TOPEKA | Calling Sam Brownback’s election as Kansas’ next governor premature, Kansas Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a candidate of their own: Tom Wiggans, a retired Olathe pharmaceutical executive.
Wiggans, 57, is a political newcomer largely unknown in the state he hopes to lead. A native of Fredonia, Kan., he returned in January after a prominent career in the pharmaceutical industry in California. He’s so far the only major Democratic candidate in the race.
Wiggans filed paperwork Tuesday allowing him to raise money for the race. Wiggans declined to comment publicly on his campaign, instead e-mailing a statement to reporters.
“Now more than ever as our state and our families deal with this difficult economic climate, we need a successful business leader in the Governor’s office,” Wiggans said in the statement. “ Our state needs a Governor who can speak the language of business, jobs and prosperity — not a career politician.”
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Wiggans enters the race after two prominent Democrats, Gov. Mark Parkinson and state Party Chairman Larry Gates, opted not to run.
Republicans said Democrats were desperate to find a willing candidate with the personal wealth to fund a campaign. They noted that Wiggans contributed thousands to Republican candidates while living in California, and raised questions about his dedication to the Sunflower State.
“It is hard to imagine Kansas Democrats would actually nominate for Governor someone who has never voted in a Kansas election,” said Amanda Adkins, chairwoman of the Republican Party.
“It’s a hail Mary,” said state Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican.
Wiggans’ biggest challenge will be to introduce himself, according to Kansas State University political scientist Joe Aistrup.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” Aistrup said. “But any Democratic candidate would face an uphill battle against a well-known Republican Senator. It’s going to be even tougher for a candidate who’s a relative unknown.”
Wiggans began his pharmaceutical career after graduating from the University of Kansas. He worked for established companies and startups in the United States and Europe, most recently as CEO of Peplin, Inc., which developed skin cancer treatments.
He serves on multiple state economic development boards and is a member of the KU Endowment Board of Trustees. He also serves as chairman of the Washington D.C.-based Biotechnology Institute and is a former member of the board at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Wiggans is married to Kathryn Wiggans, a nurse. The couple has two teenage daughters.
A search of federal campaign contributions shows Wiggans has contributed over the years to both Democrats and Republicans, including former President George W. Bush, presidential contender Rudy Giuliani and the Republican National Committee.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said Wiggans should appeal to voters more interested in results than partisanship. He said Wiggans’ lack of name recognition, his support for Republicans, and his recent arrival in Kansas shouldn’t hurt him.
“There are a lot of moderate Republicans looking for an alternative to Sam Brownback,” Hensley said. “This is the guy.”