It was a tough first year for freshman state representatives Ford Carr and Marvin Robinson. Both, who arrived in Topeka with endorsements from their long-serving Democratic predecessors, were expected to uphold their legacy.

But somewhere, for both, things went awry and by the end of the 2023 Kansas legislative session, their integrity and effectiveness was in question.

Both in their freshmen year, how did things get so bad that by the end of the Kansas legislative session, newcomer Ford Carr from Wichita felt compelled to rise to the floor of the House and proclaim freshman representative Marvin Robinson from Kansas City a “House Negro”? Ford Carr, an engineer by trade and a quiet but committed community supporter, was hand-picked by retiring state Rep. Gail Finney to fill what Carr admits were “large shoes.”

Finney, a Democrat, was beloved by her constituents in Kansas’ 84th District, in Northeast Wichita. In the district, which is 30% Black, Finney was constantly at work in, and for, her district.

Robinson, a Navy veteran, is known in Kansas City, KS, for his work to save the ruins of Quindaro, a historic town along the Missouri River that was known for welcoming slaves crossing from Missouri to freedom. Long-serving state Rep. Broderick Henderson, who happened to be Robinson’s cousin, endorsed him to represent the 35th District in Northeast KCK. The 35th District, and neighboring 34th District, have the highest proportion of Black voters in the state.

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Henderson was a relatively low-key legislator but was a strong Democrat who could be counted on to consistently support Democratic issues in the capitol. Based on Henderson’s endorsement and the legacy of Robinson’s mother Verdis, who had been a Black Democratic powerhouse in Wyandotte County, Robinson was expected to be a strong and loyal Democratic representative in Topeka.

The Session: Carr

In his first few months in office, Carr gave no reason for his constituents to doubt him. Though his constituents told The Beacon he didn’t communicate with them as much as Finney had, he flew under the radar and escaped the notice of many in Topeka and back home in his district.

But in February, Carr caught his constituents off guard when he cast a vote that broke from both his party and his predecessor as the lone Democrat to join Republicans in support of House Bill 2238.

The bill restricts trans students’ participation in school sports, a bill Finney opposed and voted against every opportunity she had. “I respected Gail Finney very much,” said union representative and Democratic precinct committeeman Esau Freeman, who has lived in the district for around 30 years. “I guess I never would have thought that a person who she tapped to do this job would stray so far from some of the things that we really cherished in her.”

Carr was the first Democrat in three years to vote in favor of the measure from either chamber, the House or the Senate. He also voted in support of Senate Bill 180, which would mandate separation based on sex assigned at birth in places like domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.

The Session: Robinson

Robinson originally voted no on House Bill 2238 restricting trans students’ participation in school sports. The bill went on to pass the House and the Senate but was vetoed by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.

With a couple of Republicans not supporting the bill, the Republicans needed just one Democrat to cross over to give them the two-thirds majority they needed to override her veto.

By now, Carr had seen the light and was voting against the bill. Instead, delivering the one vote Republicans needed was Robinson, who throughout the session had begun supporting the most conservative Republican issues.

Robinson also voted in favor of Senate Bill 180 to ban trans people from single-sex spaces, such as restrooms, that don’t match their sex at birth.

During the veto session, Robinson voted consistently with Republicans.
In addition to his vote against trans athletes, and despite having been on food stamps himself, Robinson also cast a vote that helped secure a veto override on a bill creating new work requirements for food stamp assistance.

In addition, during the regular session, Robinson voted against the expansion of Medicaid, a measure, according to a recent survey, supported by 78% of Kansans.
It’s a bill that definitely would have benefited his constituents, many of whom make too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to take advantage of the subsidies available under the Affordable Health Care Act.

Why Such Conservative Voting?

Following his vote in support of Gov. Kelly’s veto of HB 2238, Carr posted on Facebook that he was inspired to change his position on the vote after talking with athletes in his district.
“In talking with families and student athletes in my district, I was made aware of issues with the bill and consequences that student athletes, specifically Black female student athletes might encounter,” Carr wrote.

“I want to be sure that whatever legislation put forth doesn’t have unintended consequences, especially for communities that have been largely left out of the conversation.”

In a conversation with The Voice, Robinson committed to sharing his reasoning for his controversial voting to us, however when we reached out to him, he did not return our calls. While some people say Robinson was won over, possibly even bribed by Republicans for his vote, that does not appear to be the case.

Robinson appears to be voting his conscience, which historically has leaned conservative, despite his strong Democratic upbringing.

Sen. David Haley (D – Kansas City) points out how Robinson has “played fast and loose with conservative Republicans for many years.” Years ago Robinson told The Voice, people in Kansas City were upset with him for supporting Overland Park Republican Kevin Yoder in his bid for Congress.

Robinson said he supported Yoder because of his sponsorship of a bill to name the Quindaro Ruins a national commemorative site. Haley pointed out Robinson’s key allegiance has always been to Quindaro.

Robinson has never been vocal on other policy issues. A devoted member of the Young Memorial Church of God in Christ, where his grandfather Rev. M.J. Young was the founding pastor, Robinson shared his conservative, faith-based leanings in an interview with the Kansas City Star.

“I thought the definition of a woman was the cradle and portal of life,” Robinson told the Star in a religious reference to a woman’s ability to bring unborn spirits into the planet.
“I found out that’s not what the definition is to the people of the Democratic Party,” said Robinson.

As an alternative to letting trans students compete in competitive sports, Robinson said he suggested to Democrats that they pursue the creation of a new intramural league as an alternative.

“It was all or none and I got to be the villain and I never would have decided to be a villain or hurt other people,” Robinson told the Star.

Democrats grew increasingly frustrated with Robinson’s votes and he said they were often “not nice” to him. Robinson says one Democrat told him to “go die” after his vote on transgender athletes.

Others, he said, talked down to him. “Some of them acted like I was too ignorant to read the legislation,” Robinson said.

Robinson said he hasn’t abandoned the Democratic Party, but he says the Democratic Party has abandoned his constituents in Northeast Wyandotte County.

“I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left our area in the shambles that it is now,” Robinson said.

The $250,000 Gift

In the final moments of the 2023 legislative session, Republican lawmakers inserted $250,000 in funding to develop a strategic plan for Robinson’s pet project, the Quindaro Ruins.

Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican and vice chair of the Senate budget committee, said he asked for the Quindaro funding to be included because he wanted to give Robinson “a win in his first year since he was clearly being treated poorly by some select individuals.”
Democrats clearly saw it as a payback to Robinson for his votes throughout the session and particularly in the veto session, where his vote helped Republicans overturn Gov. Kelly’s veto.

But the governor got the last say, in what could be considered a payback to Robinson for supporting the Republicans in overturning her veto.

In her approval of the budget, the governor vetoed the $250,000 allocation.
In her message vetoing the allocation, Kelly said her administration recognizes the importance of Quindaro, which she called culturally significant, and said she would support efforts “to elevate this fundamental piece of Kansas history, but that the funding request was not properly vetted.

“Advocates should work through the proper channels to seek funding for this measure and ensure that it receives the recognition it deserves,” Kelly said.

However, Haley, whose senate district the Quindaro Ruins are in, called Kelly’s veto “shortsighted.”

“Neither the governor nor previous administrations, has done anything to enhance and to capitalize on the rich history that the Quindaro Township represents to our state,” Haley said.

The Uncle Tom Negro

In the final days of the session, things really heated up. So much so that Ford, who had, himself, originally supported the bill banning trans students in competitive sport felt the need to step up in protest of the $250,000 “payout” to Robinson.

He took the podium in the House Chambers prepared to speak his frustrations bold and clear against what he felt was Robinson’s sell out. Despite constant warnings from the House chair, Carr delivered an inflammatory speech in which he called Robinson much more than a sell out.

“What I wouldn’t trade would be a vote for something like the James Crow Esquire version of critical race theory, nor would I sacrifice the vote for Medicaid expansion, nor would I sacrifice the vote of those SNAP benefits,” Carr said. “I would never trade my vote so that … people in my neighborhood, my constituents … would never have the opportunity to look at me and think that I might be one of those house Negroes.”

That got the Republicans going as well as the Kansas City editorial board, which picked up on the comments.

All of them said Carr went too far. In an editorial response, that ran in its entirety in the Star and in an abbreviated version on page two of this issue, Carr said he wouldn’t apologize for his comments.

These types of issues aren’t new when it comes to our Black elected officials. “That’s the elephant in the room that, normally, no one is willing to mention,” Carr said. “We in the Black community know that there is a history of what we would term ‘sell-out’ behavior. It’s time that we call a thing a thing and we can’t afford to let it continue, the sacrificing of the many in exchange for the fame and/or fortune of one.

“I spoke up.”

Robinson has denied any dealmaking with GOP lawmakers.

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Bonita Gooch

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...