Can Tobias Schlingensiepen make the transition from congregation to Congress? The United Church of Christ pastor serving a church in Kansas aims to find out this fall, because he's headed for Washington, D.C., if he defeats an incumbent for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The native of Topeka, Kan., a Democratic candidate, is on leave as senior pastor of First Congregational UCC in Topeka as his bid rolls forward to Election Day on Nov. 7.
"I have a remarkable congregation. They're very supportive of my decision to do this and the reasons behind it," said Schlingensiepen, who grew up in First Congregational UCC. A colleague has assumed his responsibilities during the campaign, and Schlingensiepen is available to consult as needed. "It's very important to me to know first and foremost the congregation will be well taken care of, and that I would not involve them in political process."
This is Schlingensiepen's first campaign for a political office. His foray into the political arena came in reaction to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's attempt to close the state's neurological institute. Schlingensiepen helped organize a group of community leaders to convince legislators to keep the Kansas Neurological Institute open. He also believes Kansas could face even more financial trouble because of Gov. Brownback's tax bill, signed in May.
"In the course of all these cuts, a lot of people are touting their Christian religion in the public square. I, like many people in churches and synagogues, believe that religion is abused in the public square," Schlingensiepen said. "Right-wing Republicans have made inroads by being loud and we've been silent. This is a time to challenge people on what it means to be Christian."
For now, it's on to the November election, where he faces a tall order trying to unseat the incumbent, Republican Lynn Jenkins. In office for four years, Jenkins garnered an overwhelming 63.1 percent of the vote in her 2010 re-election campaign. But, Schlingensiepen said Jenkins' popularity and approval rating is slipping as she follows the party line.
The Kansas City Star has endorsed Schlingensiepen for the primary, with the newspaper stating he has the strongest chance to unseat Jenkins. "He has a moderate pitch and a record of rallying a successful effort to save the Kansas Neurological Institute from Gov. Sam Brownback's budget cutting," the paper wrote. The 2nd Congressional District in Kansas covers the eastern part of the state, but not the Kansas City Metropolitan Area.
All four of Kansas' Congressional seats are held by Republicans, with Democrats challenging two of those this election. The Democratic Party hasn't won a Congressional race in the state since 2006.
He won the Democratic primary on Aug. 7 by beating out two other candidates (a farmer and a lawyer) with 40 percent of the vote. His nearest challenger had 35 percent. "Pretty much coming out of nowhere, getting name recognition is very important in the primary. All three of us didn't have name recognition outside our own counties," Schlingensiepen said. "I have to communicate who I am, and what I stand for."
Citing one of the least productive Congresses in history, Schlingensiepen said the challenges his district and the country face require lawmakers to find a common ground. "Congress had been engaged in poltical posturing instead of solving problems we face. Unless we overcome gridlock, none of the issues we face have a chance of getting a hearing," he said.
The "Tobias for Congress" campaign also has a new manager in Schlingensiepen's sister-in-law, Betsy Millard. She took a leave of absence from her job at a museum in Washington.
"She's highly organized, and has experience in helping raise funds and participated in building the St. Louis Museum of Contemporary Art. She's a great asset to this campaign," said Schlingensiepen, who will spend a good portion of the next two months fundraising and meeting voters. "No matter how good the message is, if the name recognition is low, you have to get your message out, and you need the means to communicate to voters in your district. We'll be traveling around the district and meeting people.
"There's a steep learning curve to understand the nature of the district, and you absorb as much as you can."
Aside from his ministry at First Congregational, Schlingensiepen is a chaplain for the Topeka Police Department. After attending seminary, Schlingensiepen returned home and was called to First Congregational in 2005. He and his wife, Abigail, have eight children, ages 10 to 31.
"The congregation and the UCC denomination have been a huge influence on my life," Schlingensiepen said.