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Kansas Congressman Mann’s same-sex marriage opposition booed at first Lawrence town hall

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 2/6/2023 Jonathan Shorman, The Kansas City Star
U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann, a Republican, holds a town hall in Lawrence on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Kansas Republicans redrew the 1st Congressional District last year to include Lawrence, a Democratic-leaning city. © Jonathan Shorman/Kansas City Star/TNS U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann, a Republican, holds a town hall in Lawrence on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Kansas Republicans redrew the 1st Congressional District last year to include Lawrence, a Democratic-leaning city.

U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann was booed during his first major public encounter with his new constituents in the Democratic enclave of Lawrence, highlighting just how far apart the GOP congressman is from many residents in his district’s largest city.

On protections for LGBTQ residents, abortion rights, marijuana and gun rights, Mann and the crowd of more than 100 were diametrically opposed. They turned out at 8:30 a.m. Monday for the congressman’s first Lawrence town hall.

The tense appearance took place as Lawrence adjusts to its new place in Kansas’ 1st Congressional District. Republican state legislators last year redrew the sprawling western Kansas district – the most reliably Republican district in the state – to include the liberal city that’s home to the University of Kansas. The move diluted the voting power of the city’s primarily Democratic residents.

No exchange better illustrated the divide than Mann’s staunch position against same-sex marriage in response to a written question about whether he would advocate for LGBTQ constituents after voting against protections for them in the last Congress, which included passage of a bill codifying same-sex marriage in federal law.

“I voted against those bills. I have a lot of problems with them,” Mann said.

As members of the crowd, who had gathered at the Lawrence Public Library, pressed Mann to identify his objections, he replied, “I realize you all may agree or disagree with this, but I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

That prompted boos from the crowd. One person could be heard applauding and yelling “thank you!”

While Lawrence wasn’t expected to be placed into a Democratic-leaning congressional district, its transfer into the 1st District all but guaranteed it will be represented by a Republican in the U.S. House for the next decade. Lawrence was also represented by a Republican during the last 10 years in the 2nd District, but the area was more competitive – a Democrat came within less than one percentage point of winning in 2018.

Even with the inclusion of Lawrence in the 1st District, Mann won reelection in November with 68% of the vote, compared to 71% in 2020. Mann, 46, was first elected in 2020 after briefly serving as lieutenant governor under Gov. Jeff Colyer.

Monday’s town hall illustrates the dynamic in Lawrence that is likely to play out over the next decade – a Republican member of Congress can visit the city and take positions that are deeply unpopular locally with little fear of political repercussions.

“I’ll give him credit for courage for showing up,” said Marilyn Brune, a Douglas County resident who attended the town hall. Still, she found most of Mann’s answers “very mealy-mouthed.”

Asked if it makes sense for Mann to represent Lawrence, Brune answered, “Of course not.”

Not all of Mann’s answers were contentious, and updates on the farm bill and infrastructure appeared well-received. He even received applause for promising not to cut Social Security and Medicare – though that quickly turned to a few groans when he qualified that he was open to privatization in the long term.

But on major social issues, Mann quickly lost the audience. In response to whether he supports access to abortion, Mann said he believes strongly that “life begins at conception.” He called the issue personal, describing how his wife had a series of miscarriages and how he had asked himself if “this is only tissue” why they were grieving.

In Douglas County, where Lawrence is located, voters in August rejected the state constitutional amendment that would have allowed legislators to ban abortion 82% to 18%. The blowout exceeded the statewide margin, itself lopsided, of 60% to 40%.

On marijuana, Mann said he opposes it. Lawrence in 2019 effectively decriminalized marijuana, lowering fines for possessing small amounts to $1. Mann is also at odds with a growing number of Kansas Republicans who, along with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, want to legalize medical marijuana. Kansas is one of just three states without any public marijuana or THC program..

Amid audience pushback, Mann said he doesn’t believe a majority of people in the 1st District support legalization. “If this turns into kind of a food fight, I don’t think anyone really benefits from that,” Mann said.

Mann also struck a staunchly pro-gun stance when asked about gun violence when asked what policies the United States should implement to address the problem.

“I don’t think that limiting guns will do much to solve the problem,” Mann said. “I’ve always been against it. I have a lot of concern with violent video games.”

The remark drew groans.

Elizabeth Allen, a 17-year-old senior at Bishop Seabury Academy, an Episcoplian school in Lawrence, said Mann’s appearance was her first time attending a town hall. Some things “just shocked me,” Allen said, noting Mann had “danced around” questions.

“It just felt very not Lawrence at all,” Allen said.

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