It was a delight to visit the other day with Jay Emler, the longtime attorney and champion of the foulard bow tie, a principled public servant, still a Republican and yet among the few competent administrators left in state government. The others, the right-wing hacks, the Reagan wanna-bes and Strom Thurmond altar boys, the Koch sucklings and John Birch stragglers, they’re holding on to power, and they’re dumber than last week’s Trump tweets. (Pity they don’t know it.)
Emler, though, is one of the few Republicans left in Topeka who cling to the notion that government is primarily to serve the people, and in his case, protect them from the greed of certain corporations, and the ignorance and indifference of their owners and managers. Emler, a former state senator whose legislative district once included the Smoky Valley, has been elected chairman of the Kansas Corporation Commission. His is among the most prestigious and powerful posts in state government. His rise to the top is good news for a government that sorely needs it.
Emler spoke last week at a noon luncheon of the Lindsborg Kiwanis Club, a gathering that seemed as much an old home week for long-separated friends as an occasion to measure the bleak undercurrents of what has become, in Topeka, government by fiat. The man insisted that he would not “talk about politics,” that his assignment is to serve the public at large, and that regulation of the state’s transportation and utilities industries should avoid the stains of political bias, the fetid mists of favoritism. Emler plays his role down the middle, resisting those who would yank him into the gutter. This is now rare in Topeka.
(He did mention that the governor had raided the Commission’s $3 million fund to plug old oil wells leaking pollutants into the aquifer ‒ swept the fund dry, taking the money to plug budget deficits instead, deficits created by the governor’s plan to abolish income taxes for the rich.)
Emler had been a senator in better times, when his Lindsborg and McPherson County sidekick was Clark Schultz, a veteran member of the House of Representatives and longtime chairman of the Insurance Committee. Together, they were the most competent duo to share a constituency in the legislature; no sector or district in Kansas could match them for their experience, expertise and allegiance to the cause of better government. But in short time, they fell into the cross-hairs of Gov. Sam Brownback and his crackpot fringe, and lunacy prevailed at the polls. Both were targeted for defeat in campaigns fueled with money from the billionaire Koch brothers. Schultz ultimately was mugged. A person of the highest trust, he is now a guru with the state insurance department.
Emler only a few years ago was among prime targets in the governor’s campaign to rid the State Senate of legislators who opposed his feverish demagoguery and his scorched-Earth war on income taxes. Emler wouldn’t give in, and won the first round. A half-dozen Republican colleagues weren’t so fortunate, steam-rolled by a governor who demanded allegiance to him, regardless of the interests of district constituents.
Ever the moderate, Emler had seethed at Brownback’s farright politics, his pandering to the fringe crowd, his thuggish tactics to remove opposition lawmakers from office. But the
KCC was among government’s most powerful agencies, regulating the state’s electric, natural gas, telecommunications, oil and gas and transportation industries. A chairman held a lot of that power, and Emler is among the most qualified to have it.
Before he became majority leader, Emler had been chairman of the Senate’s Transportation and Utilities Committee, which oversaw legislation and regulation for the regulators. And in the years preceding his selection as majority leader, Emler was chairman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, the panel that passes on every segment of the state budget.
Emler was appointed to the Corporation Commission two years ago. After 13 years in the Senate, he had become majority leader; more, he had experience and expertise in matters of state finance, allies within party subsets and across party lines; he was honest, almost to a fault, and fearless. Thus, the governor saw Emler as an obstacle in his pathway to dominance. Rather than join a battle that neither he nor Emler relished, the governor offered an appointment to fill a vacancy on the three-member Corporation Commission; Emler, ultimately out-gunned and outnumbered, was no fool. He left the Senate and joined the KCC on Jan. 16, 2014. He was confirmed for a full 4-year term last May.
A Bethany College graduate, Emler earned a law degree at the University of Denver and holds a master’s in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, and is the past national chairman of the Council on State Governments. His most impressive degree is the one in survival.
That Emler remains high in government is evidence that not all good goes unrewarded, only most of it. There is hope yet for virtue.