Hutchinson — Voters in Salina and Hutchinson rejected ordinances offering legal protection from discrimination to members of the gay community.
At 10 p.m. Tuesday, with about 80 percent of the vote counted, Awaken Hutchinson, which had fought the anti-discrimination measure saying it was unnecessary, declared victory. The proposed ordinance was defeated, 58 to 42 percent. “It’s looking like a good, clean win,” said Paul Waggoner, a businessman who helped lead the effort against the anti-discrimination ordinance.
“It’s clear we have a lot more educating to do,” said Jon Powell, who, along with the Kansas Equality Coalition, led the group that tried to get the issue passed.
In Salina, voters repealed a five-month-old ordinance that had given legal protection to gay and lesbian residents. Unofficial results show the ordinance was repealed 54 to 46 percent.
It had required landlords, any vendor who works for the city, and city parks and buildings to adhere to the anti-discrimination policy.
In Hutchinson, Powell, who has led the effort to gain protections for gay people in the workplace, housing and public places, argued that the ballot measure would prevent people from being fired or having landlords refuse to rent to them because of their sexual orientation.
But Waggoner and others argued that people already have all the protections they need under current state and local laws. And with Hutchinson’s long history of people being good to each other, including people who are different, many wondered why it was necessary to put the community through a wrenching, divisive campaign, Waggoner said.
It has made sense in the past to enact government laws to protect the disabled, Waggoner said, and to protect people from discrimination because of race or ethnic origin. But those are classes of people, he said. “But sexual behavior is a personal characteristic, not a class,” he said. “It would be terrible public policy to treat it as such.”
It would ensnare employers in yet one more slippery regulation, he said. It would open a danger to employers of being sued if they said anything that could be construed as critical of gays, including if they uttered the criticism in the context of voicing their religious beliefs, or in voicing opinions that freedom of speech entitles them to make, he said.
Waggoner posed a question that he said Powell and the rest of the Kansas Equality Coalition never adequately answered: Why was the ballot issue and the rancor it caused even necessary, considering how decent and welcoming that Hutchinson residents are to each other? “There is an absolute zero history here of anyone being harmed because of their sexual orientation,” Waggoner said.
But Powell, who is openly gay, said that is not true. And he said he would not relate any specific stories of persecution or discrimination because there are no protections in the state of Kansas or the city of Hutchinson for people who have been persecuted, or taunted, or evicted, or fired. That fear hampered them throughout the months that the two sides argued, Powell said. Most of the stories he’s heard, he said, are coming from people who don’t want anyone else to know — because they have none of the protections the ballot issue would have given them.
A few minutes after Powell and his group conceded defeat, President Obama was declared the winner by a national TV network. “Thank God,” Powell said. “That’s how we’re going to get our rights now.”
Little common ground
In the run-up to the election in Hutchinson, neither side found much common ground.
“Both sides talked past each other,” Waggoner said. “It was as though they were speaking two languages mutually incomprehensible, like Greek and German.”
The two sides disagreed strenuously; both were surprised at the level of anger they saw and said the rancor was startling.
Waggoner said Hutchinson is known for its neighborliness. Though Powell did not agree with nearly anything else Waggoner and his allies have said, Powell agreed with that. Powell said that he’d never personally felt discriminated against in his hometown, although he said he hadn’t lived in Hutchinson for all 47 of his years.
“Hutchinson really is a good town with lots of good people in it,” he said.
But neighborliness may be diminished now. People from both sides said cruel, insensitive things and carped over every detail, including, in recent days, theft of political yard signs advocating for differing freedoms. "Vote Yes – for fairness." "Vote No – Protect religious liberty."
“The Kansans Equality Coalition pitch has been “Oh, poor us, we are so persecuted,” Waggoner said. “But I’ve lost count of the yard signs stolen from our side, probably close to 150. And that involves criminal trespass, theft — and a low-grade form of bullying.”
But Powell said his side lost a lot of yard signs too, and that most of the gay-rights group is made up of people in their 40s who are not in any physical shape to go running through yards and stealing.
Twenty-one states and 400 cities have measures offering protection to gay and lesbian residents. The federal government offers no such protections.
The Salina City Commission passed an ordinance in May, and it went into effect in June, providing protection from discrimination. However, petitions were circulated over the summer calling for the city either to repeal the ordinance or put it on the ballot.
Voter turnout in Salina was good, driven in part by the repeal effort, said Saline County clerk Don Merriman.
Lawrence is the only city in Kansas with a blanket anti-discrimination ordinance shielding the lesbian and gay community.
Wichita City Council members were asked in the spring to consider a similar ordinance that would broaden gay, lesbian and bisexual rights. But there is little sentiment on the council to take it up. Vice Mayor Janet Miller said the ordinance is not needed because she believes it would duplicate state law, and issues governed by the Kansas Human Rights Commission.
Contributing: Bill Wilson and Fred Mann of The Wichita Eagle