Where Decency Resides

June 2017
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

Daniel C. Vock’s feature this month on the refugee crisis in Twin Falls, Idaho, is about the basic decency of Americans in places that the coastal elites rarely visit. This reality especially shines through in Gloria Steinem’s 2015 book My Life on the Road. 

Steinem writes about winding up in Sturgis, S.D., during its annual motorcycle rally, when about half a million bikers descend on the town. She tells how she was a little afraid when she went into a restaurant alone. In the next booth, Steinem writes, were “a man with chains around his muscles and a woman in leather pants with an improbable hairdo.” The woman came over, and Steinem recounts what she had to say: “I just want to tell you how much Ms. Magazine has meant to me over the years -- and my husband, too. […] But I wanted to ask -- isn’t one of the women you’re traveling with Alice Walker? I love her poetry.”

It’s hard to escape our preconceived notions about people and places. I got a reminder of that at a recent conference for Kansas city managers when the subject of immigration came up. Melissa McCoy, assistant to the city manager of Dodge City, talked about how her community is now approximately 60 percent immigrants, some of them undocumented. With President Trump’s promise to crack down on illegal immigrants, many are fearful. The town is trying to ease their worries: The police chief recently took to social media to quash rumors that federal agents were going door to door arresting people.

Dodge City is the county seat of Ford County, which President Trump won by 40 percentage points: Dodge City isn’t San Francisco or Seattle. But it has recently added police officers of Latino descent, is trying to employ a diverse municipal workforce and has been working to bring mobile federal immigration services to southwest Kansas to lessen time and distance barriers.

What I heard in Kansas and read in Vock’s story made me feel good about the small cities and towns that make up so much of America -- about the ultimate strength of their institutions and the competence of their public administrators. They are professionals who are more pragmatic than ideological.

At the end of the little piece about Sturgis, Steinem writes, “I tell you this story because it’s the kind of lesson that can be learned only on the road. Altogether, if I’d been looking at nothing but the media all these years, I would be a much more discouraged person.”

Amen, sister.