Jeff Colyer rose to the top of the Kansas executive branch Wednesday with events staged not just around his swearing in as governor, but in concert with his dash to get elected to the office and a possible inauguration next year.
Shortly after 3 p.m. in the Topeka Statehouse, he took the oath of office to become the 47th governor of Kansas and became the one person in the race for chief executive who could begin logging time in the role.
“I challenge all of us to come together,” he said after being sworn in as governor, “to work together to show that Kansas is the true heart of America.”
With that, the Colyer era in Kansas government had begun.
In a speech that echoed the optimism of the late President Ronald Reagan, Colyer promised to set a more cooperative tone in the Capitol.
Jabbing his finger against the podium for emphasis, Colyer said he would work with lawmakers to repair the state’s financial challenges and end a stand-off with the Kansas Supreme Court over public school funding.
“I will not be responsible for shutting down Kansas government or our schools,” he said. “This is not Washington.”
Colyer started the day with a pre-dawn trek to his former family farm, a section of rolling grassland dotted with oil wells about 15 minutes from his childhood home in Hays.
Circled by aides, a few longtime friends and a small gaggle of reporters atop a bluff, he talked about working cattle, harvesting wheat and hunting quail on the land with his late father, James Colyer.
“This is what it's all about,” Colyer said, silhouetted against an early morning sky streaked with red. “This is Kansas.”
Next he dashed from one camera-ready moment to the next, stopping at places that reinforced the image his campaign wants to portray as a serious man of faith in touch with his Kansas roots.
At the Catholic school from where he graduated in 1978 Colyer attended Mass, greeting and hugging old friends and teachers as ordinarily loud schoolchildren walked by quietly.
Thomas More Prep-Marian Alumni Director Wanda Billinger could hardly contain her excitement over Colyer’s visit.
“It makes the faculty and the alumni and the school feel proud that this is how he wants to start his day to become governor is to attend Mass this morning with us,” she said.
As people began to make their way into the chapel, Colyer sat in the front row, next to a handful of friends from his class. Among them was Kevin Gottschalck, who said things Colyer learned while attending the school helped prepare him to take the highest office in Kansas.
“Jeff will have that as a governor, look out for everybody, not just his personal needs and just the small group of elite,” Gottschalck said. “He’ll try and take care of everybody the best he can.”
The Rev. Michael Scully, a former teacher at Thomas More Prep, said he saw leadership potential in Colyer in high school, partly because he starred on the school’s debate team.
“We knew that there was something about him that was promising,” Scully said. “We had no idea that it would go this far.”
Next, Colyer toured the West Side Alternative Mental Health Center for Kids. The facility works with the school district to provide mental health services to students.
“I’m serious about solving problems and empowering people to do so and you guys are doing it,” Colyer said. “I appreciate the opportunity to highlight some local solutions.”
Still in the No. 2 job as lieutenant governor, he boarded a Cessna turbo-prop typically used to whisk the governor around the state and headed back to Topeka. His entourage on the plane included special assistant, Clay Barker; the soon-to-be-governor’s spokesman; a free-lance author chronicling the relationship between faith and politics in Colyer’s life; and three Capitol reporters.
Finally, beneath the Capitol dome and standing in front of a large American flag, Colyer was sworn in to applause in a Statehouse packed with Republican and Democratic lawmakers officials from across state government.
“Kansans are often underestimated,” he said, but he looked forward to helping the state’s residents tap into “the Kansas character.”
“We will not compromise long-term outcomes for short-term political gains,” Colyer said. “I will always, always choose the most optimistic path for Kansas.”
His chance to draw the spotlight and build a short record in office comes with the resignation of Sam Brownback. The embattled governor resigned a year before his second term officially ended to become U.S. ambassador of religious freedom.
Now Colyer looks to cut a public profile separate from Brownback, who’s popularity dwindled steadily in recent years after sweeping tax cuts failed to produce a miracle for the Kansas economy. He’s said he wants to strike a more cooperative tone, but his political views track closely with Brownback’s.
Even as Colyer worked through the biggest day to date of his political life, Democrats revealed at least one way they’ll try to stunt his ambitions. With the launch of BrownbackClone.com, the Kansas Democratic Party sought to tie him to the least popular policies of the man he’s replacing.
“Brownback and Colyer worked side by side over the last seven years to dismantle Kansas’ economy, schools, and roads,” the party said in a mid-morning news release. “Now as governor, Jeff Colyer will be nothing more than a Brownback clone.”
Colyer’s call for cooperation resonated with House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican.
“It was a good speech, a forward-looking, optimistic speech,” Hineman said. “I’m looking forward to this new beginning with a new governor.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said the fact that Colyer had already requested a meeting with Democratic leaders was a “good sign.”
“I think that’s a good start,” the Democrat said.
But, Hensley said, he isn’t convinced that Colyer’s policies will be substantially different from Brownback’s.
“I would expect more of the same,” he said, “but I could be surprised.”
Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty was struck by how the optimistic tone of Colyer’s speech contrasted with the doomsday rhetoric of President Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
“This was not a Trumpian speech,” Beatty said. “This was not a speech of ‘oh, my gosh, there’s all these forces against us we have to defeat.’ This was a Reaganesque optimistic speech.”
The transition from Brownback to Colyer took longer than many people expected. Trump nominated Brownback for the position in June 2017, but Senate Democrats pushed back and delayed his confirmation over objections statements Brownback had made about LGBT issues.
The drawn-out process led to confusion and frustration back in Kansas, where state lawmakers began to prepare for the 2018 legislative session. It was often unclear whether Brownback, or then-lieutenant governor Colyer, was really in charge. The situation became even muddier after Colyer began making more public appearances and announcing the appointments of cabinet positions.
Some clarity came when Brownback gave the State of the State address and laid out his budget proposal. In the end, it didn’t really matter, because the U.S. Senate finally confirmed him to the ambassadorship less than two weeks later.
While Colyer will be taking over the governor’s office for the remainder of Brownback’s term, he’s also running in to keep the job for four more years. He’s already raised more than $600,000, near the top of the Republican field.
Unlike Brownback, Colyer’s led a relatively quiet political life. He served in the Kansas House and Senate before becoming lieutenant governor. His biggest impact on Kansas politics is undoubtedly the privatization of Medicaid known as KanCare. The program, launched in 2013, has reduced the cost of providing healthcare to low income, elderly, and disabled people, but increased red tape causing billing disputes that have frustrated patients and providers.
Many legislators have attacked KanCare, and figuring out how to keep the program moving forward will be among Colyer’s many challenges as he moves into the governor’s office.
First among those could be offering alternatives to the state budget Brownback proposed shortly before resigning. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers voiced concerns about how to pay for several items in the budget, including a large increase in school funding.
“I’m going to be working with legislators and there’s going to be a process over the next few weeks,” Colyer said. "I think that we can come to a solution."
The last time an event like this happened in Kansas was in 2009, when then Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson took over for Kathleen Sebelius after she was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services for the Obama White House. Parkinson’s event was simple in comparison to Colyer’s day-long festivities, but unlike Colyer, he had made it clear he would not be running for election at the end of his term.
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. Brian Grimmett, based at KMUW in Wichita, is a reporter focusing on the environment and energy for the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.
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