||This biographical article needs additional citations for verification. (October 2010)|
|Member of the Kansas Senate
from the 29th district
January 08, 2003 – January 12, 2004
|Succeeded by||Oletha Faust-Goudeau|
February 8, 1978 |
|Alma mater||Friends University (B.S.)|
Donald Betts, Jr. is a Democratic member of the Kansas Senate, representing the 29th District since a special election in 2004. He previously served in the Kansas House of Representatives from 2003 through 2004.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, on February 8, 1978, Donald Betts Jr. attended elementary school in the Wichita area, where he spent much of his childhood. His political career began in the 2nd grade, when classmates elected him as the class representative at Hyde Elementary School.
At the age of ten, however, he moved with his mother and younger brother to North Las Vegas, an inner city community quite unlike Las Vegas’s famous strip. Betts grew up outside all the glitz and glamor, in what he describes as a “poverty stricken, drug-infested neighborhood, where to witness scenes of prostitution, drive-by shootings, and other violent criminal activity were not uncommon occurrences.”
Betts avoided the negative elements abounding in his community by focusing his attention on concerns closer to home. He still recalls his upstairs neighbor, Eliza Perkins, an elderly woman whom he often visited as a child, helping her around the house or just providing company.
Betts grew up in a single-parent household headed by his mother, Charmaine Betts. She struggled to provide for her two children and keep them on the “straight and narrow.” She remained a full-time parent for nearly ten years, which kept her dependent on various forms of public assistance. When the boys were older, she worked at Macy’s, in a telemarketing firm, and even as a movie extra in such films as Vegas Vacation and Casino.
At the age of thirteen, Betts began the start of a career in public service by working with the Doolittle Tutorial Program, helping elementary school students with their homework. He later attended Clark High School, where constant gang activity forced him to focus not only on his education, but also on his security. The threat of violence went so far as to create the need for metal detectors and security cameras. Violence was not limited to the school building, however, but also occurred on the school bus. Betts eventually rode the city bus to school. Despite these problems, he remained very active at his high school, where he served on the drum squad and played bass violin in the orchestra.
Betts later transferred to the Advanced Technologies Academy (ATA), where a new and innovative approach to secondary education was developed. The goal at ATA was to train students for the right profession, offering seven program areas in fields such as law, banking, commerce, and technology. With the goal of becoming an attorney like his uncle Wendell, Betts graduated from the program with an emphasis in law. He stayed active while at ATA: he was elected president of the Law Club, was involved in the Kappa Leadership League, and participated in the Trial by Peers Program. He was also a recipient of the Principal’s Award.
After graduation, on a visit to his extended family in Wichita, Betts felt at home and decided to move back to Wichita to attend Friends University. While an undergraduate, he was involved in football, the NAACP, a vocal group (the “Singing Quakers”), and several bands, in which he played the bass violin. He also became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi.
His start in elective office also began at Friends, when Betts was elected president of the Multicultural Student Association and became the first black student body president.
After graduation from Friends in 2002 with a degree in political science and history, Betts applied to law school but was not accepted. For the first time in his life, he felt that he had failed to overcome an obstacle and could find no other direction for his life. He drifted for a few months, then one day asked himself what had been the best times of his life. His answer: the times when he was helping others. Immediately, he looked for ways to be involved in others’ lives and soon had persuaded the local Kappa Alpha Psi chapter to start a Kappa Leadership League to work with high school boys in Wichita.
He also decided to become politically active in the Democratic Party and was soon running for the Kansas State House of Representatives in the 84th District, the part of Wichita where he lived with his grandmother. He ran a small, grass roots campaign motivated by his strong personal desire to better serve and address the needs of his community. He walked door-to-door and talked with voters, put up yard signs, and learned to handle himself with the media. His efforts were rewarded in November 2002 when, at the age of 24, he was elected.
For most of the 2003 session, which ran from January through April and into May, Betts concentrated on learning the ways of the Kansas House, sharing an office with other representatives from the Wichita area and discussing bills and resolutions with his colleagues. Towards the middle of the session, he proposed an amendment to address the recurring problem of an increasing prison population by making rehabilitation an option to prison or jail time for first-time drug offenders. After he successfully shepherded it through the House, his colleagues discouraged his plan to propose the bill in the Senate, but Betts paid them no heed. He got to know the Senators and lobbied hard to get support. As the session ended, he was gratified to see his amendment added to the bill, which was later signed into law by the Governor.
As 2003 came to an end, however, Betts was presented with a new opportunity. U.L. “Rip” Gooch, the State Senator for the district that included all of Betts’ House district, decided to retire. At 80, Gooch was the oldest Senator serving. At first reluctant to throw his hat in the ring, Betts was eventually persuaded to give it a shot. He approached each committee member personally and eventually put together the necessary support to win. On January 13, 2004, he was sworn in—as the youngest Senator serving in the history of Kansas.
In his second session, he shepherded a bill to ban racial profiling through the Senate and House. After his re-election in 2004, he was no longer the lowest in seniority, but he still may be the youngest in age.
He was among the Senators who voted for the compromise education bill during the 2005 Special Session. In 2006, he advocated for some changes to the racial profiling bill to make it tighter and easier to enforce, plus worked on a resolution recommending that Kansas’ public schools institute strict dress codes or mandate school uniforms. He also was active in pressing for the passage of Scruffy’s Law, which increased the punishment for intentional aggravated animal cruelty from a misdemeanor to a felony.
In 2007, Senator Betts introduced and saw passed a bill to bring about divestment of the KPERS retirement funds from companies doing business in and with Sudan until such time as the Darfur genocide ends.
Senator Betts was recently accepted to join the Leadership Kansas class of 2007. In addition to the many boards and organizations he belongs to, he is a strong believer in continuing education, so he is pursuing his Masters degree at Friends University.