Government & Politics

On Monday, statewide office in Kansas becomes a men’s club

Sandy Praeger is the last remaining woman in statewide elected office in Kansas. She steps down as insurance commissioner Monday.
Sandy Praeger is the last remaining woman in statewide elected office in Kansas. She steps down as insurance commissioner Monday. The Kansas City Star

On April 28, 1966, Elwill Shanahan was sworn in as Kansas secretary of state. She replaced her husband, who had died in office.

From that day to this, at least one statewide elected official in Kansas has been a woman: a governor or lieutenant governor, a U.S. senator, a treasurer or attorney general, the secretary of state or the insurance commissioner.

The streak ends Monday. When new oaths are taken that day, all eight statewide elected officials in Kansas will be men for the first time in nearly half a century.

Last week, politicians of both genders, from both parties, puzzled over the reasons. Some called it a mere coincidence or an accident of the calendar. Others said a toxic political culture and the high cost of campaigns have deterred otherwise qualified women candidates from seeking statewide office.

But most agreed the all-male lineup bends an important piece of the state’s political architecture. Less than 20 years ago, five women simultaneously served in statewide elected office in Kansas: Nancy Kassebaum, Sheila Frahm, Carla Stovall, Sally Thompson and Kathleen Sebelius. Three Republicans and two Democrats, all in offices that will soon be held by men.

“It saddens me,” said Joan Wagnon, the outgoing chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party. “Women have been courageous leaders.”

Sandy Praeger is the last remaining woman in statewide elected office in Kansas. She steps down as insurance commissioner Monday.

“Having women in leadership positions has been a positive for the citizens of Kansas,” she said Friday. “It is too bad.”

Some Republicans and Democrats warned against reading too much into the 2015 males-only slate in Kansas. There were three women on the statewide ballot last November, they pointed out, but all probably lost because they were Democrats facing GOP incumbents in a decidedly Republican year — not because of their gender.

“It’s always hard to tell if something is a trend or just the way it happened to turn out one time,” said Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas GOP. “I doubt the candidate’s gender is an important factor to voters.”

Gov. Sam Brownback also downplayed the significance of the change.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” he said Friday, pointing to women in other offices in the state.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins holds one of the state’s four U.S. House seats. Susan Wagle will be the first woman to serve as Kansas Senate president. And women remain important officeholders in Kansas cities and counties, on school boards and in both chambers of the Kansas Legislature.

Yet none holds statewide office, a trend some called troubling. Women outnumber men slightly in the state.

And at a time when women are serving in record numbers in Congress — and a woman is considered a likely front-runner candidate for president — Kansas’ familiar role as an incubator for female politicians may be fading, they said.

“It is backtracking,” said Kansas Sen. Pat Pettey, a Democrat.

Women officeholders in Kansas blame the change on a variety of factors. Some argue the current polarized political environment is particularly worrisome for female candidates.

“This current climate of drawing a line in the sand, that doesn’t sit well with a lot of women,” Praeger said.

Kansas Rep. Stephanie Clayton, also a Republican, said politics has changed since Kassebaum and others broke through in the 1970s.

“Politics has become nastier,” she said. “A lot of women tend to want to avoid the slings and arrows that you get in the political world.”

Other female officeholders said women may now be looking for other ways to contribute beyond politics.

“It’s a big commitment,” said Kansas Sen. Kay Wolf, a Republican. “And most women really, truly believe they have to be what they consider to be very qualified in order to run.”

Regardless of the cause, Kansas politics is likely to change if the all-male trend continues for several years.

“Having a woman serve in office can have an impact on policies,” said Brianne Heidbreder, a professor at Kansas State University who has studied the role of gender in state governments. “Not only that, but women in office can actually have an impact on their male colleagues.”

Women officeholders, studies have found, tend to view education and social programs more favorably than their male counterparts. In budget-strapped Kansas, fewer female voices may make it politically harder to fully fund such programs, studies suggest.

But fewer women in statewide office will also send a worrisome message to young women in the state, said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka.

“By having all men sitting in those chairs (Monday), if that picture’s in the paper the next morning, what are you telling a 10-year-old girl?” he asked. “She’s seeing a visual there that all the people in power are men.”

That picture can change, of course. A woman could challenge Sen. Jerry Moran in 2016, for example, and women are likely to seek statewide office in Kansas in 2018 when the governor’s job is open.

Jenkins is believed to be interested in a statewide run. Wagle may also consider it.

“I have a feeling there will be open seats and a larger set of challengers,” Barker said.

But Republicans and Democrats said the all-male lineup suggests they need to do a better job of finding and recruiting women for high-profile statewide races in Kansas.

“We need to start working harder and start stepping up and leading,” Clayton said.

“It’s not the easiest thing to do, and sometimes it’s really scary. But why not let this serve as a wake-up call?”

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

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