Sam Brownback knows what they’re saying.
His tax cuts have ruined the Kansas budget. This year’s legislative session was a snapshot of the train wreck to come. Schools, medical care, the state’s credit rating — all are in jeopardy.
The headlines? Nasty. “The Great Kansas Tea Party Disaster,” claims one. “The Dysfunction of Oz,” proclaims another. Or this: “Kansas’ Ruinous Tax Cuts.” “America’s worst governor.”
They booed at a basketball game. Booed.
Never miss a local story.
“It hurts,” he told The Star in a recent interview.
It could have been different.
He could be in Iowa right now, or New Hampshire, or on the talk shows — a candidate for the country’s highest office. It might have been Sam Brownback on that debate stage, with Donald Trump and the others, bragging about the Kansas miracle. Other governors might be calling, offering endorsements, asking for tips.
Instead, the 59-year old Republican governor has spent his summer picking through the pieces of a state legislative session that set a modern record for futility. His voice had cracked at the session’s end, in June, while meeting with lawmakers. His eyes watered. Was it frustration? Anger? Fear?
All of the above, maybe.
“It was far harder than I thought it would be, or needed to be,” he said. “There was a better way to go about it.”
But he hasn’t changed his mind. His plan will work.
Many Kansans seem surprised at the controversy that swirls around Brownback. They see a quiet, often likable politician — perhaps the most important public figure in Kansas in two generations.
Yet friends and associates say we’ve misread Brownback for most of his career. Perhaps his entire approach to public service made the current debacle almost predictable.
Sam Brownback is a gambler, friends and supporters say. He’s willing to face an avalanche of criticism, and the potential for spectacular failure, if he thinks the reward is worth the risk.
“He’s gutsy, there’s no question about that,” said Barry Flinchbaugh, professor emeritus at Kansas State University and a longtime Brownback friend.
But an appetite for high risk doesn’t fully explain Sam Brownback. Anyone who wants to understand him must combine risk with faith: Brownback’s absolute belief that the path he has chosen for Kansas will succeed.
“He does believe he is doing God’s work,” said author Jeff Sharlet, who once spoke at length with the governor.
Both traits — the absolutism of faith, the enthusiasm for risk — first emerged when Brownback entered public life more than 20 years ago. They took him from a central Kansas farm to a credible campaign for president.
Now the governor finds himself in another place, with a cratering budget, national humiliation and the potential end of his presidential dreams.
Perhaps it was inevitable.
“He’s really a good man. I can’t emphasize that enough,” a longtime associate and supporter said. “He’s willing to make the big moves. I think the public likes that about him.
“What he is not able to do is admit when he’s done something wrong.”
The gambler’s itch struck Sam Brownback at the start of his public life.
U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery called in late 1993. Slattery, a Democrat, told Brownback he was leaving the House to run for governor.
Brownback wasn’t interested in Washington — he, too, was thinking about the governor’s race — but Slattery’s decision opened the seat and changed Brownback’s mind.
“I had a peace about running for Congress,” he recalled.
Brownback was not an automatic choice for the House seat. His resume was thin. He had been state agriculture secretary but had never held elective office. He was just one of a number of rising stars in a party of centrists.
“He was more of a moderate Republican,” remembers Bob Bennie, the conservative political rookie who challenged Brownback in the GOP primary.
Bennie thought Kansans were losing interest in moderates in 1994, and his campaign surged. Brownback responded, reformulating a hazy position on abortion into outspoken opposition.
“He started getting very conservative,” Bennie recalled.
It worked. Brownback won the primary, narrowly, and easily defeated former governor John Carlin, a Democrat, in the general election.
The victories taught Brownback two important lessons that would guide his ascending career: Centrist Kansas Republicans were actually endangered, he now understood. Aggressive conservatism was the path forward.
And there was no reason to wait. Slattery had skipped a favorable environment in 1990, waiting until 1994 to run for governor. Big mistake. Bill Graves won easily that fall.
Better to take a risk now than miss your chance.
So in 1996, when Sen. Bob Dole quit to run for president, Brownback again jumped, asking Graves to appoint him to the seat.
No. Graves wanted his lieutenant governor, Sheila Frahm, a moderate who favored abortion rights.
Fine, Brownback responded. Within days — helped by a favorable ruling from the Kansas secretary of state — he decided to challenge Frahm in the GOP Senate primary, about two months away.
Again, the risk was high. Brownback gave up a safe House seat to challenge a handpicked incumbent from his own party. Lose the short summer campaign and his political career might end before it started.
“No question he rolled the dice,” recalled former Kansas lawmaker Dick Bond, a Graves confidant.
But the gamble paid off. Brownback bested Frahm, then faced Democrat Jill Docking in the fall.
That campaign remains legendary in Kansas, and controversial. Docking appeared to be close until the final weeks, when a mysterious group bought $400,000 in TV ads supporting Brownback. Democrats later found “circumstantial evidence” the money secretly came from Charles and David Koch, the billionaire owners of Koch Industries in Wichita.
Today, Docking thinks the ads defined the race.
“It certainly made a difference in where we ended up,” she said in a recent interview.
Brownback called the allegations about Koch funding “baseless, partisan opinions” at the time, and the brothers have never confirmed any role in the 1996 Kansas campaign.
In any case, the senator-elect shrugged the criticism off. He had risked everything — twice — and won. He ended 1996 as one of the most important politicians in the state, a position he would occupy for the next two decades.
“He is more willing to take on political risk than anyone I have known in public life,” said Fred Logan, a Johnson County attorney and former Kansas GOP chairman.
“He didn’t have to run in either race,” Logan pointed out. “It was an enormous political risk.”
Brownback didn’t waste much time, though, pondering his successful gamble.
He faced a different crisis. He was sick, and he had turned to God.
“I’d just come through cancer in 1995,” Brownback recalled. “Which really changed my soul. It really did. It changed me. … It made my faith alive, and real. God’s real.”
Brownback’s battle with melanoma lasted several months. During the treatments, his religious faith deepened and changed in ways Kansans know but may not fully understand.
He was raised a Methodist. After the cancer scare, he studied alternatives to that denomination, eventually converting to Catholicism under the guidance of John McCloskey, a conservative priest.
Brownback worked closely with Chuck Colson — himself a spiritual convert following his conviction in Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Visitors to Brownback’s Senate office often found Colson there, meeting with Brownback and his staff.
In 1998, Brownback washed the feet of a departing staff member, a ritual gesture of religious humility.
The senator engaged in deep study of William Wilberforce, a fierce anti-slavery activist in the 1800s, readings that reinforced his linkage of religious and secular concerns.
Chuck Hurley, a friend of four decades and a leading figure in Brownback’s unsuccessful 2007 presidential campaign in Iowa, met Brownback in law school.
“I observed him humbly but fervently studying the Bible, in Washington, D.C.,” he recalled.
That highly conservative Catholicism is reflected in many of Brownback’s positions — his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, his ambivalence about capital punishment.
“His faith does inform his politics, in a sincere way,” Slattery says today. “I have never questioned Sam’s faith. I think that’s unfair.”
Charlotte O’Hara, a Johnson County conservative, said Kansans agree with Brownback.
“Gov. Brownback’s stance on social issues is a reflection of the depth of religious values held by him, and the vast majority of Kansans,” she said in an email.
But Sharlet — who talked extensively with Brownback for a book on religion and public life — said Brownback’s faith, and its intersection with public policy, differs in important ways from other populist, religious conservatives such as Mike Huckabee or Rick Perry.
“He’s a smarter and more interesting character than those guys. His religiosity is theocentric. God is at the center of everything, and everything goes through God,” he said. “Fiscal issues were social issues, and vice versa, and they are religious issues.”
Brownback said he once tried to separate his faith from his work.
“But then you live in conflict,” he told The Star. “It’s a unitary life. It’s one life, and you don’t separate Sunday from the rest of the week. … I’m constantly praying through: Is this the right thing to do?”
Brownback’s critics rarely question the sincerity of his faith or its implications for decisions. Virtually all politicians believe in God and cast votes that they think are consistent with that belief.
But some worry Brownback’s deep reliance on faith may have hardened him to the political arts of compromise and conciliation. Belief can become a problem in politics if it overwhelms experience, creating an inflexibility like the one that locked up the legislature this spring.
“He’s less open now,” Flinchbaugh said. “When he was younger, he was more willing to explore. Now, especially on his so-called (tax cut) experiment, he’s pretty difficult. He believes this thing is going to work.”
Former Kansas lieutenant governor Gary Sherrer, a moderate Republican and frequent Brownback critic, agreed: “There’s no room for any other opinion. There’s no sitting down with the leaders in the House and Senate and saying we’re going to figure this out. That’s just never going to happen with him.”
Brownback doesn’t necessarily quarrel with these assessments.
“My faith makes me willing to do things that may look like there’s going to be a lot of physical difficulty. And you just go ahead and do it because you truly believe it’s the right thing to do.”
A third crisis
Three years ago, the risk-taking believer decided slashing the state’s income taxes was the right thing to do.
The fight over Kansas tax policy is now embedded in the memories of the state’s political class: how Brownback first suggested a relatively modest tax reduction, how the state House and Senate squabbled over the details, how the Senate passed a deeper cut no one really wanted, as a threat — to get the House off the dime.
Brownback warned them. He wanted his smaller tax cut, but he’d take this one if he had to. Better to take a risk now than miss your chance.
“Take it,” said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. “If the other side is foolish enough to put more on the table than they meant to, you take it, then you go back and fix it.”
The legislature passed the bigger cut. Brownback signed it.
Moderate Republicans felt betrayed.
“We had the same conversation week after week,” remembered Steve Morris, president of the Kansas Senate at the time. “He was obsessed with trying to reduce revenues instead of doing what we needed to do.”
The cuts took effect Jan. 1, 2013. Income tax rates dropped. Thousands of small businesses saw their tax bills shrink to zero. Brownback waited for what he called a “shot of adrenaline” to kick in, for jobs to grow, for revenue to surge.
The landmark 2015 legislative session was one result. Lawmakers were stuck for weeks, trying to figure out the precise solution for filling a $400 million budget hole. At the end, Brownback addressed Republican lawmakers, begging them to approve a final deal. Some in the room say his eyes watered, and his voice cracked.
Brownback doesn’t deny the emotion of the day. He faced massive budget cuts if the legislature failed, he recalled, and “I didn’t want to do it.”
Yet a repeat of the 2015 session seems a possibility next year, if not a probability. Without a significant uptick in state revenues, budget cuts will be unavoidable and difficult. The state’s Supreme Court may weigh in on the school finance law. The pressure to raise taxes again will be immense.
Brownback thinks it won’t happen. The tax increase he signed in June — the largest in state history — has moved the state closer to his original vision: low taxes on earners, higher levies on consumers.
“We ended up doing in three legislative sessions what I thought should have happened in one,” he said.
Add to that pension reform, privatizing Medicaid, a new plan for school financing — all difficult, all controversial.
“You’re going to get a lot of criticism. You won’t get a lot of love for it,” Brownback said. “But long term, it’s the right thing to do for the state.”
Still, the headlines, and those awful boos, back in the spring, contained a message.
The ultimate dream — the White House — was under siege.
Brownback had thought about running for president for 30 years. Jumped in the race in 2007. Even had a chance in Iowa, friend Chuck Hurley remembers, before Mike Huckabee grabbed the evangelical votes.
“Sam’s a young man,” Hurley said. “He’s now got the executive experience. I know he’s had some serious challenges.
“If in his second term he tackles those, I definitely think he could be a player in presidential politics.”
Norquist agrees: “He’s always somebody people think could run. Getting a guy who was pro-growth … who governed during some of the major issues, teacher unions, left-wing judges, pensions. That’s exactly the zone you want to be in.”
(There have been good headlines, too: “Brownback 2016? Norquist Bets On Kansas Gov” in 2014, “What’s Right with Sam Brownback” a year earlier.)
Except Brownback isn’t that young. If a Republican wins the White House in 2016, his opportunity would likely come in November 2024 — at age 68. Pretty late to run again.
Maybe his time has come and gone. Takes some luck to be president.
And those boos. The bad headlines. They’d come back, in every ad and Facebook post and tweet, or whatever social media exists then. For better or worse, Brownback’s budget gamble now defines him for voters across the nation. It may define him for the rest of his life.
“The risk was, ‘If I pull this off and I cut taxes and make Kansas grow, then my ambitions to be president are enhanced,’ ” Sherrer said.
Brownback insists he’s not thinking about his political future — or anything beyond 2019, when he leaves office.
“I’m really focused on getting things done right here,” he said.
That may require some fence-mending. Last October, a Remington Research Group poll showed 49 percent of Kansans viewed him unfavorably. Just 40 percent saw him favorably.
“He’s alienated himself significantly across the state,” Morris said. “I don’t talk to anyone who likes what he’s doing.”
The recent budget showdown likely made things worse. And next year: school funding, taxes, another possible stalemate.
So the governor who has never lost a statewide campaign may be reaching out, holding town hall meetings — making himself more visible.
Who knows? If the Kansas economy bounces back … if the GOP loses the White House in 2016 …
Could happen. Maybe there’s time for one more gamble.
“The good Lord’s been good to me,” Brownback said. “There will be something out there.
“We’ll see what that is.”
The Star’s Steve Kraske contributed to this report.
Sam Brownback’s biggest risks
1994: Runs for U.S. House and wins, despite never holding elective office.
1995: Diagnosed and treated for melanoma.
1996: On short notice, challenges the governor’s pick for U.S. Senate and wins.
2007: Declares for the presidency; backs off as evangelicals in Iowa turn to Mike Huckabee.
2010: Honors pledge to leave Senate after two full terms; returns to run for Kansas governor.
2012: As governor, pushes for modest tax cuts for Kansans, then signs a bill with much deeper cuts. Results: huge deficits by 2015, and major tax increases designed to plug the hole.