Jeff Colyer finds himself in the right place at the right time, luck or fate bringing him into the spotlight when he needs it most.
On this June day, the governor of Kansas waits to speak to people gathered from across the country for National Right to Life’s annual convention in Overland Park. The crowd is rejoicing the news that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is retiring.
They can see the end of legal abortion, the repeal of Roe v. Wade, on the horizon. And, in their moment of joy, they see Colyer.
The Republican isn’t a man of fire or harsh words. But he is a politician of strongly held views, and his anti-abortion stance is chief among them.
Colyer, 58, tells the crowd of largely older, largely white convention attendees that he has been involved in this fight in Kansas for as long as he can remember. He says Kennedy’s retirement can be a new era, and the battlefield for life could come to states like Kansas.
“And you know what? I think we could have a new Supreme Court justice and then we have justice for our kids and we have a future and your tax dollars are not going to promote this barbaric practice,” Colyer says to a slow but growing round of applause.
After walking out of the morning event and facing a gaggle of reporters, he’s greeted by a lawyer from Phoenix who is enthusiastic after seeing Colyer speak. John Jakubczyk calls Brownback, Colyer’s predecessor, an old friend.
“Frankly, if we had 49 governors that thought and talked like that, and we could get more people to be aware of it, it would be very good,” Jakubczyk says.
Colyer’s path to the governor’s mansion started when Donald Trump was elected president. Soon after, Brownback was widely mentioned as likely to depart for a job in the administration, though it took more than a year into Trump’s term for Brownback to leave Kansas in Colyer’s hands after narrowly winning confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
Colyer, a Johnson County plastic surgeon, inherited a government reeling from years of financial upheaval related to Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts; a strained relationship with the GOP-dominated state Legislature, which had soured on the-then governor and raised income taxes over Brownback’s opposition; and a school finance system that has remained in the focus of the Kansas Supreme Court.
In the five months he’s been governor, Colyer has pushed, as he has said repeatedly, to “change the tone” from the governor’s office. From executive orders boosting transparency to legislation allowing the state to release information after a child dies of abuse or neglect, Colyer has often reacted to the political zeitgeist in a way Brownback either avoided or chose to ignore.
“I think that he definitely has a sort of brand — low key, not Brownback,” said Michael Smith, a political scientist from Emporia State University. “....Really, I shouldn’t say ‘not Brownback.’ I think more than that he’s really branding himself as not (Kris) Kobach. He doesn’t have the brashness, he doesn’t have the confrontational spirit.”
But Colyer’s brief tenure as governor hasn’t been simply smooth and easy.
Soon after taking over the governor’s office, Colyer appointed Tracey Mann of Salina as his lieutenant governor.
Mann immediately faced blowback for comments made during a run for Congress in which he questioned whether then-President Barack Obama was a U.S. citizen and demanded that he show his birth certificate.
Colyer also signed an adoption bill that will allow faith-based adoption agencies to reject gay and lesbian couples.
He enthusiastically signed a new school finance formula, but one that once again was found to be unconstitutional by the Kansas Supreme Court.
“Many of my moderate friends, they know where I stand on public education, that it’s important and that it’s important that we get the money into the classroom and that we have additional funding there and that we stand up for our education system,” Colyer said.
He has continued to oppose Medicaid expansion, despite support for expansion from moderate Republicans and Democrats. And he’s spoken glowingly of the state’s privatized Medicaid program, KanCare, which he helped shepherd as lieutenant governor despite rocky results.
“On health policy issues, I don’t see any difference between Gov. Colyer and Gov. Brownback,” said Sheldon Weisgrau, interim executive director for the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, who is disappointed in Colyer for not expanding Medicaid. “They are carrying out the same policies.”
Since taking office at the end of January, Colyer and his running mate have trotted around the state using the governor’s office in every way they can, from celebrations to parades and public events that can be especially beneficial to a GOP governor facing a Republican primary in an election year.
And as the Republican primary has approached, he’s even started fighting back against Kobach, his chief GOP rival for governor. Colyer lamented Kobach’s losing a court case over the state’s proof of citizenship voting law that Kobach has long championed.
“But not only did he lose, we had a contempt-of-court citation,” Colyer said. “And he paid the fine with a state credit card. And that was a personal sanction that he paid with a state credit card. I think that’s inappropriate.”
Kobach later defended himself in a statement, saying: “The sanction was against the office — not against the Secretary of State personally. Therefore, the office pays — not the person. Colyer does not appear to understand the law.”
“It appears that Jeff is suggesting one should not fight when the ACLU takes you to court,” Kobach said. “He does not appear to understand that whether one wins or loses at the district level often depends on which judge hears the case. This case was always going to be decided at the Court of Appeals level, and that is where we have been planning to win this case all along.”
Like any politician, Colyer returns to familiar lines: He’s looking ahead, not backward (that’s where the remains of the Brownback administration rest), and no one can confuse him and Brownback because no on one confuses Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Colyer said he fully supports Trump and thinks he’s a great president.
“While his style may be unorthodox for many people, for what he’s trying to achieve, he’s got a goal and a plan and he has a history of actually accomplishing things,” Colyer said.
He often finds a way to mention that he’s a surgeon — he continues to perform facial reconstruction surgery — and says that more than anything, he wants to get things done.
“I’m a governor who’s much more active,” Colyer says. “I’m just out visiting with people. We were in six different towns yesterday; today we’re all over the state.”
Colyer’s wealth, and how that money plays into his political career, is sometimes fodder for his critics.
Campaign finance loans brought Colyer great scrutiny in 2014, when he and Brownback were seeking re-election.
On Dec. 31, 2013, Colyer lent the campaign $500,000. It was repaid two days later, after a campaign finance filing deadline.
In July, Colyer again lent the campaign $500,000; again, it was repaid two days later. Democrats accused Colyer of artificially increasing Brownback’s finance totals with a floating loan.
Finally, in August that year, Colyer lent the campaign $500,000. That loan was not repaid until after the election. At the time, Brownback’s campaign called the movement of money “simply an issue of cash management.”
The first loans and their quick repayment drew the attention of federal investigators. Colyer has refused to provide any more details about the loans or the investigation, which concluded in 2015 without any charges.
Asked if he regrets the loans, Colyer said: “If I didn’t have to go through that, sure, I wish I had not.”
Colyer said he doesn’t plan on lending his campaign money this year.
He said he welcomes every Republican into his campaign, moderates and conservatives alike. He worked for President Ronald Reagan early in his career and remembers a lesson from the Republican stalwart.
“What I learned from him is that the glass is not half full or half empty,” Colyer said. “When the glass is 70 percent full, we’ll take that, we’ll work with people. And I think you need to account for people and put that respect there.”
Colyer recently won the support of Charles Brodie, a 71-year-old Republican from Wichita. When he attended the state GOP convention, Brodie was a Kobach supporter. But his mind changed after a June parade in Shawnee where Kobach waved from a Jeep mounted with a replica of a machine gun.
Brodie has served in the military, belongs to the National Rifle Association and has been a hunter all his life.
“And that’s just something you do not do in a parade with little kids,” Brodie said of Kobach. “... So that changed my mind.”
Brodie said he started studying Colyer more and came away impressed.
“Well, I’m finding that he’s a gentleman, and I’m finding that he’s competent,” Brodie said. “And I’m finding that he makes good decisions, and I’m finding that he surrounds himself with good people.”
Though Colyer’s camp has continued on with many ties to the Brownback administration, Colyer has avoided relitigating major issues of the Brownback era like tax cuts.
Colyer remembers a piece of advice he got early on from a woman in Salina: The car windshield is big for a reason, and the rear-view mirror is small.
“You’re going forwards, not going backwards,” he said. “And that’s what I’m looking at.”