Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer sat in a hospital room in Overland Park on July 3, waiting to see if he’d get a call because someone was a bit too careless with fireworks.
Colyer, a 57-year-old plastic surgeon, was on call at Overland Park Regional Medical Center the day before Independence Day, ready to deal with a medical crisis at any second. It’s a situation that parallels his current position as lieutenant governor.
Three weeks later, President Donald Trump named Colyer’s boss, Gov. Sam Brownback, the next ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, effectively making Colyer the governor in waiting. The U.S. Senate must confirm Brownback, so it’s not clear when Colyer would take over.
“The reason I’m a doctor and the reason I’m lieutenant governor is to make a difference in people’s lives. And for me when I’m a doctor, I can work one-on-one with a person. It affects their physical and social side,” said Colyer, who lives in Overland Park. “When you’re a lieutenant governor, you’re having to look at, ‘What’s that bigger picture?’ ”
Colyer has played a quiet but significant role in the Brownback administration since being elected to the position in 2010 after a stint in the Kansas Legislature.
Colyer served as the primary architect of KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid system, and has been the main voice in the administration urging against expanding the program under the Affordable Care Act.
“I’ve had a big influence on a lot of major decisions,” Colyer said about his role in the administration. “It hasn’t been, you’re just waiting around twiddling your thumbs.”
His elevation to governor comes only two years after he was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation that stemmed from questions about a $500,000 loan he repeatedly made to Brownback’s 2014 re-election campaign.
The U.S. attorney’s office, which usually does not comment on investigations, took the unusual step of confirming no charges would be filed against Colyer in June 2015 after the Brownback administration had announced it.
Colyer has resisted answering questions about the investigation in the years that have followed, but it’s a question that will likely dog him if he enters the race for governor, which already includes conservative firebrand Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Brownback said Thursday that he doesn’t know the time frame for a confirmation vote for his nomination, so when Colyer will take over as governor is unclear.
But they’ve already been discussing the transition process, Brownback said.
“Jeff’s his own man, his own person,” Brownback said. “He’s an accomplished physician. … He’s really highly qualified on health care issues, which will be a big issue depending on what the president and Congress does on health care.”
Lawmakers of both parties, however, have been salivating for months at the prospect of Colyer’s elevation to the post, hoping that it will give them a chance to reset the relationship with the executive branch, which became increasingly fraught in the final years of Brownback’s governorship.
“I think that we can just shake all of that off and continue anew,” said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican who often clashed with Brownback’s office.
Clayton said Colyer has treated her with “decency and respect” despite their political differences in the past and that she’s optimistic this will give the state a chance to move forward in a positive direction.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who served with Colyer in the state Senate, predicted that Colyer will be more willing to compromise on policy than Brownback.
“I don’t know if he is as ideologically locked into things as Brownback is. I don’t think ideology is what really drives him,” Hensley said. “I don’t know if he’s what I would call a ‘true believer’ like Sam Brownback.”
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said Colyer is still very much in line with Brownback ideologically, but that he’ll bring a fresh perspective to the position because of his experience as a doctor and a humanitarian.
Colyer has volunteered as a doctor in war zones around the globe as part of the International Medical Corps. His most recent trip was to the Central African Republic last year, where he treated refugees who were fleeing Boko Haram for gunshot wounds and other injuries.
Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican who sat next to Colyer in the Kansas House, said that “a lot of times, he would leave on a Friday and fly somewhere and do free surgeries and then come back.”
Colyer’s patients closer to home revere him.
For his interview with The Star earlier this month, Colyer invited Scarlett Alex, a 24-year-old teacher from Overland Park, a patient whom Colyer has treated since she was 10.
“I was born with a birth defect. … The right side of my face didn’t grow correctly, and that’s where Dr. Colyer comes in,” Alex said.
“He’s just a big part of my life. He changed my life in such a big way. … He had a part in shaping how I feel about myself and the way I look,” said Alex, who shared a dance with Colyer at her wedding last year.
“I spent a lot of time in a room like this getting prepped and ready going back to surgery, and you always came and said hi, to relieve my fears … like nothing big was going on,” she said, turning to Colyer remembering her multiple surgeries.
“I followed her through school and what she was doing in college. … We got to go through a lot of things together,” Colyer said.
Colyer said when he meets with patients, or parents when he’s treating children, he’ll take them through a goal-setting process and explain to them that “there’s not a perfect route, and so we’re there for them to help them in the long run.”
He said it’s similar to the goal-setting process that policymakers have to go through in Topeka.
“It’s that same idea of where do we want to be in 2025? … How do we move our state forward? I want Kansas to be where her future is, where my daughters’ futures are,” he said.
Colyer, who earned his medical degree at the University of Kansas, has spent most of his adult life in Johnson County after stints at Georgetown University and a fellowship in the Reagan White House, but he grew up in western Kansas.
He points to the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in his hometown of Hays as where his interest in science started that eventually caused him to pursue a career in medicine.
“He was someone that everyone, I think, thought would kind of go on to big and impressive things,” said Mark Tallman, the lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, who went to high school with Colyer and worked with him on the high school debate team.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Colyer is “not a very known quantity to most people, in terms of who he is, what his brand is, what he stands for.”
But that unknown nature, Miller said, gives Colyer an opportunity to develop his brand in the next year.
“I think it will be interesting to see. Is he just going to be Sam Brownback’s mini-me, and support Brownback’s policies and dig in on that, or will he choose to modify and go in a different direction?” Miller said.
Olson expects Colyer to distinguish himself from Brownback in the coming months.
“A lot of people are going to wonder what kind of governor he’ll be, if he’ll be the same as Brownback, or if he’ll be different,” Olson said. “… He’s been in the shadow of Brownback, and I think he will do some things different and I think he’ll probably surprise some people.”
The night Trump was elected president, Colyer found himself on stage in a crowded ballroom at a Republican watch party in Overland Park, struggling to keep the audience’s attention and be heard over loud conversations as the election results came in.
“We all know that the country is divided,” Colyer said at the start of his speech, “and we know that the country has had a lot of problems and there’s a lot of division.”
The country faced something like that once before, Colyer said, back in the Civil War. But Bleeding Kansas became part of the solution of the new America, he said.
“And I think all of us here believe that Kansas is part of the new solution for America.
“And believe me, the rest of the world is watching what goes on in Kansas,” Colyer said to a small round of applause.