There they were last week, seated in winged-back chairs at Kansas City’s Union Station: Bill Graves, Kathleen Sebelius, Mike Hayden and John Carlin.
Four of the last seven Kansas governors. Two Republicans, two Democrats, and a fifth, Mark Parkinson, sent his regrets, saying he wanted to be there.
Their message was simple: Kansas voters need to wake up and oppose the push to oust sitting members of the Kansas Supreme Court this fall. Five of the seven justices’ jobs are on the line. If voters knock them all out, Gov. Sam Brownback will pick their replacements. That’s 71 percent of the court.
“We’ve seen an unprecedented assault on the judiciary in the last number of years in Kansas,” Sebelius said. “Something that none of us ever experienced, I think, when we served as governors. This is an unusual time.”
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Somehow overlooked in this gathering was just how extraordinary it was. Four former governors of both parties giving voice to a mutual concern. This was probably unprecedented in Kansas or maybe any other state as well.
But something else shouldn’t be lost on anybody. By standing up to Brownback’s vision for the courts, the governors were standing up to Brownback himself. They were taking dead aim at an administration that through its tax and budget policies has done so much to reshape the state they once served.
That was the underlying context, and it was unmistakable. In interviews this week, two of the four governors acknowledged as much.
“All of us have been concerned with the way things have been going,” Hayden told me.
“None of us can tolerate it or accept it,” Carlin added.
The teaming up of ex-governors began this May when Carlin and Hayden spoke at a Wichita luncheon sponsored by a group called Women for Kansas.
“They should be ashamed,” Hayden said that day of Brownback and the GOP-led Legislature. “We either need to get a reversal in course, or we need to get new people in public office.”
Carlin noted then that voters needed to wake up and start electing more moderates. That’s what happened in the August primary when several hard-right conservatives lost.
The Brownback administration has been careful not to push back too aggressively. One reason for that is something called “the code,” which suggests that former governors don’t criticize their successors and current governors don’t critique their predecessors.
You may have noticed that American presidents adhere to something similar.
Carlin acknowledged the rule. But he also noted that the governors would have spoken out sooner had a couple of them not been contractually bound to employers to not engage politically.
This year, the timing was right, and the former governors felt duty-bound to buck the code, he said.
“It wasn’t like there was a great deal of persuading or getting a bunch of people to call any of us to get us on board,” Carlin said. “I think we were ready. I think we’re embarrassed. With our experience, we know how close we are to a (financial) hole you can’t get out of.”
So there they were: Four governors on a hot summer day signaling that they’ve had enough.
It was quite a moment. We may never see anything like it again.