Most running mates fill in the gaps of the person at the top of the ticket, in the way that Mike Pence brought conservative, insider credentials to the formerly Democratic outsider Donald Trump, and Joe Biden brought decades of political experience to Washington newcomer Barack Obama. But Josh Svaty, a Democrat running to become governor of Kansas, is not following that model.
The knock on Svaty is that he’s too much of a centrist to win the primary and can’t possibly best 68-year-old state senator Laura Kelly in August because he voted with his pro-life district as a state lawmaker right out of college. Yet the 38-year-old fifth-generation Kansan from Ellsworth has chosen a running mate who in many ways is a female version of himself.
Meet Katrina Gier Lewison, a 40-year-old fifth-generation Kansan from Hutchinson. A longtime political independent, she only registered as a Democrat after Svaty invited her to run with him.
She did vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for Obama twice before that. To Svaty, Lewison’s recent switch is not an issue; in fact, in a joint interview with the new running mates in their campaign headquarters, when I observe that he’s doubling down, he at first thinks I mean because they’re around the same age. No, because you’re seen as too in-the-middle, and to counter that impression, you picked someone else in that mold?
“A lot of people are turned off by party politics,” he says. “And you have to win the general, or none of this matters.” His pitch is that he’s the only Democrat who can do that. And he may well be right, but will he get that far?
All Svaty will say about the abortion issue is that he respects all views and wouldn’t sign any further restrictions into law. Lewison, though, is solidly pro-choice. “I’ve always advocated for women to stand up and make their own choices.” On that issue, he says, “There’s some balance provided for sure. Representing, frankly, the balance in the state.”
Like Svaty, a farmer and former ag secretary and EPA official, Lewison comes off as smart and personable. A West Point graduate, she flew Black Hawk helicopters with the 101st Airborne during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After surviving a hand grenade attack in Mosul, she was awarded the Purple Heart by then-Rep. Jerry Moran, who had been following her letters home to her parents from Iraq, which had turned into a series of columns in The Hutchinson News. Through them, she made Augba, Iraq, her hometown’s unofficial sister city, and her former neighbors sent Iraqis some 300 boxes of clothes and medical supplies. Later, Lewison trained soldiers in South Korea, got a master’s degree from Columbia University and taught leadership at West Point.
She and her husband Tyler, her West Point classmate, have three girls, the oldest of whom is 11. She works for the Manhattan-based tech company CivicPlus, and was just elected to her local school board.
They moved back to Kansas from New York, she says, because she kept thinking back on a question she’d been asked during her interview for her appointment to West Point: Are you going to contribute to the brain drain? “When I was 17, I didn’t even know that term,” so her interviewer rephrased: If you get this, will you be another young Kansan who leaves and never comes back? “And I never forgot that.” Her top issues now, she says, are job creation, education and giving women a voice.
So what will she say to those who ask if she wants to give women a voice, why not vote for Kelly? This: “I think she’s done a great job, but Josh and I represent a change.”
“Trust the future,” Svaty argues, sounding maybe a little harsher than he intended, “to people who are going to have to live with the consequences.”
Six months ago, former Gov. John Carlin set Svaty up to take a tour of CivicPlus, and Lewison was his guide. “And I called John afterwards and said, ‘Was this a set-up?’ ” It wasn’t, but it’s easy to see why he’d wonder. The offer to run, she says, “was totally out of left field.” He corrects her: “We call it center-left field.”