Government & Politics

Laura Kelly sworn in as Kansas governor, promising a new chapter after partisan fights

Laura Jeanne Kelly became the 48th governor of Kansas on Monday, promising a new chapter for the state based on compromise.

Kelly’s inauguration places the governor’s office back in the hands of Democrats after eight years of leadership under Republicans Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer. With the House and Senate firmly under GOP control, the state returns to an era of divided government.

She takes over a government that is improving financially but facing key challenges in education and social services.

Kelly and Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers both took the oath of office on the south steps of the Kansas Capitol, with hundreds watching amid freezing temperatures. Banners behind them proclaimed: Equality, Education, Opportunity.

“We must work together in the spirit of putting the collective good ahead of any individual ambition or agenda. We must seek to lift up all Kansans regardless of whether they look like us, think like us, worship like us, love like us or vote like us,” Kelly said in her inaugural address.

Over time, public service began to give way to partisanship, Kelly said. “Kansas lost its sense of self, its sense of community,” she added.

Elected officials bear a special responsibility to live by the examples set every day by Kansans who seek to make their communities a better place to live, Kelly said.

When Kansans help each other, they’re not doing it as Republicans or Democrats, “they’re just doing what’s right; doing their part to make life a little better for those around them,” she said.

“We need to bring that same spirit of service and cooperation back to this building,” Kelly said, referencing the Capitol. “And let the insults and finger-pointing give way to compromise and a handshake, by putting down the partisan swords and lifting up the values that unite us as Kansans.”

“Because in a day and age when our politics can seem so small, we must be as big as the people who sent us here.”

‘It’s who we are’

Kelly, 68, ascended to the governor’s office after serving 14 years as a state senator from Topeka. She is the third woman to be governor of Kansas, following in the footsteps of her longtime friend and mentor, Kathleen Sebelius. Joan Finney, the first woman governor, served from 1991 to 1995.

During her campaign, Kelly railed against the devastation she said had been brought to state government under Brownback. She called for reinvesting in state agencies and operations but said rebuilding could take years.

On Monday, Kelly didn’t name Brownback, or talk about the bitter fight surrounding his signature tax cuts and their eventual rollback in 2017 – or any other specific policy or controversy.

But she made clear she believed Kansas politicians lost their way.

At some point “that spirit of neighbor helping neighbor that runs so strong in our communities failed to extend into this building,” she said.

She also described this as a unique moment in America’s history, where “the values that shape our very foundation are being tested. The ideals that bind us are being strained. And sometimes it can feel like the forces of division are succeeding.”

But it’s in those moments, Kelly said, “that Kansans always shine. It’s who we are.”

In his final hours as governor, Colyer said his advice for Kelly is to listen to all Kansans.

“They have a lot to say and have great ideas. If you bring everybody into the table, you can accomplish a lot. But make sure everybody is there,” Colyer said.

Former Gov. Mike Hayden, a Republican in office from 1987 to 1991, said Kelly struck the right tone in her address. Kelly has the temperament to be successful, he said.

“She does it just right. She’s not confrontational, but she clearly is charting a new course and we’ve needed that,” Hayden said.

‘A bipartisan manner’

There are no shortage of differences between Kelly and the Republicans who wield power in the House and Senate, on issues ranging from abortion and Medicaid to taxes and welfare.

Republicans are skeptical that her agenda – she has so far said she intends to focus this year on education, Medicaid expansion and social services – is affordable. A $900 million is predicted this year, but they point to projections that show the balance shrinking in coming years.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, spoke to lawmakers after Kelly’s speech. He said they have a responsibility to think beyond what is politically expedient in the the short term and have enough discipline to come up with long-term solutions to the problems facing Kansas.

He called for a “stable budget and tax policy that doesn’t overspend Kansas into a fiscal crisis.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has said Kelly’s campaign promises would put Kansas “in the red.”

Republicans also have plans of their own, including passing a tax bill that would return any extra revenue the state receives because of differences between state and federal tax law. Kelly has said she doesn’t want to change the tax code this year.

Democratic lawmakers will be under increased pressure now that their party is in the governor’s office. They have a greater responsibility to help govern, said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita.

“We need to work in a bipartisan manner,” Sawyer said.

Rep. Tom Cox, R-Shawnee, said he hopes divided government will foster more compromise across the board.

Cox, who considers himself a more moderate Republican, hopes Democrats and Republicans will avoid “bomb throwing” as the session gets underway. Republicans should avoid sending Kelly bills she would obviously veto, he indicated.

“That’s bad governing. That’s not genuinely trying to solve problems,” Cox said.

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Kelly had to strike a conciliatory tone in her inaugural address because Republicans hold significant power in the Legislature.

“She simply doesn’t have the votes not to be,” he said.

Assembling a team

To guide her, Kelly has assembled a team that in most cases represents a sharp break with the Brownback and Colyer administrations.

Kelly has named a new leader at the Department for Children and Families, Laura Howard, replacing current secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, who Colyer brought in to reform the troubled agency.

To lead the Department of Corrections, she has brought back Roger Werholtz, a corrections secretary from the Sebelius administration. The state’s prison system came under scrutiny in 2017 over several disturbances and continues to face problems recruiting and keeping staff.

But Kelly has also made bipartisan appointments. She is retaining Colyer’s budget director, Larry Campbell, and she is keeping, for now, the leader of the Kansas National Guard, Adjutant General Lee Tafanelli.

Kelly will provide her formal policy agenda on Wednesday, when she delivers the State of the State speech. She will release her budget proposal, laying out her priorities in detail, on Thursday.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.