Whatever your politics, it is hard not to like Matthew Calcara.
Like many Democrats seeking for office for the first time in 2018, he is a progressive who is part of what is broadly known as “the resistance.” But his campaign is one of sunny optimism, not acrimony and outrage. It comes across in his relaxed demeanor and easy smile. Matthew Calcara wants to drive change, but he is having fun and enjoying the company of his friends and family along the way.
Calcara is running for the Kansas House of Representatives in District 30, which straddles Olathe and Lenexa in suburban Kansas City. If he wins in November he will be a political trailblazer, becoming the first openly gay legislator in Kansas history.
When he announced his candidacy in May 2017, Matthew Calcara was expecting to challenge arch-conservative incumbent Randy Powell. Two events since then have turned the District 30 race on its head.
In February a second openly gay candidate, Brandon Woodward, entered the race. In a state where openly gay politicians are a relative rarity, two of them are now running against each other in a Democratic primary. Then, on June 1st, incumbent Randy Powell dropped out, leaving the race wide open to whoever wins that primary.
To our minds, this makes the Kansas 30th House District one of the more interesting State House races in the country. We asked Matthew Calcara if he would tell us more about himself and his campaign, and we were really pleased when he agreed.
The News Growl Interview: Matthew Calcara
News Growl: In the 2017 Kansas City Star article covering your candidacy announcement you are quoted as saying you want to “run against the climate of fear.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Matthew Calcara: Lately, in the national news we have been learning about these horrific child detention centers and efforts by the Trump administration to treat immigrants and refugees as inhumanely as they can. President Trump has been vilifying people from Latin America since the day he began his campaign. This nationalistic fervor has been felt here in Kansas. I’ll give you two examples.
First, our current Secretary of State Kris Kobach has made his career by playing into this same fear by pushing voter disenfranchisement policies based upon the provably false belief that illegal immigrants are voting en masse.
The second is the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in 2017 here in Olathe in a hate crime. He and his friend, Alok Madasani, were shot in a restaurant after the shooter approached them, asking if they were here illegally, calling them racial slurs and terrorists. I have attended vigils and marches related to this unfortunate death. Our community still grieves. But I firmly believe that the best way to fight back against this climate of fear is to get involved, to make a difference, and to be the change we want to see in the world.
“I am just a normal person. I don’t like politics much at all. But politics is just too important to our lives to leave it to the same set of folks who’ve brought us to this point.” – Matthew Calcara
NG: If you were elected you would be the first openly gay member of the Kansas Legislature. Being the first of anything means your name goes down in history, but it can require a lot more courage. Are you proud to be a pioneer or would you prefer the sexual orientation of candidates was a non-issue?
MC: A little of both. I am proud to be a pioneer in a state known for pioneers, and I do feel the weight of responsibility that being the first openly-gay legislator would entail. After all, every previous openly-LGBTQ candidate who has run has received at least one death threat.
But it would be nice to be known as the “transportation innovator” or the “transparency expert.” I do look forward to the day when there are so many LGBTQ+ candidates that they will need further descriptors like that to distinguish them.
NG: Death threats are pretty shocking! Hopefully that’s something in the past now. Still, what’s been the reaction of the average voter to your sexual orientation so far to your campaign?
MC: The average voter doesn’t care. For those that do, they have been really positive overall. Some voters have been really excited because they have personal connections to the LGBTQ+ community. Some voters like the idea of being able to use their vote to do something historic. But most voters have (rightfully) been most interested in how I will represent them in Topeka.
NG: You declared your candidacy in May 2017. What motivated you to declare so early?
MC: I wanted to have as much time as I could to get my name out there, get a campaign up and running, and to put the incumbent on notice that he would be held accountable for his votes.
Overall, the journey has been amazing! I have learned so much about my community, about politics, about campaigning and about what really matters to my neighbors and what they want from their representative. Sure, there are days when it is tough to have doors slammed in your face but those are far outweighed by the positive experiences talking to voters.
NG: How is fundraising going?
MC: It’s going really well. So well that it has generated headlines locally. We raised more than any other Democratic challenger for the Kansas House in 2017.
NG: You are running against one other candidate for the Democratic nomination, Brandon Woodard, who is also openly gay. You have to run against someone, of course, but does it seem like a shame for two of the few openly gay candidates in Kansas to run against each other? Or is it exciting that we know at least one of you will appear on the ballot? Or, again, would you prefer being openly gay be a non-issue?
MC: I am really glad that there are other gay candidates running, absolutely! I just wish my primary opponent was running in a different district, like perhaps one in his hometown instead of the one I grew up down the street from.
Primaries do make for better candidates, I can attest to that. If I am being honest, I would’ve much rather run against someone who wasn’t part of the LGBTQ community; it feels like his entry into the race divided us unnecessarily–and that was the last thing I wanted to do when I ran.
I am proud that the few prominent LGBTQ leaders who have picked a side, like Shawnee City Councilman Justin Adrian and Equality Kansas KC Chair Brett Hoedl (my campaign treasurer) have backed our campaign. But it just feels like such a waste that one of us has to lose.
NG: The incumbent Representative for District 30, Republican Randy Powell, withdrew in early June. How did you react to that news? How has this changed the race?
MC: To be honest, it was not a huge surprise and there had been rumors that it might happen for months. After our campaign not only outraised his in 2017, but raised more than that of any other Democratic state legislative challenger in Kansas, it occurred to us that he might drop out.
It does change the race, because there are two Republican women running in a primary right now, and both of them are fairly unknown. Politically, open seats are usually easier to win than ones with incumbents, but few incumbents are as weak as Powell was as a candidate.
NG: In that Kansas City Star article I mentioned before you say it was policies Powell supported that inspired you to run. Specifically his vote against expanding Medicare to all uninsured Kansans, and his prominent role in a resolution condemning pornography on public health grounds. Can you explain more about what exactly about Powell and his record as a legislator inspired you to run?
MC: When I first got into the race, it really was all about trying to get rid of Powell. But as the race has gone on, and especially since my primary opponent announced, I’ve been focusing more on what I can bring to the table in terms of my extensive business experience, leadership in progressive grassroots organizations, travel & transportation expertise, voting rights & civil rights advocacy, and a lot of experience in the world of technology. If this campaign has taught me anything, it’s that everyone should run for office, because we all have unique perspectives and skillsets to bring to the table.
NG: Powell’s support for the resolution against porn claimed that it lowered the desire in men to get married and increased the chances of erectile dysfunction – two claims that have been dismissed by the scientific community. Was your objection the bad science, First Amendment issues, or something else?
MC: There are a few legislators in Kansas right now that are very prominent supporters of bad science, but it goes beyond that. Rep. Powell was part of a group of ultra-conservative legislators that use junk science to push their conservative agenda, but they don’t care about the science. They care about their agenda.
Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook would be another example: she has compared birth control to eugenics and believes the Earth is around 8,000 years old. It can be difficult at times to understand that sort of mindset. Fortunately, our district is full of college-educated young professionals who are mostly delighted when I tweet photoshopped images of a cowboy riding a dinosaur at her.
Tired of politicians who think the pic below is an accurate depiction of the historical record?
Same. That’s one of the reasons I’m running.
— Matthew Calcara 🗳 (@MattCalcara) March 18, 2018
NG: Our readers will probably assume Kansas is a deep red state, but I see that Powell won in 2016 with just 52% of the vote. How strong are the Democrats in suburban Kansas City, and in Kansas generally. Do you predict a Sunflower State blue wave?
MC: To be clear, Powell won with just 52% of the vote against a Democrat who literally dropped out of the race after a week but whose name remained on the ballot. Hillary won the 30th District by 3 points. So while Kansas is deep red overall, my district is not.
Johnson County has long been a Republican stronghold, but it’s the sort of well-educated, wealthy suburban county that has reacted strongly against Trump. In fact, judging by the registration numbers, we hit “peak Republican” several months ago and their numbers have been dropping steadily while the numbers of Democrats and Unaffiliated voters soar.
As far as a Kansas blue wave is concerned, we have three very good congressional races right now with excellent candidates and some great gubernatorial candidates as well. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we took one or two of the congressional races, but with the amount of enthusiasm I’m seeing, we have a real shot at three congressional seats and the governor’s mansion, too.
NG: District 30 is part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, and includes two interstate highways and a major state highway. You are critical of Kansas Governor Brownback’s cuts to the Kansas Department of Transportation, and want to spend more on infrastructure. Can you explain how spending cuts on infrastructure is impacting the lives of District 30 residents, and how increased spending could help them?
NG: The infrastructure cuts have made traveling around here a nightmare for years. And deferring road maintenance is literally the opposite of fiscally conservative because it will cost us so much more in the long run to maintain our roads.
But beyond that, it is about smarter transportation spending. In other countries, contracts for road work are set up in such a way as to incentivize construction companies to minimize the disruption to people’s lives. If a lane of traffic is closed, there is a small financial penalty imposed. That tends to sharpen minds around the idea of minimizing lane closures and avoiding impeding the flow of traffic during construction. It is not only about more spending–we need smarter spending, too.
NG: Voting rights in Kansas has made national headlines this year thanks to Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach. You previously worked as an organizer for the Kansas Voter Registration Project – can you tell us about the work of this group and what you did specifically? What do you think is at stake if the laws in Kansas dont’ change?
MC: The Kansas Voter Registration Project is a grassroots group that sprang up to step into the gap created when organizations like the League of Women Voters pulled back rather than run afoul of the ridiculously stringent new voter registration requirements. As a volunteer event organizer, I trained and assembled teams of volunteers to register people at community events, including KC Pridefest, the First Fridays festivals in the Crossroads district, and many others.
I am happy to report that as of a few weeks ago, major portions of the Kobach-inspired voter suppression laws were struck down by a federal judge, thanks to the tireless efforts of the heroes at the ACLU. Because of this victory, tens of thousands of mostly young and minority voters will once again be able to vote.
NG: You support Marijuana decriminalization for several reasons, including some benefits hemp development could provide for the Kansas agriculture sector. Can you explain why you think Kansas is in such a good position to benefit from relaxed pot laws?
MC: Kansas should move to decriminalize marijuana immediately. States that have allowed medical marijuana have lower rates of opioid abuse. Marijuana can also be used to treat a plethora of other ailments like seizures, Chron’s disease, and muscle spasms.
Here in Kansas, we are uniquely capable of doing groundbreaking cannabis research that other states can’t match unless dramatic federal changes occur. Kansas State University has one of the best agricultural schools in the world. I’m confident that their research abilities could drastically change industrial hemp and medicinal marijuana growing practices.
The University of Kansas has one of the best medical schools in the country and they could lead the charge on medical marijuana research. All of this research could take place without anything leaving the state.
NG: You’re a third generation Kansan but you lived in Los Angeles for 15 years before returning home. Is there anything you learned from your time in LA that will inform your policies as a member of the Kansas House, or are you just glad to be home again?
MC: I have been criticized by my primary opponent for not being a “lifelong Kansan” but what he doesn’t understand is how much more of a Kansan one becomes when you leave the state for awhile. “Where are you from?” is a common question in California, and when your answer is “Kansas” you learn to be both an ambassador for, and a staunch defender of, your home state. You also learn to despise terrible Wizard of Oz jokes.
Moving back to Kansas was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Period. I missed my family a lot, but at the same time, I feel like I made the most of my time out of the state. I had access to professional and educational opportunities I would’ve lacked had I remained in Kansas. And part of my goal in running for office is to create the sorts of opportunities that I had in California right here in Kansas so that future generations do not feel so compelled to leave to achieve personal and professional success.
NG: You’ve been endorsed by Our Revolution, the political action organization which was spun out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Are you a Bernie supporter? Are there any other leaders in the Democratic Party you hope run for president in 2020?
MC: I really, really like Bernie’s ideas, which is why I actively pursued the Our Revolution endorsement. But I voted for Hillary in November and think she would have been a great President. I also picked up the endorsement of the Hillary-allied RunForSomething. So I think the division about Bernie and Hillary fans in the Democratic Party is a bit overblown.
In terms of other politicians, I had a chance to hear Mayor Pete [South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg] speak at Washington Days and he is amazing! He is cool, calm and collected, but with a big heart and a lot of compassion.
I also like Senator Kamala Harris and her “smart on crime” campaign and calls for criminal justice reform. A lot of people on the left give Senator Claire McCaskill a hard time, but I think she works incredibly hard to serve her constituents and does an excellent job representing their wishes.
NG: Okay, let me force you to answer a difficult question that divides your community. Let’s say the Sunflower Showdown comes on TV – are you rooting for the Jayhawks or the Wildcats?
MC: I come from a mixed family (Mom roots for KU, Dad for K-State) and since I attended an out of state college (USC) I believe I can be an effective mediator between the two sides.
I am only half-joking about that, actually.
NG: Last question: which fictional politician from television or the movies do you identify with most?
MC: I would say Dave, Kevin Kline’s character from the movie of the same name. I am just a normal person. I don’t like politics much at all. But politics is just too important to our lives to leave it to the same set of folks who’ve brought us to this point.
I have come to believe that the people who dislike politics are usually EXACTLY the sort of people we need to be involved in politics.
NG: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us!
MC: You’re very welcome!