The White House named Gov. Sam Brownback as ambassador for religious freedom on Wednesday evening, ending months of speculation that the Kansas chief executive may be leaving.
If Brownback is successfully confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the new position will draw his time as governor to a close and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer will become governor.
Brownback has been among the most unpopular governors in the country and his departure could mark a sea change for Kansas. He has been increasingly at odds with a state Legislature that is more moderate, culminating in the rollback of his signature tax policy in June to close a budget shortfall.
On Twitter, Brownback said: “Religious Freedom is the first freedom. The choice of what you do with your own soul. I am honored to serve such an important cause.”
In the Washington, D.C., based position, Brownback would be responsible for advocating for religious freedom worldwide.
Brownback, an attorney and Kansas native, was elected governor in November of 2010 and served in the U.S. Senate from 1997-2010.
The Kansas Republican Party said in a statement on Twitter that “Brownback’s international credibility for human rights, refugee & religious work will dramatically increase the ambassadorship’s influence.”
Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said that while Brownback was controversial, he was a “very consequential governor.”
“He changed a lot of things,” Barker said. “He’ll leave a record of change for the state that most governors aren’t able to do. We’ll just have to see how those changes play out in the future.”
Barker said the White House’s announcement apparently took “everybody by surprise,” even the governor’s staff. He said a message from the White House’s political arm let them know that part of the reason they picked Brownback was to “raise the visibility,” of the ambassadorship.
“The Trump administration is big on religious freedom and they figure Brownback’s got the international credibility with human rights and refugees and religious belief, that he’ll be able to do a lot more with it than was done in the past.”
But other reaction to his potentially-imminent departure was less supportive.
“Sam Brownback will be remembered for becoming the most unpopular governor in America. His tax experiment failed to grow the economy as he promised,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
“He has obviously wanted to leave the statehouse,” said Rep John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who has known Brownback for decades. “I’m happy for the governor on a personal basis. This is what he’s wanted to do.”
“Frankly, by him moving on, it may make room for new ideas at the statehouse, and I think it’ll be a good development for Kansas,” he said.
Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said Brownback and Colyer were ideologically “two peas in a pod.”
“The mods (moderate Republicans) and the Democrats are hoping that will be change,” Whitmer said. “Really, there’s not going to be much of a change in terms of policy.”
“Both he and Mary have been looking for an opportunity to continue public service and I’m happy for them,” Whitmer said.
Colyer’s ascension to the governor’s office would come as candidates are entering the race for governor. Colyer has not said whether he will run in 2018.
Whitmer said Colyer, one of the main architects of the state’s privatized Medicaid system, would be a strong opponent of Medicaid expansion, which failed in the Legislature because lawmakers couldn’t override Brownback’s veto.
“They had a better chance with Sam than they will with Jeff,” Whitmer said. “That will be impossible under Dr. Colyer. He’ll do everything he can do to kill that.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said Brownback had destroyed essential government services.
“I don’t expect to see anything different from Jeff Colyer as he assumed the position of Governor,” Ward said.
Protecting Religious Freedom
The State Department’s Office of Religious Freedom was created in 1998 by Congress to protect against religious persecution abroad, said Nina Shea, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Hudson Institute, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom.,
“That office identifies basically a short list of the world’s list of the world’s worst religious persecutors,” Shea said. “It issues an annual report on the of religious freedom in virtually every foreign country in the world and as part of that exercise, there’s a list of the countries that are the world’s worst abusers.”
The office can make policy suggestions and recommendations for State and for the U.S. government, such as sanctions against individuals within a government or sanctions against a country at large.
Legislation passed in December and signed by President Barack Obama strengthens the clout of the office by bolstering the staff and requiring the ambassador to report directly to the secretary of state.
“It has a small staff but the way it develops its reports … it’s the gold standard in the world on this kind of thing,” Shea said.
Former Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf drafted the bill that created the ambassadorship for religious freedom in 1998. He now serves as a distinguished senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.
Wolf said Brownback’s appointment will raise the profile of the post and bring more attention to religious freedom concerns.
“I think it’s a great appointment,” Wolf said in an interview on Wednesday. “Sam is such a good guy. This job is really made for Sam. On all these issues he’s been there before almost anybody else.”
Wolf said he and Brownback were the first two members of Congress to go to Darfur, Sudan, during the genocide there, and when they came back they pushed to have the U.S. recognize the violence there as a genocide.
“I served with Sam in the House and when he went over the Senate we worked on these issues,” Wolf said. His appointment “ought to send a message around the world that America cares very very deeply (about religious freedom).”
Brownback’s own faith will play a big role in his new position, Wolf said.
“That’s kind of what drives people people who care deeply about these things do it because of their faith.”
Contributing: Hunter Woodall of The Kansas City Star and Lindsay Wise of McClatchy Newspapers