Government & Politics

Sources: Brownback in talks with Trump administration about an ambassadorship

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is in talks with President Donald Trump’s administration about taking an ambassadorship position, according to sources close to the governor.

No offer has been extended yet, according to The Star’s sources, but the governor has discussed the possibility of taking a position as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for food and agriculture, a position that would move the Midwestern governor to Rome.

It has been rumored since November that Brownback, who is close with Vice President Mike Pence, could land a job in the Trump administration, but the governor has been tight-lipped about his prospects.

Kansas Public Radio reported Wednesday afternoon that Brownback was poised to be named ambassador, citing an unnamed source who called it a “done deal.”

Several sources close to the governor framed the situation as more tentative than that.

“The Trump administration has been in touch with him about several opportunities, but he’s not made a decision to move forward with any of those at this time,” said one source with close ties to Brownback.

Another source with ties to Brownback described the public radio report as premature, but said that the position would be a great fit for Brownback, who served as Kansas secretary of agriculture and spent 14 years on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“He’d be a good pick for anywhere in the diplomatic corps based on his experience,” the source said.

The ambassador serves as the U.S. government’s conduit to three Rome-based international organizations dedicated to combating global hunger — the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

George McGovern, who was Richard Nixon’s opponent in the 1972 presidential election, held the post from 1998 to 2001.

Two officials in Kansas government also said that Brownback has had discussions about the position but not made a decision yet.

The White House declined to comment on the matter.

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said that he had no first-hand knowledge of an appointment, but that the report is consistent with things he has heard.

Sen. Bud Estes, a Dodge City Republican, said he’s felt all along that Trump would tap Brownback for some kind of job in the administration.

“I fully expect that President Trump will use him in some ambassador function, somewhere, sometime, because I think he’d be fabulous at it,” Estes said. 

Brownback’s office would not confirm the accuracy of the report.

“Governor Brownback is focused on working with the Kansas Legislature to balance the budget and pass a modern school funding system,” said Melika Willoughby, the governor’s spokeswoman.

Pressed on whether she denied the report, Willoughby just repeated the comment.

If Brownback does agree to take this or another position and is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, then Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Johnson County plastic surgeon, would succeed him as governor at a time when the state faces major questions about its long-term finances.

The state faces a roughly $1 billion shortfall through June 2019. Brownback and the Legislature have struggled to find consensus on how to address that. The state also must enact a new school finance system by June 30 after the Kansas Supreme Court concluded that the state has failed to ensure adequate education funding for all students.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said Colyer would have “a great opportunity” to be seen as a problem solver if he can work with the Legislature on the budget deficit, school finance and taxation.

“He has to ask himself, do I want to be a part of the solution, or am I going to continue Brownback’s obstruction,” Ward said.

He said although Colyer has been in the statehouse for 12 years, including his six years in the Legislature, he remains a bit of an unknown.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, echoed this point.

“There is very little known about him,” Bollier said. “Because he has not made himself a prominent figure in this administration.”

Colyer was one of the primary architects of KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid system. His visibility has increased in recent months as he’s been out front on several issues for the administration, ranging from efforts to improve rural healthcare or the long-term goal of building a commercial airport in Johnson County.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, said so far Colyer has shown her nothing but respect and a willingness to listen.

“So I will be cautiously optimistic and will reserve judgment when I see — if he does become governor — when I see what he does, if anything, with his veto pen,” Clayton said.

Dion Lefler and Daniel Salazar of the Wichita Eagle and Anita Kumar of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.