Sam Brownback wanted to try and leave things on a good note.
Or, at least, with less of the scorched-earth rhetoric that has played into a war of words between the governor and the GOP-dominated Legislature in recent months.
The Kansas GOP torchbearer said he had lunch with Republican and Democratic legislative leaders earlier this week, a farewell before he leaves office Wednesday for Washington, D.C., to join President Donald Trump’s administration.
“I like to clear the air and have a clean slate when I leave somewhere, if possible,” he told The Star in an interview Tuesday.
Brownback leaves Kansas as one of the most unpopular governors in the United States. The onetime presidential hopeful’s clout with the GOP-dominated Legislature has withered away as a more moderate set of lawmakers largely rebelled against his cherished policy ideals and rolled back his earlier tax cuts.
He faced added fury from Republicans earlier this month when he unveiled a controversial budget vision that was seen by GOP leaders reckless.
Those same lawmakers who lobbed criticism at him in recent weeks were once again his audience at the lunch on Monday.
Among those in attendance were Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, and Republican Senate President Susan Wagle. Brownback said his replacement as governor, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, did not attend the meeting.
“I was just thanking them, and saying if I offended anybody, I never meant to,” Brownback said. “There’s honest differences of opinion. And if I did, I apologize.”
“That’s very much like the Sam Brownback I know,” Wagle said Tuesday. “He’s all about reconciliation.”
Brownback said he also spoke with legislative leaders about matters for the future that “are bipartisan, but just clear needs.” Among those topics was Kansas’ water supply and the condition of state buildings.
“This state’s got a bunch of properties that are in dilapidated condition,” Brownback said. “And they need to have investments.”
Hensley, the Democratic leader, said when he first got the invitation, he thought it was disingenuous.
“I don’t know if I’d call it mending fences,” Hensley said of the lunch. “I think it was important for his ego.”
During Brownback’s tenure, Hensley said, he’s had maybe a half-dozen face-to-face meetings with Brownback.
“I’ve served with eight different governors,” Hensley said. And while he said he doesn’t feel any real bitterness towards Brownback, “he by far and away was the worst.”
Brownback said he would fly to Washington Wednesday afternoon, with a swearing-in the day after. In the rearview, he leaves a state Legislature facing a tumultuous session over developing a new school finance formula in an election year, with an incoming governor in Colyer who has yet to specify much in the way of policy ideas.
“If there’s any leftover residue of ill will, (I’d) just like to get it out,” Brownback said of the meeting.
“I’ve done what I can. Whether somebody holds a different feeling, that’s up to them. I just try to do what I can.”