Overland Park & Leawood

Ray Merrick: Speaking for the outsiders

Welcome to Raymerricka.

It’s a world wryly known for wanting to create jobs, shrink government, preserve basic taxpayer services and expand personal freedoms.

It’s a world embodied by its leader, Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick, who rose from the humblest of beginnings, born in a cabin in a rural western Canadian town with a population roughly the same size as the chamber he now leads.

While Merrick’s sphere of influence is dryly — and fondly — referred to as “Raymerricka,” it connotes an image in the statehouse of the Johnson Countian’s conservative leanings and his ability to build a life for himself out of poverty.

“Ray epitomizes starting off with no social or economic silver spoon of any kind and comes here and builds the American dream,” said state Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican who ran for the Legislature in 2008 with Merrick’s encouragement.

At 73, Merrick became one of the most powerful leaders in state government when he was elected last December speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives.

His election culminated 18 years in Kansas politics, starting in 1995 when he was thumped in a race for the Blue Valley school board. Five years later he was selected by Republican precinct committee members to fill a vacated seat in the Legislature.

Throughout his time in the Kansas House — with a two-year stopover in the state Senate — Merrick has flattened political challenger after political challenger even as he butted heads with established political leaders in Overland Park.

As a lawmaker, he has taken up sides against Overland Park — the state’s second largest city — as it sought to expand its boundaries. He battled a proposed parkway linking southeast Johnson County with Missouri. He opposed the pursuit of new taxes for academic research in Johnson County.

And in recent weeks, he’s been at the center of the protracted tax debate in Topeka, resisting Gov. Sam Brownback’s efforts to renew a six-tenths of a cent sales tax that was approved in 2010 and is scheduled to lapse this summer.

So far, he’s refused to go along with extending the full six-tenths of a penny, opting instead for going halfway, to three tenths. Where it will end up is uncertain.

Many who know him don’t think he will roll over as easily as the Senate did last year when it passed a controversial tax plan that Brownback signed into law.

His critics say he’s stubborn. Supporters think he’s tenacious. Either way, Merrick is someone who will not be intimidated.

“He knows what he believes and knows why he believes it. He’s not scared to defend it,” said state Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican.

As Merrick has risen through the ranks of the Legislature, he has developed a reputation as a crafty pol who sticks up for the interests of rural southeast Johnson County.

Over the years, he’s been credited for helping raise money for like-minded legislators and helping them get elected. Those who have worked alongside Merrick say he works with a purpose and a goal.

“I think he’s read Machiavelli,” said local lawyer Rod Richardson, who serves with Merrick on a rural fire district board.

“I think he knows what he has to do to get things done, but he’s not going to (dump) on you to get it done,” Richardson said. “He has a pretty good idea of where he wants to go and how he wants to get there.”

Merrick served in the House from 2000 to 2010, rising to the rank of majority leader. He was appointed in 2010 to serve out the term of former Sen. Karin Brownlee, who took a job with the Brownback administration.

Merrick returned to the House this year, where he ran for House speaker, beating out Olathe Reps. Arlen Siegfreid and Lance Kinzer.

Even those who don’t agree with Merrick’s politics believe he represents the interests of southeast Johnson County well.

“I think he has his finger on the pulse of the district as well as anybody,” said Kevin Neuer, who used to live in south Johnson County where he battled the proposed the parkway.

“Given the state of the Legislature today, he is as good a representative for that area as could be found,” said Neuer, now a Lee’s Summit resident who concedes he’s more liberally inclined than Merrick.

Ray Merrick didn’t even come into this world as most know him today.

Ray Coburn was born in 1939 in a cabin in the hamlet of Mirror Landing — now known as Smith — in a thickly wooded area surrounded by lakes and streams about 100 miles northwest of Edmonton in the western Canadian province of Alberta. He was delivered by a traveling nurse who was paid $10 for her services.

Merrick’s father deserted the family by his second birthday, leaving his mom to care for him and a sister who was older by 18 months. The family left Canada for Sioux City, Iowa, in the mid-1940s so his mom could track down her husband and find work. It was there she forced Merrick’s father for a divorce.

Merrick’s mom took on three jobs to hold the family together, one in a meat-packing plant and two waitressing jobs. “We were definitely poor,” he said.

He recalls the time when he got a new bike for Christmas. He thought the neighbors had taken up a collection to buy the gift since his mom didn’t have the money.

But it turned out she had been stashing money away for the Roadmaster.

“Man, it was fancy. It had a light and chrome fenders,” Merrick said with a laugh. “That bike meant so much to me, I had it repainted many, many times.”

Merrick’s mom ultimately married again. Her new husband adopted Ray and his sister. Ray took his father’s name, becoming Ray Merrick.

Looking back on those early years, Merrick believes they helped mold his conservative political philosophy of today. “Money meant something,” he said.

Merrick has spent many years in the private sector, starting as a salesman for Folgers in 1965 and retiring as a senior vice president for Myron Green Cafeterias in 1996. He now owns a shopping center maintenance consulting company.

But it’s his military experience in the Marines that colleagues cite as one of his strongest personal and political attributes.

Merrick served in the Marines as well as the reserves from 1960 to 1967. He underwent the rigors of military life including prisoner-of-war training and waterboarding.

Many who know him believe his military training instilled self-discipline that is evidenced in his daily regimen, which begins at 5:30 or 6 in the morning each day and ends around 10 p.m.

At the Topeka home he had shared with roommates during the legislative session, Merrick the Marine sometimes surfaced.

He is meticulously neat and gets annoyed when roommates constantly flip TV channels with the remote, said Rep. Steve Huebert, a lawmaker from Valley Center who’s bunked with Merrick in Topeka and thinks of him as a father figure.

“He’s just a guy that likes order, likes the routine and likes keeping things picked up,” Huebert said.

The discipline was seen in Merrick’s focused drive to get a tax-cut bill and a budget passed in 80 days compared to the 90 days scheduled for the legislative session.

Merrick is credited — or blamed depending on the legislator — for holding back legislation that could sidetrack the House from focusing on taxes and spending.

“Ray wanted to show that when you have a conservative House, you have a conservative Senate and you have a conservative governor, you can in fact govern, and you can in fact get things done,” said state Rep. Steve Brunk, a conservative Wichita Republican.

“Job One is to do what is necessary to put policies in place that will attract businesses,” Brunk said. “It is to that end that we have a very narrow and focused agenda this year.”

Even so, Merrick failed to meet his 80-day deadline as the debate over extending the sales tax ground to a halt. Finishing in the scheduled 90 days looked iffy until budget and tax negotiations heated up Tuesday afternoon.

The House took a very different different approach to taxes than what Brownback called for at the beginning of the legislative session and what the Senate eventually passed.

The House has been reluctant to renew the six-tenths of a penny sales tax while wanting to cut more spending. Brownback and the Senate want to renew the tax.

Negotiations have been dragging on for days with little sign of action. The House agreed to meet the Senate halfway with a three-tenths cent extension, but the Senate has not been willing to budge so far.

Merrick’s resolve makes him a formidable political force.

“When you’re not scared and you’re willing to lose on principle and negotiate on principle, there’s a lot of people willing to follow you,” Schwab said.

Lawmakers say this session could have been easily steered in a more conservative direction if Merrick had wanted. They note that there were bills on immigration, regulating sexually oriented businesses and banning abortion at the point a heartbeat is audible that didn’t advance.

At one point early in the session, Merrick made it clear he didn’t want the House spinning out of control on issues beyond the state’s fiscal health.

For instance, Merrick showed no interest in moving any kind of large-scale bill regulating illegal immigration.

“If we get into that this year, it’s going to be very, very lengthy and I don’t think we have time to do some of that stuff; same with the social issues,” Merrick said early in the session.

“We need to do the fiscal stuff. I think that’s what the people think we should be here for,” he said. “I’m not looking for things like that to take us away from the fiscal debates.”

But Merrick has been criticized by some lawmakers for limiting debate too much.

He’s been knocked for not moving bills to expand Medicaid coverage for the poor, preventing the developmentally disabled from being placed into the state’s new managed health care program and requiring insurers to add treatment for autistic children to basic health coverage.

“Over and over you see a leadership style that avoids debate, avoids difficult decisions,” said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat.

But Merrick said he has tried to include everyone in the process. Has everyone gotten what they wanted? Probably not, he said.

“There’s a time for everything and everything has its time,” Merrick said.

For someone whose job it is to be “speaker,” Merrick is a man of few words.

You won’t find him slinging insults or outlandish political rhetoric at the microphone. In fact, he acknowledges that he rarely has gone to the mic at all during his tenure in the Legislature.

“I tell new people, ‘Listen to the room,’” Merrick said. “The person that goes to the mic all the time, the volume of the room goes up. For the person that doesn’t go up there very often, there’s a hush in the room.

“I want to be the hush in the room.”

Friends and colleagues say Merrick prefers to work outside the limelight, building personal connections with Republicans, including those with more moderate leanings.

They see that in Merrick’s ability to forge relationships outside the Johnson County delegation, especially with lawmakers from the Wichita area and western Kansas.

“It can’t be all Johnson County,” he said.

The book on Merrick — in Topeka and back home in Johnson County — says he will always listen to an issue and then tell you how he sees it. He’s not disrespectful.

“If he disagrees with your issues, he’ll tell you right up front. He won’t glad-hand you and send you away feeling good about yourself,” said Darrell Dougan, a south Johnson County resident active in politics who serves on the local fire district board with Merrick.

But others see a stubborn streak in Merrick, sometimes making an issue personal and refusing to compromise.

“I do not see him as a negotiator. I do not see him as a listener,” said one former longtime statehouse lobbyist.

But others see Merrick as someone who tolerates differing views.

Moderate Republicans, for instance, talk about how Merrick treats them with warmth and respect even though they were crushed in the last election.

State Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Republican from Fairway, said Merrick met with her over breakfast before the start of this year’s session to learn her interests and goals.

Although Rooker and Merrick don’t agree on some major issues, she believes that talk led him to put her on the House education committee, where she helped defeat an effort to ban Common Core educational standards.

“I was really impressed that he would take that time and make the effort to get to know me,” Rooker said. “It was significant to me because it was a mark of respect.”

A similar view is shared by House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.

Davis said that Merrick understands the role Democrats play in the Legislature.

“He knows we’re going to irritate him from time to time. He doesn’t take it personally,” Davis said.

Soften-spoken and approachable, Merrick doesn’t have the same forceful presence as former House Speaker Mike O’Neal, but that doesn’t mean he is any less of a political animal.

Merrick is known less as an arm-twister than as someone who gauges the chamber’s temperature and figures out how to move legislators in a certain direction.

Colleagues believe Merrick is a shrewd politician who can count votes as well as anyone. They point out that Merrick has been careful not to force divisive debates on issues that would fracture the Republican caucus.

“I think people underestimate him as a political strategist,” Davis said.

Davis points to Merrick’s positioning on the sales tax. He credits Merrick for standing up against Brownback’s plan to renew the sales tax increase.

“There is a lot of pressure on him to conform to the governor’s wishes, and he has been pretty up front about the fact that he’s not going to do that,” Davis said.

Over the years, there have been two different perspectives of Ray Merrick back home in Johnson County.

There’s the view from outside the Interstate 435 loop. There, Ray Merrick is a champion of the county’s rural interests who wants to protect their lifestyles from urban encroachment.

And there’s the view inside the I-435 loop, where Ray Merrick is the one who’s needled the Johnson County power structure over the years as he has taken sides against the city of Overland Park.

He has opposed Overland Park’s attempts to expand its boundaries by trying to place new limits on annexation. He opposed state bonding for the Wonderful World of Oz project, which was eventually rejected by the Johnson County Commission.

And he unsuccessfully fought efforts to raise local taxes for the Johnson County Education Research Triangle, an initiative that funds scientific study in the areas of cancer, food safety and business, engineering and technology at three state university campuses within the county.

While supporters of the research effort said it was an example of the kind of visionary thinking that built Johnson County into an economic engine, Merrick saw it differently.

“It’s the good ol’ boy network here in Johnson County that’s pushing it,” he said at the time.

He called the triangle “nothing more than a government-subsidized personal dream project” that “ties the hands of government.”

Merrick’s thoughts about the project are the same today as they were when it was passed.

“I’m not hearing a lot about what they’re doing out there and the return on investment,” he said. “That should be heralded if they’re doing a lot of good things out there.”

Merrick says the answer to improving the quality of life isn’t necessarily based on spending money.

“I don’t see how I have had an impact on (Johnson County) being less than what it can be,” he said. “I don’t have any visceral dislike for Johnson County. Hell, I live here.”

Over the years, Merrick’s been no friend of the issues supported by the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce. Merrick has voted with the chamber about two-thirds of the time during his legislative career and only 28 percent of the time when he was in the Senate in 2012.

He parted with the chamber by supporting the tax cuts that Brownback signed into law last year. Those cuts left an estimated $744 million hole in the state budget for fiscal year 2014.

He also went against the chamber with votes to let the governor pick appeals court nominees and measures that would have reduced sales taxes by taking money out of the state highway plan.

Merrick readily acknowledges that he’s been a thorn in the side of Overland Park and adds, “I’m very, very proud of it.”

And that’s worked for him.

Merrick has represented southeast Johnson County for 13 years in the Kansas Legislature. He hasn’t had an opponent since 2008. He’s had six contested races since 2000, never receiving less than 53 percent of the vote.

“It says a lot about taking care of your district,” Merrick said. “The causes they’re interested in are the causes I’m interested in.”

Merrick acknowledges that relations with the Overland Park chamber have not always been amicable. “I’ve been controversial on a lot of issues that the chamber’s been for,” he said.

But he said he thinks the relationships with the chamber and the political establishment inside the I-435 loop have improved. “If there’s a problem, it’s their problem. I don’t have any animosity toward them,” he said.

Larry Winn III, a longtime Overland Park political insider and chairman of the chamber’s board, said that since Merrick has been speaker he has shown an interest in the views of the city’s business community.

“I have found him to be very knowledgeable and open-minded,” Winn said. “We may still have a contrary position, but at least it’s on a much higher intellectual level than it has been in the past.”

Richardson, the fire board chairman, said he thinks Merrick’s politics are rooted in the rural interests of the county.

“I think he is very sympathetic to people that would like to live unmolested by the bureaucracies of the expanding cities,” Richardson said.

But Richardson said he thinks Merrick has a pragmatic streak. While Merrick may advocate small government, he doesn’t want to cut government at all costs.

He said Merrick understands that Johnson Countians treasure public safety, and he has been willing to spend the money to provide the service. For instance, Merrick supported a property tax increase to pay for replacing the fire district’s fleet of trucks.

“He has not banged the table to lower the mill levy to the point where we have to carry water by buckets to put fires out,” Richardson said.

In another example of pragmatism, Merrick in 2006 supported giving the initial $5 million seed money for the University of Kansas Medical Center to build a world-class cancer center.

At the time, Merrick said the project would reduce “brain drain” from Kansas, increase the flow of federal research dollars to the region and create jobs.

It was an unusual twist from this year, when Merrick has defended a proposed 4 percent cut in higher education.

Merrick supported money for KU after learning of a neighbor boy who died of a brain tumor. Merrick was swayed by the case the boy’s family made for the money and because the disease touched his life as well. His first father died of cancer. So did his sister-in-law.

He’s proud of getting that money in the budget and still is today. Not all government spending is bad, he said.

“If it’s the right thing, that’s what we’re here for,” Merrick said. “Is this needed or not needed? I’ve tried to look at things through that lens.”