Kansas was once a very progressive — radical, even — place. Before and during the Civil War, the state was a hotbed for the anti-slavery movement. In the late 19th century, the leftist, pro-labor People’s Party took root in the wheat-filled plains.

Things have changed a bit since then. In the past 100 years, the state has gone for the Democratic presidential candidate only three times. And now, “If you want to know what a Tea Party America might look like, there is no place like Kansas,” writes Annie Gowen in the Washington Post. Kansas even has an “Office of the Repealer” to offer recommendations on laws and regulations to cut.

Despite the change in political mood in the rest of the state, Lawrence held onto its progressive roots. In the 2012 presidential election, not only did Douglas County vote blue in a state that overwhelmingly went red, it matched the state’s zeal for Romney (59.7 percent) with how strongly it went for Obama (60.5 percent).

Eileen Horn.

Eileen Horn.

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Eileen Horn, a native of the sunflower state, became the city’s and county’s first sustainability director in 2010. Her position was funded — as was the case with those of many small cities — through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation block fund, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus bill. (Last summer, representatives voted unanimously to fund Horn’s office on a more permanent basis, through the general fund.)

I talked to Horn for Knope and change, our series on the women working to green our cities and towns. Here’s our edited conversation on the power of a little good-natured competition, the food movement in the bread basket, and why the country can’t move forward without a constructive conversation with the Midwest.

While progressives might be tempted to write the state off and pray for the good folks in Lawrence, Horn says, “Ignore Kansas at your own peril.”

Q. How often have you heard the joke, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”?

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A. Oh god. All the time. I grew up here and moved away for 10 years. Everywhere I moved to, I was always the token Kansas girl for that joke. Then I played into it one year by dressing up like Dorothy for Halloween. Tragic error on my part.

Q. Why is Lawrence so much more progressive than the rest of the state?

A. There’s a snarky bumper sticker people have around town that says, “Lawrence: 34 miles of sanity surrounded by Kansas.” The University of Kansas is a big influence. It gives us access to all the great things that a university town has. Kansas had a history of being a battleground state before the Civil War. Lawrence was the epicenter of a lot of those battles. Lawrence was willing to take a stand on slavery and that’s the story we tell ourselves about who we are. We tend to have an ethic of being trailblazers.

But Kansans have a conservative ethic, in a good way. Small c. Those firmly held, stalwart Midwestern values of thrift and prudence and making common-sense decisions are very much alive throughout the state. That’s what’s made Kansans highly skeptical of climate change. There is a healthy skepticism in this state but it’s also made talking about solutions remarkably easy, because the solutions — energy efficiency and growing food closer to home and [renewable energy] — are very pragmatic. So while Kansans may be slow to embrace the science, we’re not having any problems embracing the solutions.

Q. So how will Lawrence be affected by climate change?

A. Climate change is a water issue in Kansas. We’re in about 18 months of drought. The last measurable rainfall in this region was in June of 2011. Climate change, as it’s doing everywhere, is wreaking havoc with the way rainfall patterns have historically happened across the state.

Unfortunately, we’re used to extreme weather events. We’re in tornado alley. We’re in the middle of where the two major weather systems of the country converge and rain grapefruit-sized hail on us. We’re used to being beat up by Mother Nature. So it takes a really extreme weather event to get our attention. It takes an 18-month drought for people to be like, “Hm, this is a little bit strange.”

Q. Due to your original job funding coming from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation block grant, you’ve been doing a lot of work on energy efficiency. Tell us about some of your projects.

A. We’ve done two really successful competitions between city staff. Fire stations competed for energy efficiency and we called it the Energy Smackdown. We ran a four-month contest over the summer. The fire station that won reduced their energy use by 20 percent compared to the summer before. We did a similar contest with our rec centers. They got really creative. One of them started offering hot yoga in the morning so they could delay starting to cool the building.

Last year, the Kansas Energy Office used their Energy Efficiency and Conservation block grant to start a home energy audit and retrofit program. Citizens could get on-bill financing to do a retrofit project. They were really trying to push that so they launched a statewide energy contest with the Climate and Energy Project called the Take Charge Challenge. Lawrence competed against the city of Manhattan which is where Kansas State University is. Kansas State and University of Kansas are big rivals so we got to do a lot of trash talking.

Q. So did you end up winning?

A. [small voice] No. And I’m just able to say that thanks to a year of therapy.

Here’s my excuse, get ready: It was on a per-capita basis and Manhattan only has 60,000 people and we have 95,000. We saved more energy but per-person they saved more. But full disclosure: I created the Take Charge Challenge when I was [working at the Climate and Energy Project] and ran the first pilot. I got asked to compete in it when I came to the city. I even stood up in front of the commission and said, “We’re going to win this cause I wrote the rules.” I didn’t even win my own campaign. Just pitiful.

Q. You’re much more into competitions than the average sustainability director.

A. Most Kansans have decided that a way to frame their identities is “I’m not an environmentalist.” It’s kind of a dirty word here in the state. Countless times during the Take Charge Challenge, I would be sitting in a booth and I’d be passing out light bulbs and say “Do you want to save energy?” People would keep walking by on the sidewalk. I’d say “Do you want to save up to $75 per year?” People would continue to pass. Then I’d say “Do you want to beat K State?” People would literally do a 180 to come back to talk to me for 10 minutes and then sign up for an energy audit.

Q. Being in America’s breadbasket, has it been harder or easier to get a local food movement going?

A. When I talk to colleagues across the U.S. who are working on urban food policy, a lot of what they are doing is going back and rewriting zoning to allow chickens or changing ordinances to allow food production within city limits. Most Kansans are really one to two generations off the farm … So we never wrote those ordinances banning that stuff in the first place.

The challenge for us is that Kansas grows grass and beans really well. We do wheat, we do corn, and we do soybeans. We saw a precipitous decline in the 1950s and ’60s of truck farms and smaller market farms that were selling fruits and vegetables. We have that same hill to climb in terms of getting those small farms back and getting young people interested in growing fruits and vegetables.

We did a program last year that we stole from Cleveland. We surveyed our vacant city- and county-owned properties and created a program to lease them for free to community gardeners and urban farmers. This is the first growing season since we started it and it’s been really successful. We had four gardens and farms get started. Two are traditional community gardens but one’s a community orchard and one is a student farm that’s a collaboration between a middle school and a junior college.

Q. Extreme weather. Extreme conservatives. You guys have a bit of a bad rep here on the Left Coast.

A. I went to school in D.C. and lived in Denver for a while and then did my grad school work at the University of Vermont. I got really used to the snarky “WHAT you’re from KANSAS” remarks. I think the thing that people are forgetting is that we are where your fuel and your food comes from. You better figure out how to talk to and engage us on this. We need to engage in a really constructive, authentic conversation on values that matter to Kansans and in a framework that makes sense to Kansans and Midwesterners. The same motivating language that’s working in coastal communities really doesn’t matter to us. What we think is, “Great, our real estate values are going to go up. When the rest of you get flooded out, you’ll come here.”

Q. Do you think Kansas will ever become progressive again?

A. I don’t know if I would hazard a guess. Our legislature is the most conservative it’s ever been right now. We had a lot of moderate Republicans unseated by Tea Party rivals. We’re in a historical moment of being really, really conservative but we haven’t always been this way.

Q. So technically, it could swing back around someday.

A. Especially when all you liberals get flooded out and move here.

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