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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

Star Alignment

This column was published December 9, 2023 in the Manhattan Mercury.


I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about license plates. And I’m trying to spend less time on social media and more time thinking about creative column ideas.


These stars have aligned.  


Navy blue gets mistaken for black, it’s not “pretty enough,” Mizzou colors, the yellow bar is not wheat-colored, too many numbers to remember, ugliest thing ever.


And the one which succinctly captured my thoughts.


It seems like much ado…   


I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about quantity v. quality of the social media license plate chatter related to the proposed new Kansas license plate design. I’ve drawn mine:


License plates are a visible connection to my government. I think of mine as a rectangularly shaped metal receipt for registering my car. When I get pulled over for speeding, the cops can readily determine that I am not, in fact, a fugitive on the lam, wanted in multiple jurisdictions for all manner of heinous crimes, write me a ticket, urge caution and send me on my merry way. 


But if you think of a license plate as a canvas for personal expression, well now, all of a sudden, you have become a partner with your government. Partnerships imply give and take, and you are free, these days maybe even compelled, to give your opinion on the canvas. 


Earlier in my career, I was fortunate to serve in the highest level of state government, and have, perhaps, a deeper sense of how these things work. Working with 105 counties, the Kansas Department of Revenue manages the registration and disbursement of license plates with input on the “art” from the state tourism agency and their creative hired guns.  


The font style and “to the stars” on what was to be the official Kansas license plate come directly from the state’s most recent tourism sales pitch. One of their messages hit me so hard where I live (literally and figuratively) that I got a little misty, but that emotion apparently does not seamlessly transfer to a six by twelve-inch metal plate affixed to the back of my 2021 Ford Bronco.


If most Kansans give any thought at all to their state’s official tourism tagline, it’s likely fleeting, at best. Reading this column may be the first time you equate “to the stars” with “Ah! Kansas.” Who among us remembers “as big as you think,” or that old reliable chestnut, “linger longer?” 


Because Gov. Laura Kelly – and the communications pros who surround her – understand social media, she waited for the kerfuffle to reach its zenith, hijacked it from the license plate designing/managing apparatchiks in the executive branch agencies which report to her and saved the day. In so doing, she simultaneously deflected the heat from those who promulgated the seemingly offending license plate design, flipped the script and promised public input.


Soon. Very soon.


I say “seemingly” offending, because before social media, neither I nor the governor would have had any earthly idea how a kid with whom I went to high school and have not seen since, or a woman I met at a professional conference a decade ago, feel about the plate design.


Nor would I care.


Regardless of whether they want to, social media forces systems to care. 


Here’s how it will play out. The governor will wait a few weeks for the social media teeth gnashing to descend to a low, barely discernable murmur and suit up the creative types to trot out a few new plate options, allow Kansans to weigh in on social media to our hearts’ content, secure in the knowledge that whatever the outcome – we had a new opportunity to fulfill our end of the partnership, merely by bloviating.


Crisis averted. Lemons into lemonade.


Lest we forget, the last part of “to the stars” is “through difficulty.”


I don’t put my heart on the back of my car, but maybe I should. At least a little piece of it.



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