Editor’s note: With Republican Mitch Holmes’ decision not to file for re election in 2016, the seat for Kansas Senate Dist. 33 opened and two newcomers threw their hats into the ring. Democrat Matt Bristow, Ellinwood, and Republican Mary Jo Taylor, Stafford, were relative unknowns prior to the April primaries. As the November election draws near, the Great Bend Tribune met with both candidates to learn more about who they are, what issues they are passionate about, and what inspired them to aspire to the Senate seat. Our spotlight is on Bristow today, and on Friday, it will shift to Taylor.
ELLINWOOD – Matt Bristow, Ellinwood, believes he knows what issues are important to the millennial demographic, and that a new era of politics is on the horizon. He should, as he’s part of that demographic himself. The 32-year old criminal defense lawyer also feels passionate about serving in politics, and has been a fresh face visiting area high school government classes in recent weeks.
For the past three and a half years, he has been practicing law in Barton and surrounding counties. He represents patients and potential patients at Larned State Hospital.
His path to becoming a candidate for District 33 began at a recent Continuing Legal Education class. The speaker, a doctor who started practicing at Osawatomie State Hospital 30 years ago when it was among the top two percent in the nation, addressed the audience filled with a few politicians and several lawyers.
“He was in tears, and I don’t blame him, because Osawatomie had just been decertified,” Bristow said. “My reaction was, ‘That’s terrible.’”
Bristow handles care and treatment cases. His clients are often committed there by the courts who determine they are in eminent danger to themselves or others.
In the past three-and-a-half years he’s seen drastic changes in the state mental health system. When he started, patients were still provided outpatient treatment programs and prophylactic measures in addition to medication so there was a chance they would not end up back at the hospital right away.
Now, he said, they stay for two or three days, and receive medication before they are put right back out on the street. From there, one of two things happen. They are either lucky and a family member comes to get them, something that rarely happens, or they end up back in the hospital or in jail.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “If people could see it, they wouldn’t put up with it for one second. There’s just not enough empathy in the world. They don’t mean to have fellow Kansans treated this way, they just don’t see it with their own eyes.”
In his opinion, the lack of resources available for mental health care for these poorest of Kansans is totally a funding issue resulting from the policies of the current Brownback administration.
“Governor Sam Brownback is a person who believes government doesn’t work, rather than simply making it smaller, is ideologically bent on dismantling it and turning it over to the private sector,” he said. “I think that most people who think they agree with that sentiment, do to a degree. They feel like there’s too many regulations on them and paperwork that interferes with their Saturdays and the tax code is too complicated. But I don’t think they mean they want the schools dismantled or the state hospitals dismantled, but he does.”
Bristow doesn’t consider himself liberal. He is not opposed to privatization of some aspects of government where open competition could be beneficial. But schools, health care, prisons and jails – these, he said, should not be for-profit enterprises.
He first considered running for office after hearing a speaker closely affiliated with the most recent Brownback opponent, Paul Davis. He mentioned the possibility of becoming involved in politics with a lawyer friend involved in demographic politics. At that time, District 33 was considered tough for Democrats, with Mitch Holmes in office.
Weeks later, Holmes was in the national spotlight, under harsh criticism for a rule he had made concerning appropriate dress for witnesses testifying before the Ethics and Elections Committee, which he chairs. Bristow received a call from Tim Graham, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley’s chief of staff, who had received his name from a colleague in a neighboring district. The party was recruiting. Mitch Holmes’ seat was now considered vulnerable, and it wouldn’t be long before he announced he would not be running for reelection. Voters were increasingly upset with the effects of Brownback’s policies. Bristow was contacted by former governors Kathleen Sebelius and John Carlin.
It was pretty heady stuff. The idea of taking back Kansas was one that he really loved.
“This is the first time in I don’t know how many years that Democrats have been on the ballot in all 40 districts,” he said.
Early on, he used an anecdote about a childhood trip to the circus to explain why he felt he could succeed in a district where the majority of voters were registered Republicans.
There, he was drawn to the elephants, and asked the trainer why the elephant didn’t break the chain around its ankle and escape.
“He could,” the trainer said, “but when he was a baby elephant, he couldn’t, and we use the same chain. Because he couldn’t do it back then, he doesn’t think he can now, so he’ll never try.”
The statement stuck with him, and reinforces his belief that the only way to acheive change is to completely break away from politics as usual.
He feels being at the center of government in the counties he works for, and being legally trained are two assets he brings to the office. He came to the conclusion that, while there is no ideal time to run for office, he was ready to get out there and try.
If elected, he would spend the first two years working to repeal everything the Brownback administration has done to drive the state into near bankruptcy, he said. The following two years would be devoted to moving the state forward. A lot of that, he admits, is dependent on how willing the Legislature is to stand up to the governor.
Bristow is confident voters are ready, after many conservative Republicans lost the primaries earlier this year. He also feels that the concept of “moderate Republicans” is merely propaganda.
It’s a sentiment he echoed when asked about his opponent, Mary Jo Taylor.
“Mary Jo Taylor is a very nice woman. We both agreed to run a clean campaign and we both stuck to our word on that. The fundamental difference between us is that she has that “R” beside her name, and while that can be beneficial in this district, it can also and should be considered her biggest detriment.”
Moderate Republicans are not going to survive the Brownback administration, he added. He quoted Senate President Susan Wagle, who was quoted in a Topeka Capital Journal article earlier this month having said, “we’re all going to be one big Republican team.”
“Governor Brownback is not hoping some moderate Republicans get in so they can give him some new ideas,” Bristow said.
The only answer is to put Democrats into office, he said, whose sole mission is to fight loudly against what Brownback has done, specifically the elimination of corporate income taxes and income taxes on limited liability corporations. He opined that trickle-down economics are not taught in college, but corporate responsibility is. Corporations need to shoulder their responsibility, rather than the burden of the state’s finances being transferred to the average person through higher sales taxes and higher property taxes, he said. He believes there are better, more effective ways to incentivize the creation of jobs.
The goal, he said, is the economic health and prosperity of Kansas. He believes that he is the one candidate that can at least vocally and publicly fight for change.