Kansas has a long history of electing women to political office. We elected the nation’s first female mayor. We elected Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum and Governors Joan Finney and Kathleen Sebelius long before other states elected their first woman to statewide office. Kansas also has a long history in public power, with 118 municipal electric utilities operating across all parts of Kansas, both rural and urban, large and small. The majority have served their community for more than a century.
The 2016 election cycle ushered in a wave of new women legislators in Kansas. Of the 125 members of the Kansas House, 32 are women and the Kansas Senate boasts 15 women legislators among its 40 members – including the Senate President. Kansas Municipal Utilities wanted to celebrate the new high-water mark of women in public service in the Kansas Statehouse.
Shortly after the opening of the 2017 Legislative Session, KMU, along with three other public power entities in Kansas, hosted the first ever “Leading Edge Women” dinner for Kansas legislators. KMU reached out to its sister organizations, Kansas Municipal Energy Agency and Kansas Power Pool as well as its largest member, Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, to help sponsor the event. KCBPU’s then board chair was a woman, and KMU was preparing to pass the chairmanship of its board of directors to Deb Ary with the City of Wichita – making Deb the second woman in KMU’s 85-year history to chair the board.
The evening was significant in that it was the first time all women legislators from both the house and the senate — Republican and Democrat — came together for an event. I was honored to host the non-political and non-partisan event at my home. Renee Kelly, a well-known chef who appeared as a contestant on Top Chef, catered the dinner. Three additional featured guest speakers included Valerie Nicholson-Watson, the CEO of Harvesters, one of the nation’s largest community food networks; Gail Discus, a top business professional who spoke about women’s heart health; and Wendy Doyle, CEO of the Women’s Foundation, which works to promote women in public service. All four women spoke about the importance of work/life balance, women’s health, and how to empower and encourage other women to get involved in their community.
Interestingly, as the Kansas legislative session went well beyond its allotted 90 days (tying the record for the longest session in state history with 115 days), grappling with a calamitous budget situation, tempers flared and passable solutions were eluding the legislature. However, it was a large contingent of women from both chambers and both parties who came together and developed the framework for a workable tax plan. The work put forth by this group — the Women’s Caucus, as they called themselves — was the template for the plan that days later passed the house and senate. It was vetoed by the governor but overridden by both chambers. Members of the Women’s Caucus are now booking speaking events across the state about how and why they came together.
Watching the group of women legislators gel during session and then roll up their sleeves to find a major policy solution is perhaps the most rewarding element of working around the legislature. While public power was not a specific topic of conversation during the women’s dinner that fateful evening in January, it was evident that people want leaders who work hard to provide workable solutions for their community and are not bogged down by partisan wrangling.
Public power customers expect reliable, affordable electric service at all times. Our issues are largely non-partisan and require people to listen, think deliberately, and implement effective policies. That is what the Women’s Caucus was aptly able to accomplish.
KMU, KMEA, KPP, and BPU were proud to provide an opportunity for lawmakers to get to know each other early in session. We hope the dinner served as a building block to forge many new leaders and we hope the Leading Edge Women’s Dinner will become an annual gathering.