to the point—by whatever the means you get there—where all those multiple options narrow down to one solution or one proposal or one course of action, one which you can only support, oppose, or amend, the civic essentialness of continuing engagement rapidly diminishes. There comes a point where rehashing the process becomes mostly a way to make attacks against (or defend yourself from against) the existing solution. Again, we all know this—we’ve all been part of meetings which never end and never accomplish anything, because someone is always upset with whatever might be done. As Councilmember Johnson said, the one thing you can count on in a free and pluralistic society like our own is that “there is disagreement, there is division.” You can argue, of course, that when it comes to this non-discrimination ordinance, Wichita—or at least our city council—is not at that narrow decision-making point yet. But that is a judgment call, not a determination that can be made in a dispassionate, objective, principled way. And if I may conclude by beating a favorite dead horse of mine, this is exactly why parties, and partisanship, is both 1) useful, and 2) unavoidable.

Why useful? Because parties frame for voters the sorts of priorities that will guide the judgment calls which different politicians will make after everything that goes into the legislative process is done, and thus allows voters to have some input over how and when and for what reason their elected representatives will say “okay, no more talk; it’s time to vote.” And why unavoidable? Because, as much as many city councilmembers (including Johnson himself!) may profess a deep commitment to just neutrally following what staff provides them with and making whatever decision their constituents seem to prefer, much of the time, in actual fact, voting in response to party priorities is exactly what they are doing anyway. I’m sorry if some take offense at that, but I can only plead that it’s very difficult to look at the votes that have been cast and the justifications that have been offered over this past month and yet still believe that the necessity of these people to negotiate the reality of both Republican and Democratic voters in their districts isn’t a central part of their decisions as well.

As another old saying puts it, politics is like making sausage—you shouldn’t look at it too closely. For better or worse, the people of Wichita have been granted, over the past month, a close tour of one particular sausage factory. The process was flawed, as legislative processes so regularly are, and if you want to hold Mayor Whipple responsible for that, you certainly could (I do, at least in part). But the resulting sausage is also, if you’re in political agreement with people like Councilmember Johnson, pretty good. Of course, if you’re not in political agreement with people like Councilmember Johnson, you probably don’t think it’s good at all. That’s called disagreement; that’s the nature of politics. When a city like Wichita comes to the point of division, you could wait in the hopes the divisions go away, or that your staff will come up with some new approach to mollify things, or that some other process could be tried to moderate extremists on both sides. I might work; hey, I might be wrong! But I don’t think I am, and I don’t think Councilmember Johnson is either. Hence today, after a very long month for every member of the city council (and three more months, at least, before they do it all again) I salute him and thank him for his clear-eyed perspective. As the man said, eyes on the prize, sir; eyes on the prize.

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