Sam Brownback stands outside a library in the Argentine district of Kansas City, Kan., chatting easily with a handful of residents and supporters.
He often visited the nearby stockyards as a youngster, the Kansas governor tells the group. Now? It’s a brighter neighborhood with a glistening grocery story and new curbs and sidewalks.
Argentine, like the rest of Kansas, is coming back. His supporters nod.
“When the people get the facts,” Bill Rogers says later, “Brownback will do all right here.”
The Republican incumbent likely hoped his campaign would be filled with such events — a triumphant tour of rebuilt cities, growing farm towns, humming factories, with cheering support from a grateful state.
It has not been that.
Instead, for the first time in his two-decades-plus public career, the Parker, Kan., native is fighting for his political life, forced to defend his legislative record against the relentless criticism of opponent Paul Davis. For months, independent polls have shown Brownback trailing the Democrat in the race.
“There were a number of things we had to change,” Brownback says, explaining his first term. “And we did.”
There can be no disputing the change he’s brought to Kansas since he won the governor’s job in 2010.
▪ Brownback signed the largest income tax cut in state history, reducing individual levies and eliminating some small-business income taxes entirely. At the same time, he signed a bill re-instating and making permanent part of an expiring sales tax.
▪ He privatized management of the state’s Medicaid program. He rejected a $31 million federal grant to set up a health insurance exchange in the state.
▪ He approved tougher rules on abortion services.
▪ He increased funding for the state’s public pensions.
▪ He rebuilt the state’s bank account. His tax cuts, critics claim, will soon eliminate that surplus.
▪ He started a program to lure residents back to rural communities. He engaged in a fierce, unresolved debate with the courts and the Legislature over the adequacy and fairness of public school funding.
▪ He cut funding for a state arts program.
▪ He apologized for his staff’s reaction to a negative tweet from a visiting high school student. He shot too many turkeys on a hunt and paid a fine.
Brownback does not apologize for making headlines, or for changing Kansas.
“Look across the border at (Missouri Gov.) Jay Nixon. Jay didn’t push a heavy agenda,” he says. “The safer route to go is just to not push a heavy agenda.
“I thought we had to change things. I still think it was the right thing to do.”
A life in politics
Brownback’s statewide campaign, probably his last, caps a political career that started early.
Student leader for Future Farmers of America. Student government president in high school — and college. A scholarship to Kansas State University.
At each stop, friends say, Brownback showed the confidence of a natural leader. “He knows how to touch people,” said Fred Logan, a district co-chairman of his campaign.
The young graduate dabbled in broadcasting before moving on to law school at the University of Kansas, where he served again as class president. There he met and married Mary Stauffer, a member of a prominent media family in Kansas.
He bounced around a bit in his early career — teaching law, working in city government — before an appointment, in the mid-1980s, as the youngest state agriculture secretary in Kansas history.
His service was marked by some controversy. Democrats accused Brownback of improperly privatizing oversight of weights and measures in the state, but he deflected the criticism and claimed credit for a rebounding farm economy.
He jumped to federal politics in 1994, running and winning the 2nd District House seat from Kansas, which stretched from the state’s north border through Topeka to the Oklahoma-Missouri-Kansas corner.
While he was quite active his freshman year — pushing to eliminate Cabinet departments, cutting congressional budgets — the restless Kansan set his sights on the Senate just two years later, when Sen. Bob Dole quit to run for president.
Not all Republicans were happy with Brownback’s decision. Then-Gov. Bill Graves had appointed Sheila Frahm to the job and supported her in the primary. Graves and others argued Brownback had pushed to the front of the GOP line.
It didn’t matter. Brownback defeated Frahm by a double-digit margin, then turned to face Democratic nominee Jill Docking in the fall.
He won that election, too, amid allegations that he received secret last-minute campaign help from billionaires Charles and David Koch through a company called Triad.
The businessmen have never admitted involvement in the race, and Brownback has never confirmed knowledge of their money.
Docking is the 2014 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.
A life of faith
In 1995, Brownback faced a personal crisis. A melanoma diagnosis — and recovery — left him shaken, determined to focus on his family and faith as well as his career.
“I want to make it to heaven and be as good an influence on others as I can,” he later told The Star.
Brownback’s faith has long been the subject of examination and conjecture. He has been open about his beliefs and their impact on his policy choices.
Raised as a Methodist, he converted to the Catholic Church in 2002. He lived for a time at a home in Washington operated by the Fellowship, a religious and political organization. He once worked with a Kansas City-based minister who asked God to the heal the “sin” of homosexuality.
A critical story in Rolling Stone magazine called him “God’s Senator.” In the late 1990s, Brownback washed the feet of a departing aide, a gesture of humility, supporters said.
More recently, while governor, Brownback took part in a faith-based rally in Texas called The Response, joining friend and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
“We need your prayers,” Brownback told the crowd. “The nation needs your prayers.”
The Republican’s religious views have long endeared him to socially conservative members of his party. As governor, he’s pursued tougher regulation of abortion in the state, and he remains firmly opposed to same-sex marriage.
Yet the importance of his religious views stretches into areas beyond reproductive and marriage rights. He remains ambivalent about capital punishment. As a senator, he supported immigration reform that critics called “amnesty.”
He sought a government apology to Native Americans. He spent a night in prison in 2006, trying to convince inmates that faith programs could help them return to society.
“I believe in a separation of church and state,” Brownback told the convicts, “but I do not believe in a removal of faith from the public square.”
In 2007, Brownback was convinced his distinct approach to policy and culture qualified him to be president. He ran a brief campaign, then dropped out after losing an Iowa straw poll to other socially conservative candidates.
Asked today if he still has presidential ambitions, Brownback closes the door. Almost.
“I am a candidate for governor,” he says firmly. “That’s it.”
A record to defend
For all the attention paid to Brownback’s personal and religious views, his re-election may hinge on voters’ views of his economic and budget record.
The record is mixed, and subject to fierce debate. The state’s budget surplus has grown during his time in office, and the state has added private sector jobs. The state’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country.
Yet job growth in Kansas has trailed that in other nearby states. And the surplus is largely the result of increased sales tax and cuts in per-pupil education spending.
Bronwback says he was — and is — singularly focused on expanding the state’s population and economy. That’s why he signed the tax cuts, which he still believes will rejuvenate the state.
He also admits to some concern that some Kansas employers are still struggling. The state’s job picture, he says, is marred by problems with Wichita’s general aviation industry.
“It’s still not recovered,” he says. “That’s 25,000 jobs. The other sectors are doing well.”
Critics say the state’s employment figures are only indirectly affected by Brownback’s tax reductions, which were aimed primarily at small business. The cuts were more aggressive than even Brownback originally wanted — and they’ve cut significantly into the state’s revenues in the first 18 months.
That slump, Democratic opponent Paul Davis and others claim, will mean future cuts in state spending: on schools, transportation and other programs.
The governor isn’t backing away. He regrets calling the tax cuts an experiment, but insists they’re performing as promised.
“The right way of looking at it is, we’re well positioned for growth, and some strong growth,” he says.
“Particularly if we could start selling some small jets.”
Agenda for a second term
Brownback supporters in Argentine say evidence of the governor’s work for business creation and neighborhood improvements is all around them.
“He’s produced for this area,” Democrat Tom Valverde said. “We’ve had Democrats in office who haven’t done squat. And this guy has done more than anybody.”
A second Brownback term would bring challenges. The budget will have to be managed, and an FBI probe into the practices of the governor’s associates will likely be completed, one way or another.
Brownback promises further progress if elected: urban opportunity zones, a focus on poverty, better schools and solving the water crisis.
All of that depends on whether a majority of Kansas voters agrees with Valverde or not. The governor, in his toughest race ever, says he’ll be content with their verdict.
“In the end, we’re going to win solidly,” he said.