Rep. Stephanie Clayton of Overland Park has become the second northeast Johnson County elected official to announce she is leaving the Republican party to become a Democrat.
A moderate first elected in 2012, Clayton has been at odds with party leadership on a number of issues over the past six years. But she said it was Republican leadership’s announcement last week that it was considering starting from scratch on the K-12 education funding plan that proved the last straw for her.
“I said, ‘I can’t be a part of this any more,'” she said. “Now it’s coming home. It’s affecting my district. It’s affecting my children. It’s affecting my neighbors’ children. The abandoning of the support of public education is something I couldn’t stand for. I wasn’t going to lend my name to the party anymore.”
Sen. Barbara Bollier made national news last week when she announced she was leaving the Republican party and had changed affiliation to Democrat. Sen. Dinah Sykes just announced this morning that she was switching to Democrat as well. And outgoing Johnson County Republican Rep. Joy Koesten, who was defeated in the primaries by a more conservative challenger, said last week that she was becoming a Democrat as well.
Clayton said the decision was extremely difficult given her long affiliation with the Republican party and work as an activist on pro-business issues. But, she said, Republicans’ positions on education funding were more than she could tolerate.
“Public education is the gasoline that fuels the economic engine of Johnson County,” she said. “And they were putting sugar in the gas tank. I can’t put my name on a party that is actively seek to destroy public education.”
Responding to the news of Sykes’ and Clayton’s party changes, Johnson County Republican Party Secretary Colton Gibson said that “The JCRP applauds Sen. Sykes and Rep. Clayton for their honesty to their constituents and we wish them the best.”
Clayton was easily reelected to a fourth term in office as a Republican in November’s election, defeating Democratic challenger Stephen Wyatt 59-41. Her district, however, voted strongly for Democratic candidates in the statewide races and Kansas 3rd Congressional District race. District 19 voters gave Democrat Laura Kelly a 32 point margin over Republican Kris Kobach in the gubernatorial race.
Rep. Tom Sawyer, who was recently named House Minority Leader, by the Democratic caucus, issued a statement welcoming her to the party.
“Representative Clayton’s views and voting history prove her to be a true moderate, and one that works for every single person in her district,” Sawyer said. “Rep. Clayton will be welcomed into the House Democratic Caucus. We have continuously worked with her on important issues such as education and healthcare, and look forward to working alongside Stephanie as a member of our caucus. She is a public servant with incredibly impressive passion, grit, and drive to do the right thing for Kansans.”
Clayton said that while she had given consideration to becoming an independent or looking to join a smaller, moderate party, she believed that such moves would ultimately have hindered her ability to work on behalf of her constituents.
“I saw something like that as probably being irrational,” she said. “It’s a two-party system. You have to work within the constructs of your reality.”
A native of Shawnee, Clayton attended Shawnee Mission Northwest before heading to Emporia State University for college. She now lives in Overland Park and has two children attending Shawnee Mission schools.
““I first ran for office in 2010, when my daughter was in first grade, because of the lack of stable funding for public education,” Clayton said. “Leaders in the Kansas House and Senate have now indicated that they will seek to scrap the bipartisan education plan achieved over the last two years, just as we are so close to solving this problem and ending the cycle of school litigation. My Republican Party, then, seems to no longer represent or serve the interests of the 19th District, Johnson County, or the State of Kansas.”