Government & Politics

Vice President Mike Pence pushing Brownback for job in Trump administration

Vice President Mike Pence has been pushing for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to land a job in President Donald Trump’s administration, according to sources.

Brownback would not comment on a possible appointment during his first public appearance since reports that he is under consideration to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for food and agriculture, a post that is based in Rome.

Pence, a former congressman who served as governor of Indiana, is close to Brownback and has been advocating to find him a job in the administration, according to several people familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice. Trump has considered Brownback for several jobs but has not yet offered one.

Brownback said in August that Trump’s decision to choose Pence as his running mate had helped persuade him to support Trump’s candidacy despite his initial reservations. Brownback went onto serve on Trump’s agricultural and Catholic advisory committees.

“Mike, I know well,” Brownback said in August. “He’s a good man. He’s a man of faith. I have confidence in Gov. Pence, and you know elections are about choices in policy...What he’s shown in the picking of Pence is a willingness to get good people around him, and you’ve got to realize that’s the way a nation is run.”

The two men have shared staffers over the years. Brownback’s former chief of staff, David Kensinger, served as a consultant on Pence’s 2012 gubernatorial campaign shortly after stepping down from his post in the Brownback administration.

The Star’s sources say that talks between Brownback and the Trump administration are ongoing, but the governor refused to clarify the matter Thursday.

“I’m just not going to make any comments about any of that. I’m glad to see the administration off to a strong start on job creation and security issues, which is the key things they ran on, but I’m not making comments about it,” Brownback said Thursday after handing out a humanitarian award to a Kansas physician.

The speculation about Brownback’s future comes at a time when the state is facing major questions about its finances. Kansas faces a budget gap of roughly $1 billion through June of 2019 and must enact a new school finance formula before June 30 this year under an order by the Kansas Supreme Court.

Brownback would not confirm that he plans to remain in Kansas through the end of the legislative session, but he promised that the state would address the major issues facing it before then.

“We’ve got plenty of things going on here,” Brownback said.

“I am focused on getting those things done. We’ve had wildfires this week that have taken a lot of attention. We’ve got a budget situation…We’ve got to get the budget balanced here,” Brownback said.

“We’ve got to get a new school finance formula written. We’re under a court order now. We’re in the remedial phase of that,” he continued. “I’ve been meeting with legislators about it. And we will get those things done. The budget will be addressed. The school funding formula will be addressed. We will get those things done before the end of the session.”

Brownback and lawmakers are at a stalemate in resolving the state’s budget issues. The governor vetoed a bill that would have rolled back his signature tax policies last month, and the Kansas Senate voted down Brownback’s plan 37-1 this week.

The sticking points are cuts to income tax rates and an exemption for business owners, policies that were passed in 2012 at Brownback’s urging but that many lawmakers now want to reverse. Some lawmakers are hopeful that Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer would be more willing to compromise if he succeeds Brownback as governor.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat said, “As a Kansan, I wouldn’t be sad to see Brownback go.

“If he got out a little bit early, I think it would just give us a change right now.”

Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican, said that Colyer could be easier to work with but that not knowing Brownback’s long-term plans hinders lawmakers’ efforts to craft a long-term budget solution.

“If that decision’s going to be made, the sooner the better,” Barker said.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said that the governor has continued to meet regularly with legislative leaders about the budget and other issues throughout the session.

“There may or may not be something happening with the governor…but until we know more we’ll pretty much set that aside,” Hineman said when asked if the uncertainty about Brownback’s long-term plans would impact those discussions going forward.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who joined Brownback at the humanitarian award ceremony, responded to a question about moving into the position as governor by saying his goal “is to be the longest-serving lieutenant governor in the history of the state of Kansas and some time this summer we would hit that milestone.”

Colyer said his job as lieutenant governor is to support Brownback in any way possible.

“I’m just focusing on my job. But the issues we’ve got to deal with right now is let’s make sure that we solve the budget issue, that we grow the economy, that we look after Kansas families,” Colyer said.

The ambassador to the United Nations for food and agriculture serves as the U.S. government’s conduit to international organizations focused on combating world hunger. Brownback spent 14 years on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has a history of championing humanitarian causes in Darfur and other places around the globe.

Asked about his qualifications for the position, Brownback smiled, “Nicely put question. Nicely put. I believe in humanitarian issues. I think they’re important…those are the sort of things that draw us into public service.”

Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said Brownback has told him in personal conversations that “he truly wants to be in mission work.”

“This might fit him very, very well and give him the opportunity to do for the remainder of his career what he really wants to do,” Hawkins said of the possible job in the Trump administration.

Brownback has faced a barrage of criticism both inside and outside the Capitol in the last year for his leadership and unwillingness to compromise with lawmakers on tax policy.

“If people really knew him as a person, they would say he’s a really nice guy,” Hawkins said. “Now you may not agree with his policy, and everybody has their own opinion on that policy.”

Hawkins said he felt there was a “good chance” that Brownback may leave but he didn’t think that would come as soon as some may expect.

Brownback’s son-in-law, Eric Teetsel, joked Thursday that he would have to learn how to say “no comment” in Italian when asked about the governor’s plans.

Kansas Commerce Secretary Antonio Soave, who lived in Italy during a previous career as a professional soccer player, said that he had no knowledge about whether Brownback would be heading to Rome in the future.

“I wish I knew. I don’t,” Soave said. “But I will give him restaurant recommendations, that’s for sure.”

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw