Kansas can take a tornado and beat off a Snow job at the same time

By Shauna Shindler Ballo of Portland, Oregon. Shauna is a native Kansan who is currently the campaign communications director at SEIU Local 49.

I'm a fifth-generation Kansan who's lived in exile in Portland for almost eight years. I've been riveted by the stories of the EF-5 tornado that leveled Greensburg, Kansas over the weekend.

President Bush toured the disaster area today, five days after the tornado hit. Apparently, he's decided that Katrina was a good model for responding to disasters like this and is following the same approach: blame the governor and "stay out of the way" of rescue efforts for several days. Poor Bushie. A natural disaster finally hits an area populated by white Republicans, and much to his horror he discovers that even in Kansas his approval ratings are in the tank, and he'll have to face a Democrat governor and a Democrat state representative on the tour.

It's true that I left Kansas, as many liberal Kansans do, to seek bluer pastures. But I've spent much of the last decade explaining to people that there really isn't anything the matter with Kansas, that it's actually more politically balanced than you might guess.

While less than a third of the population is registered Democrat, the state has a long tradition of choosing candidates on their merit (at least on the statewide and local levels), and more and more of the population is registering unaffiliated as they become disenchanted with the increasingly right-wing Republican party. The last election cycle proved that, with the reelection of Governor Kathleen Sebelius and the election of Democrats like Attorney General Paul Morrison and Congresswoman Nancy Boyda.

But Democrats have been doing okay in Kansas for longer than you'd guess. When I heard of the tornado, I pored over the news to find a mention of Dennis McKinney, the Kansas House Minority leader, who lives in Greensburg. McKinney rode out the storm in a basement bathtub with his daughter while the tornado leveled his home overhead. Then he managed to pull a few survivors from the wreckage, including his neighbor and her one-year old child.

I worked with McKinney for a few years when I worked for the caucus in the late 90's. He's one of those guys who's got a smile and a funny story for everyone he sees. A guy who irons his wrangler jeans and actually wears a cowboy hat to the office everyday.

He's been in the Kansas House for 15 years, representing a district that's only about 23% registered Democrat. They reelect him every year, and even stopped running candidates against him, not because southwest Kansas is swinging blue but because Dennis is a smart guy who's nice to everyone. Because he's the kind of guy who is the same person on main street that he is in the state capitol building.

Governor Sebelius is getting national play for calling attention to the fact that the Kansas national guard could really use the troops and equipment that are unfortunately occupied in Iraq right now. The White House immediately went on the attack and claimed Sebelius never asked for supplies. But yet even with toady Sen. Sam Brownback backing up the White House, I think Katrina finger-pointing will hold water in Kansas about as well as a New Orleans levy. The public may be, sadly, willing to believe a little corruption was at play in New Orleans, but I don't think Kansas are going to believe Bush over folks like Dennis McKinney and Kathleen Sebelius.

As they say in Kansas, that dog just wont hunt.

  • Kitty (unverified)

    We're fortunately a little further down the road than we were when Katrina hit. People have begun waking up (thanks in no small part to Katrina), and so perhaps are more on guard for the "snow job".

    This is the second time in as many days that I have read something to this effect: A natural disaster finally hits an area populated by white Republicans. This time I can't let it go by without correction, especially since it bears directly on the subject of this blog.

    The focus of the media has been on New Orleans, so people tend to forget that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was ground zero for Katrina. The Gulf Coast was wiped out by a thirty-foot storm surge (that's a thirty-foot tsunami) as well as massive tornadoes. I mean "wiped out" literally. I was living there at the time so have firsthand knowledge. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway), Mississippi is among the reddest of the red states.

    People suffered there in the days right after Katrina and are still suffering. That's several hundred thousand people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast whose lives were totally disrupted by a major natural disaster. Having Bush-buddy Haley Barbour as governor didn't do a heck of a lot of good in the first days after the storm, and IMO it isn't doing a heck of a lot now. Some people there have woken up to the truth, but incredibly, a lot still think Bush walks on water. (Pardon the unfortunate pun there.)

    The aftermath of Katrina and the total inability of our governmental entities to handle it (on all levels, from local to federal) affected liberal as well as conservative areas, rich, middle class, and poor people, across the board. I am still not sure what conclusions to draw from it all.

  • Dan (unverified)

    Sorry to nitpick, but Kansas has a Democratic governor, not a Democrat governor. Same goes for the congresswoman, etc.

  • anonymous (unverified)

    How come you are living "in exile"?

  • ben (unverified)

    From a fifth-generation (for all intents and purposes) Oregonian exiled in Kansas:

    To judge by the papers, I suspect that Gov. Sebelius, to her credit, rarely passes up any opportunity to assert publicly that the Kansas Guard needs to come home, stay home, and get re-equipped... but for Iraq.

    And Dubya's in Kansas for a photo op today, while from the looks of it the recovery work is being undertaken by firefighters and Red Cross volunteers from all over. Apart from the photo op the only mention of the federal government's assistance (that I can find) addresses applications for funds. In summary, Greensburg's good enough for publicity but not good enough to throw in some help. Okayhmmyeah.

    I'd be angry, except that I'm far too jaded anymore.

  • Randy M (unverified)

    Shauna, I am a native Kansan. I notice in your column that you claim the Bush administration was using the same "blame the governor approach" with the Greensburg tornado as they did with the Katrina disaster. That is not what happened here. You need to get your story straight on both disasters. Kathleen Sebelius is the one who started the blame game here, and that's how I remember the situation with Louisiana's governor too. There are more than a few people out here that are upset at the way our Democrat governor made this a political issue to get political brownie points from her party. We don't need that crap here! Yes, there were Republican senators and congressmen there too. But, I didn't here or see them point out blame. Lets not make it political!

  • ben (unverified)

    Given the events to which Randy M and I have referred obliquely, it appears that the feds are absent because Sebelius hasn't asked¹ them to show up with bells on. Okay, fine... but I don't think that oversight was a deliberate attempt to score political points at the expense of the White House, if only because she would get skewered were that the case. If the Feds really wanted to be there, they'd be there.

    Instead the feds are settling for the photo op, so the recovery personnel who are there got to hassle with having the frackin' President of the United States underfoot all afternoon. I'm sure that did just tons of good. </sarcasm>

    ¹  See the THOMAS summary of Public Law 93-288, which implies strongly that any request for Federal involvement in disaster response must originate with the governor of the state in which any number of affected areas are located.

  • MNeumann (unverified)

    Sigh. Bush always has an excuse for why it's not his fault.

    Did the people of Iraq ask for us to be there? Are they asking for us to stay - or is Bush doing that on his own initiative?

  • Shauna Ballo (unverified)

    As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I've read news accounts that make it clear that a) the feds are there - FEMA is on the scene, b) Sebelius did ask the federal govt repeatedly for more national guard equipment, and that C) she doesn't suggest the lack of equipment caused any problems with the disaster response (unlike the completely different situation after Katrina). I was flippant about W's state of mind, but didn't mean to be flippant about the situation in Kansas or in the Gulf. I don't believe Kathleen is making this sad occasion political, merely pointing out the obvious that she'd like her Guard troops to be properly equipped, whether for war or for natural disaster.

  • jonno (unverified)

    It's disturbing to see the subtle insult of "Democrat" substituted for "Democratic" on this blog by persons who are obviously sympathetic to the Democratic Party. Folks, the use of "Democrat Party" and its derivatives is a subtle way to rob Democrats of the ability to choose how they are called.

    It is a subtle, insidious insult dreamed up by right-wing mass communicators.

    As for the rest of the article, right on. You'd think they would learn, but incomptence seems to be a core GOP value. Or at least a significant byproduct...

  • ben (unverified)

    Shauna, thanks for referring to news sources that speak in more detail for the federal response. I haven't been going out of my way to look, so kansas.com is pretty much my single stop for this stuff; the Journal World has been fairly silent since the weekend, but that's far from unusual given the circumstances.

    Point is, if you've got links, please post 'em here. Unless it's against site policy to point out when the Administration does something right.

    ...And after posting my last comment, I read in another source that applications to FEMA for assistance are out of the question unless a disaster is declared, which per the last comment is out of the question unless a state governor declares a disaster. Later I realized that I got tripped up by the Snow quote in the Eagle article to the effect that Sebelius hadn't asked. In other words, <strong<tony snow="" was="" going="" out="" of="" his="" way="" to="" be="" disingenuous<="" strong=""> and, um, a flaming asshole. Which is, of course, the implication of the title of this post. D'oh.

    So I figured that I'd let someone else set the earlier comment straight, which you did more or less.

  • ben (unverified)

    And now, for a Copyediting Moment:

    "governor declares a disaster" in the last comment should read "governor requests a disaster declaration." D'oh twice.

  • Randy M (unverified)

    Shauna, Go to wcbstv.com. There was an interview of Mike Swigart on that website. Please read what he says about the response and about Katleen Sebelius's remarks. He and his family were amoung the survivors at Greensburg. There was no shortage of response personel, and the response time was very fast in his words.

    I don't know why you complain about Bush visiting Greensburg. I'm sure you would have had a complaint had he not done so. Would Bill Clinton have done anything different? I don't think so. It's what presidents do. It's what they are expected to do. But, if Bill Clinton would have done the same thing in the same situation, I doubt there would be any words of disaproval from you. So yes, you are making it political, and yes, Katleen Sebelius made it political with her remarks.

  • ben (unverified)

    To each his own - not only in the second person, but the third. Why do I point this out?

    All the cred Bush built up over Sept. 11th evaporated after Katrina, so now, as a citizen of the Republic, I want to see actions speaking louder than words.

    What is the federal government doing in Greensburg beyond throwing money at problems? If that's all, is it enough?

    Clinton suffered from the same dynamic after the Sudan cruise missile attack - everybody accused him of ordering it not only in retaliation for the Nairobi embassy bombing, but because it would distract everybody from the fallout of his deposition to the independent prosecutor. And on it went; until he avoided impeachment, Clinton's policy announcements were scrutinized in the context of how much distraction it would provide from the Whitewater and perjury issues.

    I didn't see that as unfair skepticism at the time, nor do I now, and guess what? The Republicans shouldn't consider their man immune to the same skepticism.

    ...And no, I don't object to the idea that Bush went, just that he showed up even before everyone was accounted for and at the same time that his press secretary was slinging shit at Gov. Sebelius.

  • Chris McMullen (unverified)

    "...at the same time that his press secretary was slinging shit at Gov. Sebelius."

    Because Democrat Sebelius used a tragedy to further the leftist Bush-bashing agenda. She's full of shit and Snow was calling her out.

    "Swigart says the general feeling around the town is that residents were overwhelmed by the immediate response, and that the governor's fuss was for her own good. White House press secretary Tony Snow responded to Sebelius by saying that there was no request by Kansas officials for extra equipment, and that if there is anyone to blame, it's her."


    Tell me what's worse; the President touring a devastated area, or a governor using a natural disaster to push an agenda.

  • Shauna Ballo (unverified)

    A few responses:

    I don't have time to scour the news either, but my source for saying that FEMA was on-hand right away was this story: http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/05/09/kansas.bush/

    Don't believe everything you read. Sebelius HAS declared the county a state disaster area, and Bush HAS declared the area a federal disaster area.

    <h2>I never suggested Bush shouldn't go to Kansas, to the contrary, I suggested that 5 days was a long time to wait and questioned his reasoning that he wanted to "stay out of the way" of relief efforts. He didn't stay out of the way of relief efforts after 9/11. But before someone calls me out on it - I looked it up, and it seems Clinton waited as long or longer to tour the Oklahoma EF-5 tornado.</h2>
guest column

connect with blueoregon