A New Voice, a New Generation
Billy Garner illustrates the Emporia State University tagline, "Changing lives since 1863," as clearly as any Hornet student ever. And he has only attended Emporia State for a year and a half.
In that time, Garner, who arrived from Jefferson West High School admittedly not the most confident public speaker, has been transformed enough to be an Associated Student Government (ASG) senator with appointments as chair of its senate operations and academic enhancement committees. He became secretary of the ESU Young Democrats, political chair for the People Respecting Individuality and Diversity in Education (P.R.I.D.E.) organization, and treasurer of the school's Environmental Club.
Garner then blew the lid off any remaining inhibitions by tossing his hat into the ring and running for Lyon County Clerk at age 20.
Shortly before the November election, Garner tells Hannah Thomas in an interview for her story in The Bulletin school student newspaper, “I believe it’s time for a new voice, a new generation to be in local politics."
Garner's defining statement set the tone for his campaign, but the first step toward that point came when he walked onto the Emporia State campus as a student. Freshman orientation night, says Garner, made him know for sure he made the right decision to attend Emporia State.
"(Freshman orientation) was so helpful in finding out what I could get involved in. Ashley Vogts, ASG president at the time, was at the orientation and she got me interested in getting involved on campus. I learned so much about being a student at Emporia State."
Born and raised in Meriden, Kan., a community of about 800 located 12 miles north of Topeka, Garner made four visits to the Emporia State campus during his Jeff West High days. It was in fact the only college he bothered to visit.
"We had a middle school math teacher that graduated from Emporia State. I talked to her and she got me really interested about enrolling at Emporia State University. Since I had really been planning ahead on becoming a teacher, she pointed out the advantages of the education program.
"A lot of other teachers at Meriden had degrees from Emporia State and they all helped make my decision. The visits just added to my reasons for picking Emporia State University, showing me what a nice campus it has, that the school and city are not too big, and the cost is a good value."
Garner's inspiration for actually stepping into the local political arena came while attending a meeting of the Lyon County Democrats. Members of the audience were asked if any of them were interested in running for a local office. Garner was more than interested.
The office he aimed at, the Lyon County Clerk position, is responsible for voter registration, all official recordkeeping for the county commissioners and county contracts, as well as the office budget, inventory for the county, several taxation issues, and a boatload of other duties mentioned almost 1,000 times in Kansas Statutes.
Once in the race, Garner faced an incumbent with a track record of experience in the office, and overall about 11 years working in the clerk's and other county offices, something he did not possess. He faced the issue head on, reasoning that everyone that has ever run for office at any level had to have a first-time candidacy. That would include, of course, all 44 persons gaining the highest office in the United States since 1789.
Starting with that good point, Garner then built his campaign on his desire to contribute back to the area citizens and his success of his leadership roles at Emporia State. And the more he campaigned the more comfortable he felt with the process.
"Going door to door helped me gain a lot of confidence," he says. "I got to meet a lot of people and learned a lot about the process. It was not natural for me, but I really improved with experience."
Garner's basic platform was that funding cutbacks had to be wisely considered so as not to impede the operation of the clerk's office. He also felt the new voter ID laws were illogical and could cause many people to stay away from the polls on election days.
When the ballots were tallied, Garner was defeated by Vopat, 8,075 to 3,250, but not crushed in spirit.
"It was a positive experience," he says. "Campaigning really helped me improve my skills in public speaking."
Nor did his first candidacy prevent him from pondering future runs.
"I have made up my mind to run for a state legislative office in the next eight years."
In the meantime, Garner will continue to pursue his degree at Emporia State University and remain heavily involved with campus organizations. Teaching is still in his plan, too.
"I hope to get a teaching job in Meriden," he says. "It would be great to take my former Social Science teacher's spot. He plans to retire about the time I will be ready to get a teaching job. That would be great."