by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service
They say it takes one to know one. As Kansas governor-elect Laura Kelly soon will be, former governor Kathleen Sebelius was a Democrat leading the state while Republicans controlled the Legislature.
Jim McLean of the Kansas News Service spoke with Sebelius about the support from Republicans that helped Kelly overcome competition from Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach and independent Greg Orman in the governor’s race and what will make her successful in office.
Did the cross-party endorsements of Laura Kelly by prominent Republicans make a difference in the governor’s race?
Sebelius: Bill Graves — my predecessor, moderate Republican, two-term governor … he didn’t endorse me. He had not endorsed a Democrat running for governor. For him to come out right after the primary and make that first endorsement was hugely significant. …
[Former U.S. Sen.] Nancy Kassebaum had not endorsed me. She’s a friend I’d worked with her, but this was a unique situation for both of them and for her, again, to say to a lot of her supporters, women independents, moderate Republicans, ‘I’m with Laura.’ …
And then … to add [former Republican Gov.] Mike Hayden to that chorus was very significant.
How well will Kelly’s reputation for bipartisanship serve her as governor?
Sebelius: I think what she brings is a lot more than a reputation. She has hands on experience in the Legislature, building consensus and building coalitions. She has relationships with a lot of the people who she will be serving with and continuing to serve with. And she also has been elected as a legislator. She knows what that takes, what they’re telling their constituents back home, what they need to produce in Topeka.
I always felt that … it was a huge advantage to me to be a governor who had served in the Legislature because you know the job very well and you know what the committees are like and you know how to get things done. Laura [Kelly] has that in spades.
She also is one of the key budget experts in the whole Legislature. She knows where the money is, what the framework is. …
And what she knows very well is even if all the Democrats vote for all the legislation she proposes, she loses every fight, so she has to have a way to put a coalition together. … It’s a different [coalition], depending on what the issue is — school finance issues may be one group of people; something on criminal justice reform may be a very different group of people; economic development and building roads and bridges may be a third.
But … knowing what that coalition might look like, knowing how to get that done … [Kelly] does not need training wheels for this job. She’s ready to go.
How has the political climate changed since Sebelius was governor of Kansas herself?
Sebelius: I definitely think the atmosphere is more partisan and more poison.
I do think Kansas both in 2016 with a turn to a more moderate Legislature and then again in 2018 have said, ‘we really are not sure we want to be part of that mix.’
… And Laura [Kelly] will be the beneficiary of that, of people saying ‘we want to get some things done,’ ‘we do believe that the state was headed in the wrong direction under the Brownback administration.’
Kris Kobach embraced [Brownback’s agenda] fully and then added some Trumpian features, but the [governor’s] race was really about whether or not the policies put in place by [former Gov.] Sam Brownback and [Gov.] Jeff Colyer should continue or whether we needed to move in a new direction.
And I think the voters pretty overwhelmingly said, ‘new direction.’
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.