Kansas has not elected a governor from the Democratic party since Kathleen Sebelius, in 2002. Sebelius had been elected and reelected as Insurance Commissioner and enjoyed wide appeal as governor. She was reelected in 2006 to a second four-year term, then left to become Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama Administration. In April 2009, her lieutenant, Mark Parkinson, became governor but did not seek election to a full term in 2010.
Republicans Brownback and Colyer became governors, with Kris Kobach as Secretary of State and High Sheriff.
In the August 7 primary, three Democrats want the party’s nomination to challenge the Republican nominee on November 6. This season is special for Democrats because they seem to suffer an embarrassment of riches; each candidate carries keen perception, sound intellect and prudent reasoning, the first marks of a good governor. The question is, which of them would be a great one?
Laura Kelly is a veteran state senator from Topeka, elected to four consecutive 4-year terms, beginning in 2002, the year Sebelius was first elected governor. She is ranking minority member of five Senate committees, among them Transportation, Public Health and Welfare, and Ways and Means, the panel that deliberates much of the state budget.
Josh Svaty is a former state representative from the Ellsworth area, elected to four 2-year terms beginning in 2002; he became Parkinson’s Secretary of Agriculture in 2009. Svaty left after Brownback’s election to become regional administrator for the EPA for two years and was vice president of The Land Institute until 2015, when he returned to farming in Ellsworth County.
Carl Brewer was elected mayor of Wichita in 2007, reelected four years later, and left office in 2015; he is a retired from a 32-year career in the aircraft industry (Boeing, Cessna, Spirit), including the management team at Spirit Aviation.
These Democrats are consistent critics of the Brownback-Colyer era and persistent advocates for citizen access to health care, for increased aid to local schools and higher education, for adequate and equitable finance in state government. But there are differences.
Brewer has distanced himself from Kelly and Svaty on gun control, claiming that both had sided with the NRA on votes in Topeka. “The NRA is not going to support me today and they’re not going to support me any other day because of my position on guns,” he said in June.
Svaty is known for his prior allegiance to pro-life advocates and his reluctance to support measures that would loosen the state’s tight abortion laws.
In early June, at a debate in Wichita, Svaty said he would veto any new restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.
Big deal, Kelly countered: “Kansas has almost nowhere else to go to restrict women’s access.”
Two of the Democrats have been endorsed by former governors. Svaty has the backing of John Carlin (governor from 1979-1987). Kelly is supported by Sebelius (2003-2009).
None of these Democrats is wild-eyed or throwing out great flames for liberal reconstruction. Each recognizes that most Kansans are concerned with pursuing the routines and enrichments of life, a life of decency, one with a few things for the soul to feed on – and advancing a place that offers promise for the next generations.
The Democrats do vary. But their pragmatic campaigning is in stark contrast to the heat and brutality bellowing from the Republican tent, tight as it has become. One of their candidates, the moderate Jim Barnett, has been banned from party debates because he would not sign a loyalty contract restricting the events to screened questions and an emcee’s script.
Moderation is the Democrats’ signal, and unity among Kansans their anthem. Democrats will go to the polls on August 7, heads high, and vote their slightest differences among three top candidates.
Republicans will tread cautiously, averting their eyes and perhaps holding their noses; their choice is between a candidate denounced for his moderation, another who would continue the Brownback march backward but at a slower pace, and one who sees Kansas 2018 as Alabama 1963, and its governor as George Wallace reincarnate.