Jeff Colyer wants you to know he’s not Sam Brownback.
But he also wants you to know that he’s a conservative Republican willing to strike the same notes, if not exactly sing the same song, as his predecessor.
What Colyer is: a relatively unknown governor who now must run in a heavily contested Republican primary in a state that has largely soured on Brownback.
After months of waiting patiently in Brownback’s shadow, the Overland Park plastic surgeon is the man in charge of Kansas and can enjoy all the attention and recognition the state’s executive office has to offer.
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But with the title of governor comes a major challenge — he’ll actually have to govern.
And doing that is expected to be no easy task with a slow-moving Kansas Legislature that appears, after roughly a month of being back in Topeka, no closer to answering a demand from the state Supreme Court to adequately fund Kansas schools.
The challenge comes in a time of tough budgets in Kansas, scrutiny of the state’s privatized Medicaid system and continued concerns about transparency in state government.
“I can’t do everything in the space of a year,” Colyer said. “But I think people will have a pretty good sense of who Jeff Colyer is.”
To some, Colyer is just another name among more than a dozen candidates running for his spot. But, of everyone in the field, he has the most power to change the state at a moment’s notice. That also makes him an easy target for Democrats who publicly loathed Brownback and Republicans who will question whether Colyer is either too conservative or too moderate for their tastes.
Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who leads the House budget committee, said that for Colyer, establishing a direction in the next few months will be critical for his governor’s race.
“You already have a slate of candidates, all the different ideologies and perspectives,” Waymaster said. “And he’s going to be coming in as the incumbent, so he has to set the stage for his gubernatorial campaign by what’s doing in the next few months.”
According to a survey last year by Fort Hays State University, only 38 percent of those polled had heard of Colyer; it was Kobach who had the highest identification at 86 percent. Yet in fundraising, Colyer managed to outperform Kobach last year.
“I think he’s still trying to get his feet underneath him and get some momentum, so I think it’s too early to tell whether he’ll succeed,” Kobach said. “But I am somewhat disappointed in his lack of specific policy directions.”
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said being governor “really helps” Colyer.
“He’s going to get name recognition,” Beatty said. “... He offers himself to conservative Republicans as the alternative to Kobach, and having that, even if it’s only for 11 months, that mantra of the governorship helps a lot.”
Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said Colyer must use his time to “separate himself and demonstrate that he’s a different leader than what the previous governor was.”
Colyer will talk about how he will be different, but he won’t criticize Brownback by name.
“Nobody confuses Trump and Pence,” Colyer said. “Nobody does with this. I’m not interested in looking backwards. I’m interested in looking forwards and I think that’s where Kansans are.”
In his first full day as governor, Colyer made a point of meeting Democratic legislative leaders. But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said that he thinks the change Colyer will bring is “more cosmetic than anything else.”
Among the topics covered in the meeting was Medicaid expansion, Hensley said.
“While he gave us what I thought was a rather convoluted answer, the answer in a word was no. He’s not going to support Medicaid expansion, so we’re going to have to do it over his veto,” Hensley said. “... He may be a little more inclusive. I can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of times I’ve met with Brownback.”
Early on, Colyer has emphasized transparency and taken on issues of sexual harassment by issuing executive orders.
Both topics have been prominent in Topeka of late, so it was not a surprise when Colyer was asked why the issue of transparency was reaching critical mass now for him.
“If I’d have been governor earlier, I think you probably would have seen a bunch of this earlier,” Colyer said.
He announced the executive orders on transparency Wednesday, during a joint address to the House and Senate.
As Colyer left the chamber, some Republicans offered kind remarks on his speech, while others remained skeptical. Democrats said he was more of the same.
But, at least for a moment, they were thinking and talking about Colyer, what he was, what he could be, and not focused on the man who had come before him.