In the farm and ranch country southeast of Abilene, Kansas, people live peaceful, small-town lives. In communities like Burdick, population 60, the politics are bedrock Republican and the elections are personal, neighbor-to-neighbor affairs. But life is changing rapidly in plains towns like Burdick, whose populations are aging as the towns themselves get smaller. Ask anyone in Burdick and they’ll tell you the turning point came when the local high school was closed.
So it’s no surprise when rancher-lawyer Bill Kassebaum, himself a father with deep roots in the area, decides to run for State Congress from District 68 on a platform of supporting schools as the key to rural revival. But having a sensible proposal and being the scion of Kansas’s best-known Republican family are hardly a guarantee that his campaign won’t sound like a quixotic adventure. In order to support the schools, he has to tilt his lance at the biggest political windmill of all, and propose raising taxes. In “Bill’s Run: A Political Journey in Rural Kansas,” Kassebaum’s filmmaker brother, Richard, takes us along for a blow-by-blow account.
Burdick used to have three grocery stores, two banks and a meat market, as well as rodeos on most Saturdays. As is often true in rural America, the local high school, Diamond Valley High, served as a social center for the whole town. Today, only the meat market survives.
The high school stands boarded up and abandoned. If a shrinking educational system is not the chief cause of decline in rural areas like District 68, it has come to be seen as the most visible effect and chief accelerator of that decline. More importantly, lack of good schools is regarded as the chief obstacle to taking advantage of a promising demographic trend: young families seeking small-town environments in which to raise their kids.
Bill Kassebaum is a moderate Republican whose love for Kansas and concern for his two daughters’ future in the state led him to do something radical — challenge a sitting Republican who was also the State House Majority Leader. Though he was a prosecutor as well as a rancher, and a third-generation descendant of the Alf Landon dynasty that dominated the state from the 1930s through the ’90s, the success of Kassebaum’s campaign seemed anything but certain.
Left: Shari Weber.
As revealed in Bill’s Run, Kansas is a place where the moderate Republicanism of Bill’s grandfather Alf Landon, who served as the state’s Governor in the ’30s and ran for President against Roosevelt, has long since been eclipsed. The temper of the Republican-dominated electorate is much more attuned to the right-wing ideology of Bill’s opponent, Shari Weber, than to the old-line Republicanism of Bill’s mother, Nancy Kassebaum, who served as Kansas’s highly visible senator from 1978-1997. Weber makes “family values,” an anti-abortion stance and the war on terror the central issues of her public appeal, and adheres to the “no new taxes” mantra of the Republican Right. She not only would never raise taxes to support schools, she is inclined to trim the state’s already tight education budget.
Bill’s Run follows the circuit of county fairs, community picnics, door-to-door canvassing and candidates’ nights that make up the political rounds in rural Kansas, and also introduces us to a cast of wonderfully candid characters who reveal just how up-close and personal rural politics can be. There’s the gas station owner who likes the incumbent but who admits that he’ll probably vote for Bill because the candidate has always paid his bills on time, and the elderly lady who knows it will be a tough contest because she has experienced the kindness of both candidates’ families. For these voters, personal integrity counts.
Something even more interesting emerges in Bill’s Run. As Bill gamely makes the rounds, finding friendly faces but skepticism about his “liberal” proposals and the jocular condescension usually reserved for lost causes, District 68’s rural constituency unites around the issue of education. They also reveal why all politics are local. These Kansans may have their ideological views and principles — among which hating taxes is near the top — but they aren’t going to discount the evidence of their own eyes. Without schools, their communities face a bleak future.
“Bill’s Run: A Political Journey in Rural Kansas” is an extended portrait of heartland America wrestling with the American way of democracy: one that goes well beyond the snapshots of campaign news reporting.
“Given my brother’s stubborn nature, I knew that sparks would fly,” says filmmaker Richard Kassebaum. “His campaign really put him at odds with many of his friends and neighbors and the leadership of the Republican Party. In ‘Bill’s Run,’ I wanted to explore those everyday issues that can divide a rural community and, more importantly, those that can bring people together. I wanted to capture the flavor of small-town plains democracy in action.”
A POV 2004 Election Issue Special.