It seems for the moment that Kansas is a state with two
governors: Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer. Brownback
officially holds the office but with a frail resignation, his
smile and career both fading, like the decline of a fallen
feudal grandee. Colyer, Brownback’s lieutenant, is expectant
and ambitious, waiting in the wings, a faithful and
obedient understudy now anxious to ascend, to succeed, to
be at the top for at least one glorious moment.
The years of the Brownback Administration have been
long ones. He was first elected governor in 2010 after 14
ordinary and mostly indifferent years in the United States
Senate. He twice ran for president, brief and pallid projects
on behalf of anti-abortion activists and evangelicals of the
far right. Before that he was a congressman and before
that he was the state’s agriculture secretary and before that
he obtained a law degree. Now, at age 61, he has been in
public service more than 30 years, having taken pay from
a federal government that he said he loathed and a state
government he so adored that he tried to dismantle it.
All the while Colyer, the faithful and obedient understudy,
trotted along, a devoted Spaniel defending his master
and the policies that turned the state budget red with
deficits and debt; that slashed at state agencies, starved cities
and counties, decimated local schools, drained colleges
and universities and opened wide the state’s brain drain.
What else? He is – or has been – a sometime legislator
(2007, 2009) but a physician for most of his professional
life, one who traveled the exclusive lanes of plastic surgery
in Johnson County, golden ghetto of the Kansas City
metroplex. Dr. Jeff, the political novice, became Lt. Gov.
Colyer, acolyte to the Pontiff Brownback, and a candidate
to succeed him.
President Trump last August appointed Brownback
ambassador of international religious freedom, a posting
with no embassy and a title so vague that its calling defies
meaning. Nevertheless, Trump’s appointment, a reward
for Brownback’s unfailing devotion, went to the United
States Senate where it quickly gathered dust. In October
the nomination barely passed a committee (11-10) but it
was blocked on the Senate floor. Officially, Democrats
said Brownback had revoked a prohibition of discrimination
against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers
in state government – reason enough to thwart his appointment.
Nor did it help that when Brownback served in the
Senate, he was seen by many as aloof, his staff arrogant
and often rude and occasionally thuggish. Brownback had
carried a sense of entitlement since his early days as a congressman
and in Washington, memories can be a harbor
for retribution as well as reward.
Brownback may yet have his nomination but only if
Trump again sends it to the Senate. Meanwhile the governor,
who expected a rapid confirmation, had turned
many of his duties to Colyer, the governor-in-waiting.
This included preparing a state budget for the next fiscal
year beginning July 1, a monstrous ledger for the flow of,
among other things, nearly $7 billion for the day-to-day
operating expenses of state government including contentious
matters of taxing and funding for locals schools and
state universities, covering the highway fund and expanding
Medicaid (or not), and rescuing the state pension fund.
Colyer had been working on all that, as well as entering
a now-crowded primary race for the Republican nomination
for governor. The governor, nearing the end of his
second term, had expected to resign so that Colyer could
shed his lieutenancy, be sworn in, govern briefly and run
as an incumbent.
But no. Expectations have been stalled. Brownback is
back but still on the way out, no longer relevant and yet
hanging on with resoluteness. He remains governor and
in spite of Colyer’s preparation, was to deliver his eighth
annual state of the state message to the Legislature. Would
it be Colyer’s message or Brownback’s speech, or the
other way around? Our governor seems an apparition, a
hollow visage with talk as vague as dust and whose influence,
like his message, is faded and heading to irrelevance.
And our state, if not its legislature, is left to make some
sense or find some meaning in a governorship that has lost
its way and its purpose.