The way Ronnie Metsker sees it, he had to defend himself.
There was former Kansas state Sen. Kay O’Connor telling him — to his face — before a state Republican Party meeting in Hutchinson a few weeks ago that he had lied to her face. Metsker had vowed to embrace GOP conservatives, O’Connor was saying. And he wasn’t doing anything of the sort.
Her criticism was bad enough. But Metsker already was sore over something he had heard just days before. Conservative leaders, he was told, were complaining that they couldn’t work with the three-term chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party.
Metsker, who felt he had tried and tried and tried again to reach out to party members of all stripes, had had enough.
I’m not lying, he insisted to O’Connor and a third member of the clutch, David Lightner, head of the Olathe Republican Club and a key conservative.
Metsker was soon exchanging barbs with Lightner.
“It turned into a shout fest,” O’Connor, a longtime Olathe conservative, marveled. “It got fairly loud.”
Pretty soon, the word “liar” was being batted around like a volleyball at the Olympics.
At the core of the disagreement was who would fill vacant precinct committee slots in Olathe. Those committee persons might be called on to fill an upcoming vacancy in the state House of Representatives.
State law gives Metsker that authority. Lightner wanted a little more of the action.
Looking back on it, Metsker realizes it wasn’t a great moment for democracy.
“I’m not sure I did the right thing,” he said.
But the man who was raised a devout Christian had had enough.
“I decided I was not going to sit there and take it,” he said.
Chalk it up to another day in the life of the chairman of the most fractious county party in Kansas or, as some have suggested, the entire nation.
Ronnie Metsker has more than one friend who wonders why he does it. Why take on the role of chairman for not so much as a nickle in pay and not all that much power beyond handing out a few campaign checks and picking precinct committee members? Why bother?
Why bother when the chair is forced to spend untold hours separating the Hatfields from the McCoys, which in Kansas GOP circles means separating the conservatives from the moderates.
“It’s a terrible job,” said GOP consultant Aaron Trost, who’s worked in Kansas. “If anybody came to me and asked how to get involved in politics, the last thing I’d ever tell them to do is be party chair. It’s a thankless job.”
For years now, Kansas Republicans have split along ideological lines. The anti-abortion conservatives now dominate state politics. The pro-abortion-rights moderates once did. They’re the more traditional Republicans who trace their lineage to former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and former Gov. Bill Graves.
By agreeing to run for chairman, Metsker signed off to be smack dab in the middle of all that in the most populous GOP county in Kansas. He knew exactly what he was getting into, and he didn’t shy away from it one lick.
Metsker saw a party that wasn’t winning as much as it should have. He saw a party that needed new life and a new sense of passion and hustle.
But Metsker, a self-described nerd who at 62 still hasn’t lost his Howdy Doody smile, sensed an even greater calling. In a sense, he saw himself as becoming pastor to this very divided flock of Republicans. He wanted to pull them together, make them one.
A calling like that has Biblical roots. And Metsker’s roots trace to his boyhood immersed in a group called Kansas City Youth for Christ. Metsker spent decades working for his famous father, the evangelist Al Metsker, who founded the program and became a devoted friend of a guy named Billy Graham.
After Al Metsker died in 1993, his son took over and spent the next 13 years leading the $10 million Christian corporation with its nearly 90 full-time employees and its own TV station — KYFC-TV, Channel 50.
“To those to whom much has been given, much will be required,” Ronnie Metsker said not long after assuming control. “I stand here today pretty much scared by that responsibility. I get up every day and say: ‘Lord help me. I’m not ready to do all this.’ ”
He stayed with Youth for Christ until 2006, then launched a very different journey in Kansas politics, which he saw as another way to serve.
“Forty years is a long time,” Metsker said about his years with Youth for Christ. “I also felt like God was directing me to go in a slightly different direction in reaching people. Bottom line: I’m about people. I’m not about politics. Whether it’s teens or the older teenagers I work with now, they’re people.”
That December, Metsker was elected by a single precinct committee member vote to fill a vacancy in the Kansas House, a role he found extremely rewarding. But in his first bid to win the seat himself in 2008, he lost to Democrat Mike Slattery, son of the former Kansas congressman.
In that campaign, Democrats, led by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, tagged Metsker as an anti-abortion radical in the mold of the state’s former attorney general, Phill Kline.
Metsker was anti-abortion. But he had worked to bridge what so many thought was an impossible divide between the two camps by helping found the Lighthouse, a home for unwed mothers that offered crisis counseling and adoption services.
All it got him was hell on the campaign trail in a swing district that had elected both Republicans and Democrats. Fliers showed two pictures side by side: Metsker and Kline.
“I was pegged as being a clone or something akin to Phill Kline,” Metsker said.
He lost 56-40 percent — a crushing defeat. Never mind all those years as the leader of Youth for Christ. Never mind all those nights hosting wildly energetic teens in his basement. Never mind that he had lived almost his entire life in Johnson County.
All that good work only to lose to a 28-year-old kid who had never held public office before in a county where Democrats rarely win.
“It hurt,” Metsker said. “I’m not sure that hurt ever totally goes away.”
But Ronnie Metsker’s resurrection wasn’t long in coming. In fact, it took all of three days.
“I just said, ‘Here I am, Lord. What do you want me to do now?’ ”
The answer came in a phone call from Pat Colloton, a Republican state representative from Leawood. As Metsker struggled to get past his defeat, Colloton suddenly was telling him to get off the couch and move on. Would he consider running for the chairmanship of the Johnson County GOP?
Metsker was intrigued, but he wasn’t crazy about losing again. He wanted to know: Could he win it? At a time when the split between conservatives and moderates in Johnson County was as clear-cut as the North and South in the Civil War, Metsker wanted to be sure: I can win, right?
“I didn’t relish losing two times in one week,” he said.
At a meeting of the county GOP where tensions ran high, he won — 350 precinct committee members to 300. Suddenly, Metsker’s new cause was nuts and bolts political work: raising money, finding candidates, rousting up volunteers. He decided that he would work to elect conservatives and moderates. No matter what, he would stay out of primaries.
He simply wanted the GOP to win again.
“The one thing we tried to do was mitigate this fractious history by early on saying we’re not taking a position,” he said.
Metsker dove in. He met with people and started smoothing over all those lingering strains between members of the same party. Conservatives, moderates. Pro-choice, anti-abortion. Newcomers and old-timers. Metsker wanted all of them to link arms.
Walk into Ronnie Metsker’s Overland Park kitchen, in the home he built by hand just down the street from Shawnee Mission North High School, and there it sits — his essential belief, the essence of what he’s all about. It’s a simple motto sitting in a frame on a counter that says, “Love God, Love Others.”
“That’s at the core of what I am,” Metsker said. “I love people. I want to touch their lives.”
The Republican Party became a vehicle for Metsker to do just that.
“It’s a way that I can engage with a ton of people and live out my DNA,” he said.
It’s also a way for him to live out a political death wish, some say. Pull a party this fractious together? Are you kidding? “He’s constantly getting attacked from all sides,” said Clay Barker, the Kansas GOP executive director. “That makes it difficult.”
Take the intensely contentious 2010 GOP Senate primary between Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran. Tiahrt desperately needed a huge showing in Johnson County to win and, to hear Metsker tell it, the Wichita congressman put enormous pressure on him to move off his neutral stance and endorse him.
Metsker never budged.
Roll through Metsker’s email inbox, and here they come: charges, accusations, criticism. He’s a liberal who supports a liberal agenda. He’s hostile toward the conservative cause. He is a “pro-sodomite liberal” who is “Barack Obama’s white clone.”
The authors of these charges? Republicans, all of them, Metsker said.
“I do not appreciate being lied about,” he said, “especially when it is clear the statements make me to be something that is not who I am.”
If anybody was put on this planet to be the peacemaker between two warring factions, it’s Ronald Earl Metsker.
Besides his deeply religious beliefs, Metsker is almost impossible to peg on the proverbial moderate-to-conservative scale. He seems to be neither conservative nor moderate.
He is pro-public education and anti-abortion and anti-gay rights. He’s a moderate on fiscal issues, a conservative on social issues.
In Topeka as a member of the House, he voted with moderates in opposing the expansion of a western Kansas coal plant in 2008. He voted with conservatives who favored spending state money for a presidential primary.
And on it went.
Today, conservatives are convinced he’s a moderate. Moderates suspect he’s a conservative.
Metsker is fine with that. He dislikes labels and thinks the continuing preoccupation with tagging people as belonging to one faction or the other holds Republicans back.
“First of all, I want peace,” he said. “I want us to work together. I want collaboration. I want dialogue. When all you do is yell and scream and call each other names, you’re not talking.”
To that end, Metsker appears to be succeeding. Longtime party members notice a decline in moderate-conservative vitriol, although some of that may be due to the conservatives’ resounding triumphs in recent years. They dominate the Statehouse delegation.
The county party still has its office at 126th and Metcalf, and it’s in the black with $42,000 in the bank as of January.
Most importantly, Republicans are winning. Following that brutal 2008 election — the one where Metsker lost to Slattery — Democrats occupied six of the county’s 22 seats in the state House in Topeka. Today, they hold only two of 25 (the delegation grew after the last census). And the state Senate lineup? It’s 100 percent pure Republican.
“Ronnie Metsker has done an excellent job at rejuvenating the Johnson County Republican Party,” Colloton said. “We were without funds, without an office, without a base of volunteers. He’s brought all that back and done it in a very even-handed, energetic way. We have an excellent Johnson County Republican Party now.”
From the right, Lightner, who clashed with Metsker so notably in January, even praises him.
“Honestly, it comes down to this: He’s done a tremendous job of really building the party, of making sure that the Republicans get elected, helping them, getting them in position to become good candidates. He’s tried to work with both sides.”
Said another conservative, state Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican who preceded Metsker as county chair: “He’s a hard man to hate.”
When Metsker was lining up his campaign for a third term as chair last year, some conservatives had started grousing that it was time for one of their own to take the reins. Enter Gov. Sam Brownback, who weighed in to say it was OK with him if Metsker stuck around. Republicans were winning, Brownback reminded them.
The compromise was to elect a conservative vice chair, state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican. Metsker was re-elected by acclamation.
By winning three elections to county chair, Metsker has done something pretty unusual. County chairs typically last a couple of years. Metsker’s going for six and hasn’t ruled out a fourth two-year term.
But friends say he’d really like to return to the Statehouse as a lawmaker. Metsker passed on an open seat last year when Slattery opted not to run again.
He said he stayed out if only because 2012 was a presidential election year that was destined to draw big numbers of Democrats to the polls. He lost in the last presidential election year and didn’t want to risk it again.
Still, he might run again.
“I’m not ruling it out,” he said. “It’s way too early to even talk about that.”
Now, he wants to find a successor who can continue his legacy of working with all Republicans.
“I don’t want to see my hard work disappear,” he said.
To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to email@example.com.