Government & Politics

Greg Orman, independent candidate for Senate in Kansas, still a cipher for some voters

Polls show independent candidate Greg Orman is leading Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, but the Olathe businessman remains something of a mystery. “I can go to Washington as a problem-solver, not a partisan,” he says, but his critics see something else: a reluctance to take a stand.
Polls show independent candidate Greg Orman is leading Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, but the Olathe businessman remains something of a mystery. “I can go to Washington as a problem-solver, not a partisan,” he says, but his critics see something else: a reluctance to take a stand. The Associated Press

Greg Orman: Businessman, candidate, mystery.

Ninety days ago, those descriptions seemed appropriate. Few Kansans knew anything about the 45-year-old Olathe resident pursuing a then long-shot independent campaign against incumbent U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican.

Today — in a development that has grabbed headlines across the nation — Orman leads Roberts in most polls with party control of the U.S. Senate potentially at stake.

Yet Orman remains a curious cipher. In a recent poll, more than one in four likely Kansas voters said they hadn’t heard of Orman or were unsure of their opinion of him.

Some confusion is inevitable. Orman has run for office just once, dropping out long before the ballots were printed. He has no legislative voting record. He claims no membership in a political party.

“It’s not easy to understand who I am,” the candidate says.

Some of the mystery is the result of calculation. Orman’s staff turns aside almost all non-local interview requests, limiting his public exposure and possible mistakes. Local reporters have complained about access, though staff members say they try to hard to accommodate local requests. His campaign schedule is obscure.

In speeches and TV ads, the independent has walked a careful path, often offering this-but-also-that statements. His debate performances have been competent, careful, businesslike affairs.

If the 2014 U.S. Senate race is Anybody But Roberts, as some believe, Orman seems content to be Anybody.

Early ambition

Some voters may see Orman as a political neophyte, a businessman who was so disgusted with Washington he decided to leave the private sector to do something about it.

In fact, Orman’s thirst for a public life appears to have started decades ago.

In 1986, the Mankato, Minn., high school student traveled to Washington for Boys Nation, a summer program for budding politicians.

Orman ran for president and won. Patrick Ungashick, then of St. Louis, was elected vice president and remembers Orman in the thick of the chase for high office.

“It’s a mock election, but it’s taken quite seriously,” Ungashick says. “There’s heavy campaigning and caucusing. … It was an intense, condensed, frantic few days of lobbying and politicking and coalition-building.”

Their elections earned Orman and Ungashick handshakes with President Ronald Reagan. For the Minnesota teenager, it also meant the first tentative steps into the political arena.

“Greg was a natural leader,” Ungashick says. “You could tell that right away.”

As it turned out, though, public office wasn’t on the immediate agenda. Orman wanted to make some money first.

Business bound

Orman’s mother, Darlene Gates, raised Greg and five siblings in Minnesota, where she worked as a nurse. His father, Tim Orman, moved to Johnson County in the early 1970s and opened a furniture store, where Greg worked in the summer.

There was little family money — mom chain-smoked as she juggled the bills, Orman recalls — and no college fund.

“I believe that kids should have to pay for their college,” Tim Orman says in an interview with The Star. “They appreciate it. They show up on time. They learn a work ethic.”

So Greg Orman worked his way through Princeton University, earning a degree in economics. He was a member of the school’s chapter of College Republicans, but his senior yearbook photo includes a quote from businessman Ross Perot, who had started making noise about for president as an independent.

After graduation, Orman joined McKinsey and Co., a management consulting firm.

Soon he exhibited a restlessness that would mark much of his career. He began a side business that designed and installed energy-efficient lighting. It eventually became his full-time occupation.

Until 1996. That was when Kansas City Power & Light bought most of the company — and hired Orman, who was still in his 20s.

“He understood business,” says Drue Jennings, the former chief executive at the firm. “Mind racing all the time.”

Eventually, the company picked Orman to run a subsidiary overseeing of its investments. The unit was successful enough for some people to mention Orman as a candidate to run the entire company.

He wasn’t interested. Restless again, he left the utility and plunged into the world of private equity investing.

“I wanted to go back out on my own,” Orman says.

Complicated relationships

On his own and with partners and business associates, Orman began amassing a multimillion-dollar fortune by purchasing various firms, reassembling their parts and sometimes selling them, a small-scale version of Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital.

“I probably get involved with one business every year or 18 months,” Orman said, often spending several million dollars to acquire them.

His efforts have brought their share of headaches.

He’s been sued by developers, other entrepreneurs, even the actress Debbie Reynolds. A shrimp farm went belly up. He’s been sued for trademark infringement. A graphic design firm took him to court in Jackson County.

Yet no entanglement has caused more problems than Orman’s relationship with Rajat Gupta, a Goldman Sachs financier who was convicted of insider trading and sent to prison.

Orman was Gupta’s financial adviser and helped with his defense. The Roberts campaign and Republicans have repeatedly criticized the link, suggesting Orman improperly aided a federal felon.

But Gary Naftalis, Gupta’s chief lawyer, told The Star that Orman played only a small role in the case.

“He was simply one of a number of potential defense witnesses who could have testified in the case,” Naftalis writes in an email. “Mr. Orman had no involvement in the conduct for which Mr. Gupta was charged. There was never any allegation at any point that Mr. Orman had done anything improper or wrong.”

Orman never testified in open court. He did testify before a federal grand jury, but that testimony has not been made public.

Today, Orman says Gupta remains a friend. Asked whether he thinks Gupta was guilty, Orman demurs.

“He was found guilty in a court of law,” Orman says. “I’m not the kind of person who turns on their friends when they make a mistake.”

Drawn to politics

While Orman’s business interests grew, the political itch returned.

Records show made several small donations to Republicans in the 1990s, then began giving mostly to Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, then-U.S. Reps. Dennis Moore and Nancy Boyda of Kansas and Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007.

In 2007, as he was writing those checks, Orman also took his first official steps into the public arena, filing papers to run for the Senate from Kansas as a Democrat.

He raised almost $570,000 for that campaign, including more than $86,000 from his own pocket. Then he quietly withdrew.

Two years later, Orman spent more than $20,000 launching the Common Sense Coalition for Change, a bipartisan group that planned to use social media to inform the public about political issues.

The effort eventually ended.

Orman says his first Senate campaign, the coalition and his current independent candidacy reflect an ongoing search for a nonpartisan approach to solving problems.

“Running as an independent has its challenges,” Orman said. “But it’s also very liberating. I can go to Washington as a problem-solver, not a partisan.”

His critics see something else: a reluctance to take a stand.

“Kansas needs someone in the Senate with conviction and backbone,” Roberts said in a recent debate. “My opponent has neither.”

Orman bristles at the accusation.

“Pat Roberts is a guy who has flip-flopped on more positions and more issues as he’s tacked hard to the right,” he said. “I have consistently held positions for a long time.”

Yet Orman famously refuses to say which party he would align with if elected to the Senate, despite repeated attempts to pry a commitment from him.

Orman says he would have voted against the Affordable Care Act, yet he does not think Obamacare can be repealed.

Instead, Orman says he wants to address health care affordability, an argument that suggests a federal role in lowering costs. It also suggests providers might have to take less for their services, potentially cutting access to care.

That’s not necessarily so, Orman says.

“We need to add accountability,” he says. “Government can’t just spend money on health care and not think about the quality.”

Asked whether he supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, Orman says yes — if it’s environmentally sound. His staff will look into it.

He wants banking rules eased, but just for smaller banks.

When pressed, Orman says he would have voted differently than Roberts on some issues. The candidate says he would have voted for the last farm bill, for example, and for reform of veterans programs.

He says he would have voted for the U.N. treaty on the rights of people with disabilities, which Roberts opposed.

Orman says he wants to cap tuition increases at colleges where some federal loans are available. He says undocumented immigrants who pay a fine and take other steps “should be able to stay here and work” — a subtle step away from his website, which says those immigrants should be able to “get in line” for citizenship.

Orman says he does not see these statements as contradictory or straddling, but he insists on asking voters for some maneuvering room if he makes it to Washington.

Wealth

If he gets there, Orman would rank among the richest members of the Senate.

He is worth between $21.5 million and nearly $86 million, according to his first financial disclosure statement. He lives with his wife, Sybil, in a $1.2 million home near the Shadow Glen Golf Club in Olathe.

It isn’t clear how much of his own money Orman will spend on his campaign. His last campaign finance disclosure showed personal spending of roughly $46,000 on the race, far lower than some expected.

New campaign spending and fundraising reports are due this week.

Republicans have made an issue of Orman’s wealth and his investments in out-of-state and foreign companies. Orman says his money hasn’t obscured his view of those with fewer resources.

“Just because I’ve been able to climb the ladder of success to a certain extent, I don’t believe you should pull it up from behind,” he says.

He carried a similar message to campaign volunteers last week in Shawnee. His speech included phrases and words he’s used in other campaign appearances and debates, a common approach in politics.

Is that a clue to the Orman mystery? Is he, in the end, a politicianfor all the good and bad the word implies?

“I actually don’t feel like that,” Orman says. “I try to be as authentic as possible out there.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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