Next week will be all about Laura Kelly.
The Kansas governor-elect swaps that title for the more elegant “governor” on Jan. 14. So next week is the big buildup to her inauguration with a focus on her aspirations for the state she’ll lead.
That makes this the last chance to assess the performance of outgoing Gov. Jeff Colyer and to acknowledge what I think are the considerable prospects for his political future.
Colyer, who served as governor for just shy of one year, is making it crystal-clear that his political career is not over. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts’ impending announcement on whether he’ll seek a fifth term in 2020 at age 84 — he really won’t go there, will he? — might provide Colyer with an immediate turnaround opportunity.
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He’d be wise to seize it.
Not enough has been made of the job Colyer did as governor, a post he ascended to when then-Gov. Sam Brownback departed Topeka for a job in the Trump administration. From the start, Colyer’s task was treacherous. He had to assume the office and strike a new tone while simultaneously launching a campaign for governor against a formidable opponent, Kris Kobach.
In short order, Colyer wrangled passage of a school funding bill that boosted spending by $500 million. The legislation was destined to be harshly criticized by both Kobach and the conservative base Colyer needed to win the Republican primary last August.
The bill passed without a single vote to spare in either chamber after Colyer rightly promised that public schools would not close on his watch due to underfunding.
Then, in the primary race against Kobach, the two slogged their way to a virtual dead heat despite Kobach’s eleventh-hour endorsement from President Donald Trump. Colyer eventually fell short by 345 votes. He could have prolonged the fight — there were still provisional ballots to be counted — but he folded to give his rival the best possible shot at winning in November.
After a long campaign, it should not be overlooked just how difficult that was. But Colyer, never the most refined of politicians, did it after running a race that was refreshing for its lack of Trump-style bomb-throwing. Magnanimous, he was.
In the end, Colyer did what he said he’d do: He changed the tone in Topeka. He gave Kansas that desperately needed fresh start. He paved the way for a resolution to the state’s ridiculously long school funding crisis. He pushed for more transparency in Kansas’ too secretive government. He wisely advocated for more investment in the state retirement system, in Medicaid and in the state’s chronically underfunded foster care system.
He was far from perfect. A physician, Colyer inexplicably refused to back Medicaid expansion. He signed a mean-spirited bill that allows faith-based adoption agencies to reject gay and lesbian couples. And during his long run as Brownback’s sidekick, he resolutely refused to question the governor’s tax-cut policies that nearly drove state government into extinction.
Today, though, we’re focusing on his one-year governorship, and on balance, Colyer deserves applause. He signed that school funding bill knowing full well that the move could cost him the GOP nomination that summer. As things turned out, it did.
In 1956, John Kennedy came out with a book titled “Profiles in Courage” that documented examples of politicians who took brave actions despite the potential political consequences. Colyer qualifies.
I respect that. You should, too.