C.J. Janovy: This Lawrence Democrat likes Ike — and wonders how many Republicans still would (Column)

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Boog Highberger knew it was almost lunchtime. So when he stepped to the podium in front of the Kansas House of Representatives, he said he’d try to be brief.

It would be a week of some very long speeches in the Kansas Legislature, and this was only Tuesday. That morning, the House had been considering a Senate bill involving tax preparers that included tax credits for the Eisenhower Foundation in Abilene and the Friends of Cedar Crest Association, among other things.

Highberger, a Democrat, represents the liberal bubble of Lawrence. He’d made a dramatic point back in the opening days of this year’s legislative session when, on Jan. 21, he’d stepped to the same podium in a shirt and tie but no jacket, violating House decorum to make the point that pandemic decorum in the chamber should also include face masks.

Tuesday’s speech was less immediately jarring. Highberger just wanted to read some short excerpts from a long document.

“It may not seem relevant at first, but I’ll explain when I finish,” he said. “These are some words from an important document in American history.”

It’s worth quoting the entirety of what Highberger said:

“America does not prosper unless all Americans prosper. … Government must have a heart as well as a head. … Labor is the United States. The men and women who with their minds, their hearts and hands create the wealth that is shared in this country, they are America. … The federal minimum wage has been raised for more than 2 million workers. Social security has been extended to an additional 10 million workers and benefits raised for six and a half million. Protection of unemployment insurance has been brought to four million additional workers. There have been increased workmen’s compensation benefits for longshoreman and harbor workers, increased retirement benefits for railroad employees. … We will assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex. … We will extend the protection of federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as possible and is practicable. … We support the free distribution of vaccine. … We will safeguard our precious soil and water resources for generations yet unborn. … We will vigorously promote, as we have in the past, a non-political career service under the merit system which will attract and retain able servants of the people. … We recommend to Congress the submission of a constitutional amendment providing equal rights for men and women. …

We support an immigration policy which is in keeping with the traditions of America in providing a haven for oppressed peoples and which is based on equality of treatment, freedom from implications of discrimination between racial, national and religious groups.”

– Rep. Dennis ‘Boog’ Highberger, Kansas House, May 4, 2021

“Well, by now you’re asking, what sort of socialist nonsense was that and where did it come from?” Highberger said.

He’d been reading from the Republican Party platform in 1956, the year Dwight D. Eisenhower was nominated for a second term as president.

“I just want to say that I like Ike,” Highberger concluded, a quiet smile in his voice. “I’m happy to support the tax credit for the Eisenhower Foundation and I hope you like Ike too.”

Later, Highberger told me he’d been waiting all session for an opportunity to present this reminder of what Republicans once stood for.

“There are a lot of people around here who say, ‘I like Ike,’ but I’m not sure they’d like his policies that much — not all of them, anyway,” he said.

“I just really look around and I see how much the Republican Party in Kansas has changed in my lifetime,” Highberger said. “It’s not my grandfather’s Republican Party.”

Highberger’s politics have changed over the years, too.

“When I was in my 20s, I called myself an anarchist,” he said. “I could have just as easily said I was into radical democracy.”

These days he said he’d call himself a progressive. He sent me a chart of a “two-dimensional political spectrum,” where he’d colored in where he thought most Democrats and Republicans stood, acknowledging others would likely disagree about where to draw the lines.

As a “starting point for discussion,” Rep. Dennis ‘Boog’ Highberger drew this approximation of where he sees Democrats and Republicans on the Kansas political spectrum. “I think that there used to be a lot more overlap, and although Rs like to call Ds socialists these days, I think real socialists would be somewhat to the lower left of the blue circle,” he wrote. “I’m not sure where Eisenhower would fall — possibly on the right side of the blue circle, maybe on the lower left of the red. In my view I am probably on the upper right edge of the blue circle, at least in my role as a state rep.”

It seemed to be a pretty good representation of Kansas. Notably absent were the communists and fascists some of us have been calling each other lately. I felt calmer just looking at it.

I asked if he feels especially lonely in the Legislature.

“It’s been the most challenging year for me so far,” said Highberger, who’s been in office since 2015.

“There are great people on both sides of the aisle and a lot of people I’m in solidarity with on my side of the aisle,” he said. “The reason I’m here is to try to make life better for working people. It’s not to lower taxes.”

That definitely sounds radical in Kansas.

“It’s sort of a mantra for some people here, but if you believe lower taxes by themselves created prosperity, people in places like Mississippi and Afghanistan would be economic powerhouses and Sweden and Massachusetts would be depressed,” he said.

“Having good infrastructure, education and a safety net — I think Eisenhower understood that,” he said. “The Republican Party of the ‘50s understood that. They were certainly more conservative than I am, but we weren’t as far apart as I and some of my colleagues are now.”

Most of them, but maybe not all.

After his speech on Tuesday, Highberger said, “a couple of moderate members of the Republican caucus said they enjoyed it.”

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