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When state Rep. Gail Finney, a Democrat from Wichita, died in August, her successor Ford Carr knew that she left big shoes to fill. So much so that Carr has a pair of women’s shoes — presumably Finney’s, but Carr didn’t confirm this when The Beacon asked him — displayed in his office, a dedication from him to Finney engraved in the base.
“One day I hope to fill these with the same grace, class and respect as yourself,” the plaque reads.
Carr took office with Finney’s blessing, and without a challenger.
Many residents of the 84th House District, including those who are involved in local politics, expected whomever Finney selected to fill her shoes to faithfully uphold her legacy.
“Gail Finney was a colleague and friend and I trusted her wholly and implicitly,” said former USD 259 school board member Ben Blankley, a 13-year resident of the district. Blankley said that Finney was “a tremendous reliable ally to LGBTQ+ people for a long, long time” and consistently voted against bills that targeted trans people in her 13 years in office.
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.”
It was thought by most who watch Topeka closely that Carr’s defecting vote might have given Republicans the vetoproof majority they needed to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of the bill. Carr was the first Democrat in three years to vote in favor of the measure from either chamber.
Following five weeks of scrutiny over his unexpected vote on HB 2238, Carr changed his mind and voted to uphold the veto. As he explained his vote while speaking on the floor, he supports the principle of it but took issue with technicalities.
“I don’t believe it’s fair for young men and young ladies to compete in sports where there is a definite physical and biological difference,” Carr said. “However, that being said, I have issue with those small children that will be included in this bill.”
Kelly’s veto was overridden by Republicans anyway, when another Democrat, Rep. Marvin Robinson from Kansas City, cast the critical 84th vote needed to meet the required two-thirds majority. Robinson had earlier voted against the bill.
Carr’s unexpected initial vote for HB 2238, has raised questions about where he stands on other policies that would impact lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Kansans. 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. Kelly vetoed SB 180 on April 20, and the Legislature may attempt to override the veto after they reconvene April 26.
Carr’s initial vote for HB 2238 “makes me very worried about his position on any future LGBTQ+ aimed legislation, of which every year, there is always something negative,” Blankley said.
So far, opinions on whether Carr is able to truly fill Finney’s shoes seem to be mixed among the constituents who spoke with The Beacon. Chief among the concerns of people who live in the 84th District: Who is Carr speaking with, if not them?
Little communication with constituents
It’s unclear what, if any, effort Carr made to determine his constituents’ opinions on legislation that targets trans people. Before he switched his position, The Beacon asked Carr about how he sought feedback from his constituents, and how he determined that he was representing their interests by supporting bills like HB 2238 and SB 180 — the opposite determination reached by Finney, despite having represented the same district.
Carr wouldn’t answer The Beacon’s questions directly, either in person or sent through a spokesperson for House Democratic leadership. Carr did not respond to multiple interview requests, nor would he allow a Beacon reporter to ask substantive questions during an attempt to interview him at the state Capitol. Instead, he challenged the premise of this story and criticized The Beacon for interviewing constituents who are involved in local politics.
“What you’ll find is that those voters will feel a certain way, because they’re protecting their own interests,” Carr said. “If you’re going to go to my district, I would request before we speak any further that you speak to those that are the majority of my district, (who) aren’t politically affiliated.”
Carr didn’t make the rounds during campaign season to meet with prominent Democrats in Sedgwick County, Blankley said.
“There were no events Ford attended that I knew of during the November 2022 election season,” Blankley said. “I also went to the county, congressional and state reorganization meetings for the Kansas Democratic Party over the last few months, and I didn’t see him at any of those either, when I did see many other elected Democrats.”
No 84th District residents who spoke with The Beacon could recall any constituent communication from Carr — no legislative updates, no events or meet-and-greets where residents could voice their concerns, no email newsletters. No opportunities for Carr’s constituents to get to know him, or for Carr to get to know the people he represents.
“I just really feel out of touch with him,” said Cathy Ehmke, a retiree who has lived in the district for 12 years with her husband, Forrest. “I remember getting stuff from Gail Finney on a regular basis and during the legislative session.”
Beyond corresponding with them, Carr’s constituents would like to see him out in the community.
“If he could come down and visit his district, that would be great,” said Marcus Butler, who works in tech support from his home in the 84th District, where he has lived for four years. “It’d be great if he came down here (to 13th and Grove) and saw they took the grocery store away, while he’s worried about the political environment.”
“I would like to talk to him,” said Lee Moore, a lifelong Wichitan who has lived in the 84th District for eight years. Moore is a custodial department chair for the school district and organizes union efforts for USD 259 custodial staff. “I want to understand his point of view, why he feels that way. He also needs to realize you can’t speak for everybody if you have not talked to these people. How are you speaking for everybody if you have not talked to everybody?”
Carr did post on Facebook once ahead of the House vote on HB 2238, surveying his followers. It was the closest thing to an engagement effort his constituents could recall. The post was on Carr’s personal Facebook page — not his legislative Facebook page — asking his followers if it is fair to allow trans girls to compete in girls’ sports. The handful of comments under the post at the time of the vote were split, and it is unclear how many of those who responded live in the 84th District.
Constituents who spoke with The Beacon said they knew little about Carr and didn’t pay much attention to him until he cast his surprising vote in support of HB 2238.
It was then that some constituents started reaching out to Carr. The Ehmkes began emailing Carr to encourage him to change his mind. It was the first time either of them felt it necessary to contact their state representative.
“(When) our representative was Gail Finney, we were very comfortable with how she voted, we kept track of how she voted,” said Cathy, a retired mediator who studied social work. “We just never felt the need to contact her because it was like, OK, she’s doing what we agree with and what we want her to do.”
“Since learning of his vote on this particular issue, I’ve emailed him a couple of times,” said Forrest, a retired hospital social worker who ran a child protection team.
Representing a diverse district
Carr’s lack of direct engagement with much of his district has some of his constituents questioning his interest in understanding their needs.
Carr told The Beacon that he considers it a priority to represent his Black constituents.
“I represent the largest number of African Americans in (Sedgwick) county, so I have to be certain that I keep that constituency in mind,” Carr said.
Following the HB 2238 veto override vote, he posted on Facebook that his change in vote was inspired by his concern specifically for Black female student athletes.
“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.”
The district has the highest proportion of Black voters in Sedgwick County and the third-highest in the state, exceeded only by two districts in Wyandotte County. By a single percentage point, the neighboring 89th House District, represented by Democrat K.C. Ohaebosim since 2017, has a slightly smaller proportion of Black voters.
Just over 30% of the 84th District’s residents are Black, while about 40% are white; more than 10% are multiracial and around 20% are Spanish-speaking, according to the most recent legislative district data.
Demographics alone can’t explain Carr’s defecting vote from his predecessor, Gail Finney, who also prioritized giving voice to her Black constituents. The district’s demographics have not changed since she represented it.
Three people who spoke with The Beacon say they think that faith communities may be influencing Carr’s vote.
“I don’t know who he’s hearing from, but I kind of suspect it’s some people from conservative churches,” Cathy Ehmke said.
Esau Freeman said that when he asked Carr how he hears from his constituents, Carr said he listens to churches. “There are a lot of churches in the community who preach against inclusion of people within the LGBTQ community,” he said.
Carr told The Beacon in the brief Capitol interview that he hears from faith leaders in the district, but said that he doesn’t prioritize churches over his other constituents.
“I’m not a member of a church, so I can’t be (prioritizing) my church,” he told The Beacon. “I’m not a member, but I do have members of the religious community in my district.”
Carr’s constituents emphasized that Carr’s vote should reflect the spectrum of his constituents, not only those of a particular faith.
“He’s got a lot of constituents of a lot of different races and belief systems,” Freeman said. “If he cannot be the advocate for all those people, then, you know, I’m sure somebody else will be happy to throw their hat in the ring.”
But no one threw a hat in the ring last year. Carr ran unopposed in both the primary and general elections. Carr previously told The Beacon that he took office at Finney’s request because no one else ran.
“I can tell you who would have run besides me. I have that answer, unequivocally. No one,” Carr told The Beacon last August. “If Gail didn’t ask me to run, without question, I wouldn’t have run.”
Being a state legislator is a full-time job for only a few months of the year, which may contribute to the lack of interest in taking on the position. Carr told The Beacon in August that he expects to lose about a third of his income to be present in Topeka during the legislative session.
“Not everyone has the latitude to remove themselves from their places of employment for a period of time, especially a period of time that’s as excessive as this,” Carr said.
Moore, Carr’s constituent, said he hopes that the community can get past divisive issues and work together to benefit everyone.
“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican or third party, at the end of the day we all have to work together in order to make this work and run properly,” Moore said.
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