Kelly banks on wide appeal
"The last eight years have been very regressive. Not only in the level of discourse but in the level of actual government services available to people. We can see it wherever we look. Our schools. Our roads. Our healthcare. Our foster care. Our Department of Motor Vehicles. Everywhere you look, it’s really been shattered."
Election 2018: This is the first of a series of articles on the five candidates for Kansas governor.
On the evening of July 13, 1992, former Texas Representative Barbara Jordan, suffering from multiple sclerosis, was wheeled onto the stage at the Democratic National Convention in New York, where she gave the night’s keynote speech. Jordan’s remarks emphasized inclusion, acceptance, diversity. She urged those watching to reject the “greed and hatred and selfishness” of the previous era, and embrace a political future “characterized by a devotion to the public interest, public service, tolerance, and love. … We are one, we Americans,” said Jordan. “We seek to unite the people, not divide them.”
Four weeks later, at the Republican convention in Houston, Pat Buchanan, reading from a different set of notes entirely, delivered his now famous “Culture War” speech, in which he informed his audience that there was a “religious war” taking place for the very soul of America. “We must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country,” pleaded Buchanan, who described an America beset by division, whose only rescue could come from the complete vanquishment of one’s political opponent.
Strident, pugilistic, deeply ideological, Buchanan’s speech was criticized at the time for its bitter tone — most notably by moderate Republicans, who feared his uncompromising message would only deepen the rift between the party establishment and the new, fired-up set of Young Turks bent on upending the perceived coziness of the party’s status quo.
Meanwhile, a million miles from either convention, the palpable contrast between the two speeches was enough to spark in one future Kansas lawmaker, state Sen. Laura Kelly, something of a political awakening.
And while this was the occasion that inspired Kelly, then in her early 40s, to change her political affiliation from independent to Democrat, the main lesson had less to do with party affiliation — “party labels have never mattered to me,” Kelly has said — and more to do with political values.
“Now, [Buchanan] didn’t start the culture wars,” said Kelly, the current Democratic candidate for Kansas governor, “but he certainly fanned the flames.” And this sort of moral partitioning bothered Kelly. “I’ve just never been comfortable with that. I’ve looked for ways to be very inclusive in my life. With my family, with my classmates, with people I work with. … I thought that was a really bad way for our country to go, and I think I’ve been proven right.”
But with fewer than 20 days to go before the general election, Kelly has found in her principal opponent, Secretary of State Kris Kobach — a descendent of Buchanan if ever there was — a candidate eager to redraw those stark lines and eager to depict the current political landscape as a locked contest between two irreconcilable world views.
The effect not only of Kobach’s florid rhetoric but of his policies, while no doubt drawing passionate admiration in certain quarters, has triggered a significant exodus among a number of moderates in his own party.
As of today, more than 50 prominent Republicans, citing the Democratic nominee’s strong reputation for working across the aisle and her history crafting bipartisan legislation during her 14 years as a state senator, have announced their endorsement of Laura Kelly for governor.
BUT ON MONDAY, seated in a small office at Kelly headquarters — a bare-bones storefront near a Chinese buffet in a strip mall in southwest Topeka — it wasn’t the noise of the contentious campaign that occupied Kelly’s thoughts. She wanted to talk governance.
A self-described policy wonk, Kelly has served in the Kansas Senate since 2004, where she has been a consistent opponent of the programs advanced by former Gov. Sam Brownback, especially his years-long experiment with radical tax cuts — a policy that resulted in a dramatic drop in state revenue, a decimated network of social services, and years of budget turmoil.
As one of the leaders of the bipartisan coalition that last year managed to repeal this supply-side experiment, Kelly warns voters that a Kobach administration would simply be a retread of the Brownback years. And while it’s true that Kobach has vowed, if elected, to restore the same severe income tax cuts, he believes that the Brownback administration hit the skids not because they slashed taxes but because they failed to sufficiently cut spending at the same time — a mistake Kobach says he won’t repeat.
Still, Kelly doesn’t buy it. “We all know that Kansas has gone through a world of hurt,” said the Democratic nominee during a debate Tuesday in Wichita. “Do we [now] hand the wheel to a man who has every intention of driving us back into the ditch?”
The other main arena of disagreement between the race’s two frontrunners concerns education. For instance, Kansas lawmakers this year approved a five-year, $500 million school funding increase, which Kelly supports and Kobach opposes.
“When Brownback made the largest cuts to our schools in state history,” said Kelly, “I think he fired up people in Kansas.” Kelly, who decades ago moved with her husband from Colorado to Kansas in search of the best schools in which to educate their daughters, counts herself among those who are fired up, and regards the subject of Kansas schools as a key landmark in her own political origin story. “[It is] one of the reasons I moved to Kansas, one of the reasons I got into politics in the first place, and one of the primary reasons I’m running for governor.”
Kelly also differs from her main rival in wanting to expand Medicaid in Kansas, wanting to preserve the option for colleges and universities to ban guns from campus, and a menu of other high-stakes items that make this election, at least according to outside observers, one of the most imperative in recent history.
HOWEVER, with a visit to Iola and a tour through greater southeast Kansas scheduled for Saturday, Kelly was happy to focus her attention for the moment on her priorities for rural Kansas.
In July, Kelly and her team — which includes her pick for lieutenant governor, longtime ag banker and state Sen. Lynn Rogers; her campaign treasurer, Iolan David Toland; and USDA Rural Development State Director Patty Clark — unveiled a comprehensive strategic plan aimed at rural economic development.
The multi-pronged plan, “A Vision for Rural Prosperity,” aims to reduce the inequities between urban and rural communities by investing in rural housing, healthcare, infrastructure, schools, tourism, rural manufacturing, and agribusiness.
For instance, the proposal advocates reversing the disinvestments in roads, which was a feature of the Brownback years, and calls for a 10-year transportation plan that would expand four-lane highways in rural areas — U.S. 69 and U.S. 169 chief among them.
“Clearly we’ve made promises to rural Kansas communities about four-lane highways,” said Kelly. “Let’s not have those be promises anymore. No company will even look at a community for growth if they’re even the least bit dependent upon transportation for the distribution of their stuff or getting their people to work.” (Read Walter Wulf's, CEO of Monarch Cement, letter to members of Kansas' Joint Legislative Transportation Vision Task Force on this same topic here.)
The plan also lists the lack of good broadband access in rural areas as an impediment to business growth and a factor negatively affecting the resources available to local schools.
Another prime determinant of whether small-town Kansas is able to maintain its population numbers into the future depends on the quality of available rural healthcare, said Kelly. “Medicaid expansion is of utmost importance all across the state,” she continued, “but in our rural communities especially.”
She pointed to the 2015 closure of Mercy Hospital in Independence and the similar fate that will befall Mercy’s hospital in Fort Scott at the end of this year. Kelly doesn’t suggest that Medicaid expansion would have been the magic bullet in either of these cases, “but it would have given those communities some more time to figure out how to reorganize and restructure, so they could continue to provide medical services close to home.”
Given the complexity of the challenges that face rural Kansas, perhaps the most significant move in Kelly’s rural development plan is her desire to create an Office of Rural Prosperity within the administration. “We will filter all policy issues and all budget issues through that office,” explained Kelly, “so that folks can take a look at these things through the lens of rural Kansas and [determine] the impact that either policy or budget issues are going to have on rural Kansas.”
IN A five-candidate race, Kelly’s other major challenge — perhaps her biggest, if the pundits are to be believed — comes in the shape of independent candidate Greg Orman, who, though performing poorer in the polls than many originally predicted, is expected to siphon votes away from Kelly.
For Kelly, though, Orman’s insistence on breaking the supposed party gridlock in Topeka by initiating a new era of third-party politics misses the point entirely, and diminishes the importance of the bipartisan pacts that have motored the bulk of political successes in almost every era in the state’s history. “When you look at Kansas,” said Kelly, “the fact of the matter is that moderate Republicans and Democrats have always worked together. That’s how we’ve been able to get anything done. Democrats have never had enough in their caucus to pass a bill. Neither have moderate Republicans. For as long as I’ve been in the senate, and I think for years and decades before that, it was a matter of moderate Republicans and Democrats working together.”
But, admits Kelly, this sort of grinding compromise and bipartisan consensus-building takes effort and requires a lot of good-faith digging in.
BUT KELLY comes by her bipartisanship honestly. One of the first fundraising calls Kelly made early on in her political career was to her mother. “You expect me to give money to a Democrat?” her mother asked incredulously. And yet, weeks later, when Kelly won her race for senate, it was her mother, nearing 80 by then and as rock-ribbed Republican as ever, who stood alongside her daughter at Kelly’s victory party.
Kelly was raised in a military family, moving from state to state, country to country, base to base. And though both her parents were staunch Republicans, the lessons in her household, as she recalls them, weren’t partisan. They were the silent lessons of hard work. “I think the fact that my dad was in the military — you know, all I saw every day was somebody getting up, putting on a uniform, and going and really doing public service day in and day out.”
This avoidance of fanfare, the burrowing deep into the legislative trenches — these, according to her many colleagues who back her campaign, are the defining characteristics of Kelly’s long political career. But the candidate is conscious, too, that, as the chief executive, she will also be the public face of the state.
“The last eight years have been very regressive,” said Kelly. “Not only in the level of discourse but in the level of actual government services available to people. We can see it wherever we look. Our schools. Our roads. Our healthcare. Our foster care. Our Department of Motor Vehicles. Everywhere you look, it’s really been shattered. … I also think, though, that the role and the reality of being governor is that you set the tone for the state. I think we will be able to help elevate Kansas back to where it used to be when it was seen as a very common sense, moderate place to live, work, and raise your family. And move your business. I think, right now, in addition to the devastation wrought by the tax experiment, we also have some branding issues. It’s how we’re perceived by the rest of the nation. That’s a place where the governor can really make a difference.”
Asked how, in a state as deeply Republican as Kansas, a member of the opposite party is able to remain true to her Democratic ideals, Kelly starts by rejecting the premise: “I wouldn’t even call them Democratic ideals. I think I would just call them human values. I guess it goes all the way back to the whole public service thing I grew up with. Leaders in elected office ought to be there because they’re interested in working on behalf of the public rather than using those positions to further their own personal agendas. That’s what public service really is.”
If elected, Kelly’s new, executive role will still allow her the opportunity to enact her main passion. “I love the [policy] aspect of it. I really like working with other people, I like figuring out a way to problem-solve — how can we get from here to there? That’s what I like. Obviously, being governor will be different than being a senator, but it will get me back to what I like, which is to really figure out how to make something work.”
Kelly smiles. “I’ll be very happy there and in my element.”
And so, as Kelly admits, if there’s a bright side to being a problem solver and a policy wonk in the wake of the Brownback administration, it’s this: she’ll have plenty to do.
Listen to more of our interview with Laura Kelly here: