In my mind, I can still see him, standing before a crowd of Republicans in Topeka and proclaiming the wonders of what he had just accomplished.
A clean sweep. An up-and-down-the-ballot drubbing of Democrats in Kansas back at a time when Democrats still posed a threat.
The man in front of the room was David Kensinger, who was — and remains — Sam Brownback’s top political adviser. Kensinger, who became Brownback’s first gubernatorial chief of staff, was crowing that day before a roomful of Republicans about the recent election. He had every right to do so.
On that day in early 2011, Kansas conservatives were ascendant. Kensinger had promised a full-blown annihilation, and he had delivered. At that moment, it was almost impossible to see how conservatives would ever again be anything but the dominant force in a state that had long shunned them.
Kensinger had the world in his hands. He had cracked the political code of the times. On that day, David Kensinger held the keys to Kansas politics and the considerable power that went with it.
Now, of course, that view of Kensinger and the man he worked for is far different. The Brownback era is coming to a merciful conclusion. With it, come questions that will haunt Brownback, Kensinger and the conservative wing of the Kansas Republican Party for years.
Here’s one, and it may be the most stinging of them all:
What’s the point of winning if you can’t govern once you get there?
Here’s another, and this one hurts, too:
Name one function of Kansas government that works better today than before Brownback became his state’s 46th governor?
There may be some. But run through a checklist of the core functions of state government, and the logical conclusion is unmistakable: There isn’t much.
The state prison system is embroiled in unrest amid a shortage of guards who complain of lousy pay. The state’s social services system has lost track of 70 foster kids. KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, has serious issues. The Brownback administration has drained hundreds of millions of dollars from the state highway system, meaning that smooth roads today will be be pothole-ridden roads tomorrow.
The state retirement system? Brownback and Republicans have delayed payments totaling more than $400 million, which only means that the money will have to be repaid one day.
You probably don’t need reminding about schools. Lawmakers poured nearly $500 million into the formula this year to make up for past neglect. Now the prospect of another $500 million — or more — is in the offing, thanks to that recent state Supreme Court ruling.
As for Brownback’s tax experiment, enough’s been written. We all know where that got us. On top of all that, rainy day funds have been depleted and lots of taxes raised.
What does it all mean? Long-time legislators — Brownback was a congressman and a 14-year U.S. senator before he became governor — don’t always make the best executives. We’re talking two different skill sets.
It means that politicians once hailed as possible White House occupants, such as Brownback, may not be as whippy as they first appear.
It means that political dominance almost never happens. As dismal as things may seem for the out party at any one moment, things invariably turn around.
It also means this: There’s no point in winning election if you can’t govern once you get there.