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Swanson finds himself in a changed district

By Bill Felber

The newest member of the area’s legislative delegation — and the only one guaranteed to still be in office during the 2013 session — is a three-term incumbent who suddenly finds himself a minority in a substantially shifted district.

Vern Swanson didn’t expect it to turn out that way when a three-judge federal panel assumed the task of redistricting the Kansas Legislature that the Legislature itself failed to accomplish.

“I was pretty sure my district would look like what the House had originally passed in a bipartisan manner,” Swanson said. That would have left his own home district focused on Clay, northern Geary County and Fort Riley.

Swanson was as wrong in that assumption as everybody else. The 64th House district devised by the judges and made public about 10 days ago replaced Swanson’s Geary County constituency with constituents in Riley County. Not counting soldiers who live on the Riley County portion of the post, there are 6,000 Riley Countians in Swanson’s new district, nearly as many as live in Clay County.

“It’s a different dynamic for me,” said Swanson, who acknowledged that like most everybody else he’s still trying to learn precisely where the boundaries of new district are. “Clay County has always influenced (the district) because we’ve had the most votes,” he said.

Swanson at least gets one break that many incumbents won’t get this year: He is unopposed for re-election, giving him two years to become a more familiar figure in a district that now stretches from Ogden up to Clifton and from Oak Hill to Randolph.

Around Topeka, Swanson is no stranger. Elected in 2006, he easily won re-election in 2008, then in 2010 he ran unopposed in November after winning a primary contest with 55 percent of the vote. He earned his reputation in Clay Center during a dozen years of service on the USD 379 Board of Education. He’s been involved with the Lions Club, the Clay County Arts Center, the parish council of his church, Pawnee Mental Health center, and the Emporia State University Alumni Association.

Pegging him politically is a little tougher. Swanson characterizes himself as “moderately conservative,” a term that sort of straddles the divide that marked the Republican Party during the 2012 session. He accepts the label of “pro-life,” but in a broader context than the “anti-abortion” interpretation usually attached to that term. “I am also pro-education, and I’m against the death penalty,” he said. “I’m pro-life in the sense of making for a better life.”

There is a maverick element to him. During the 2011-12 session, Swanson was the seventh most likely Republican House member to vote against the majority of Republicans, doing so 11.12 percent of the time…which is to say roughly as often as most House Democrats.

He voted with area conservative Republicans Sharon Schwartz of Washington and Richard Carlson of St. Marys 85.9 and 83.6 percent of the time respectively, about as often as he voted with House Speaker Mike O’Neal. Yet he voted with Tom Phillips more than 93 percent of the time.

The alliances he formed on individual votes were equally hard to categorize. He joined with Phillips and Schwartz in March to help defeat a House proposal in congressional redistricting that was supported by Carlin and Carlson. But in May he joined Phillips, Carlson and Schwartz to help pass a legislative redistricting proposal opposed by Carlin. A week later he joined Carlin in opposing a proposed constitutional amendment that would have restated the legislative power to determine spending on school finance. Carlson, Schwartz and Phillips all supported the proposal. Later in the session, skeptical that Gov. Brownback’s proposed reduction on income tax rates would stimulate private business to the extent proponents thought it would, he joined Phillips and Carlin in unsuccessfully opposing adoption of a conference committee proposal to enact that plan. Carlson and Schwartz supported the measure, which passed 68-48. “I hope the Governor’s tax reduction plan, as proposed, works,” he said. “We do need to have more jobs created in our rural communities.”

He also joined Schwartz, Carlin and Phillips in opposing changes to the implementation date of the controversial voter ID bill.

Swanson thinks his vote against the education spending amendment may illustrate his governmental philosophy. He said he does not take issue with the legislature’s right and responsibility to make spending decisions related to education. “The Constitution is very clear it’s the Legislature’s job to do the appropriating, he said. His objection was to use the Constitutional amendment process to send a political message to the court. “I didn’t see any reason to make it clearer,” he said. “I don’t like messing with the Constitution.”

As disappointed as Swanson was with the outcome of the session’s failed effort to redraw legislative boundaries, he also isn’t ready to chuck that responsibility over to a bipartisan commission as has been done in more than two dozen states. “It’s still a legislative responsibility,” he said. “It will be 10 years from now, too. We just need to do a better job of it.”

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