BALDWIN CITY — The white haze from several large barbecue smokers hangs in the air as state Sen. Tom Holland shakes the hands of thousands of people at the annual Maple Leaf Festival.
A middle-age woman grabs his hand when offered and then holds on. She leans toward him until her face, which features a stern expression, is about a foot away.
"Sam Brownback will turn this state back a hundred years," she says and walks away.
Holland just smiles.
That is the message the 49-year-old Democrat has been trying to deliver across the state as he campaigns for an office he never thought he'd run for.
In television commercials aired in Topeka and Wichita, Holland portrays Brownback, a U.S. senator from Kansas, as a Washington insider, a pawn of "special corporate interests" voting against health care for veterans and for privatizing Social Security.
Holland tells his audiences that he is a political moderate and a pragmatist who doesn't judge issues through the lens of political ideology, suggesting that Brownback does.
"I'm not a partisan guy," he insists.
Few pundits and political veterans, however, give Holland much of a chance of defeating Brownback in an election year that is leaning heavily Republican. After all, Brownback has been in a political spotlight for more than 16 years as a congressman, and before that as the state's secretary of agriculture.
Holland didn't arrive on the state's political scene until 2002, when he ran for the Kansas House against a Republican incumbent and won in a mostly rural, Republican-leaning district in parts of Douglas and Franklin counties.
Two years ago, he faced another GOP incumbent and won a state Senate seat from a district that includes parts of rural Douglas, Jefferson and Leavenworth counties.
His name was hardly recognized throughout the state before the campaign. But he dismisses naysayers who call him a long shot.
"This is a very winnable race," Holland insists, adding that Brownback's negatives are high among independents and moderate Republicans. He feels he offers them an alternative.
"It's the year of the anti-incumbent," Holland pointed out.
'A Kansan by choice'
About 30 high school seniors are waiting for Holland in a dimly lit auditorium of Topeka West High School.
Not all of them are old enough to vote, which leads one student to ask Holland why he was talking to students who couldn't cast a ballot.
"I want to encourage as many people as I can to get involved in the political process even if they're not old enough to vote," he tells the students, urging them to call a campaign and volunteer.
Before his presentation, the candidate spoke to each student in the front row, seeking a little information about them.
"What do you want to do after you graduate?" he asks Ana Montero.
"I want to go to Washburn Tech and become an LPN (licensed practical nurse) and then go on to get my RN (registered nurse)," Montero says.
The students are just as curious about his background.
Holland grew up in Lawrence, Indiana, near Indianapolis. He now makes his home in Baldwin City south of Lawrence, Kansas. His mother, who owned a gift shop, and father were both conservative Republicans, and he considered himself a Republican at one time.
"I get my drive and business acumen from her," he says of his mother, Janice.
He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Indiana in 1982, and later his master's degree in business administration from the University of Minnesota.
Holland was working in the dish room at a college dormitory in the fall of 1980 when he met his future wife, Barbara. They've been married 29 years and have three sons and a daughter.
What attracted her to him in that dormitory cafeteria where they both worked?
"He was a good listener and he still is," she says. "That was a trait I didn't find that common in college men at the time. He actually listened to what I had to say."
He was a software developer and project manager for Price Waterhouse in Minneapolis when he was sent to Kansas to work on a project for the company.
When that contract ended in 1991, he stayed in Kansas and started an information technology consulting business — Holland Technologies Inc. He now has 30 employees.
"I'm a Kansan by choice," he tells the students.
He coached youth baseball for many years and plays bass guitar and string bass at his church. His 15-year-old daughter plays violin in her school orchestra. Consequently, music is an important part of the Holland household.
Barbara, who works part-time as the business administrator at their church, said her husband can even play the violin. "If it has strings, he can play it," she says.
Holland's music group rehearses every Wednesday night at church. "Sometimes he has built his campaign schedule around that," she adds.
Before running in 2002, he became concerned about the cutbacks in education funding and decided to do something about it by becoming a candidate for the Legislature. He won a decisive victory over a four-term Republican.
His wife says what you see is what you'll get, since Holland is the same person on the campaign trail as he is at home.
"When you're talking to Tom the politician, that's pretty much Tom."
As a state lawmaker, Holland earned a reputation as a supporter of small business.
Early in his legislative career, he'd heard complaints from small-business owners that some companies were hiring workers and then classifying them as contract labor, thus avoiding paying unemployment premiums and payroll taxes.
That created unfair competition, and Holland successfully sponsored a bill cracking down on companies that misclassified their workers. He successfully fought a proposal that lowered the corporate franchise tax for big business because it shifted too much of a tax burden onto smaller businesses.
Holland also has sponsored bills almost every year to increase penalties for business owners who knowingly hire undocumented workers because it gives them an unfair advantage over those that don't. Holland said that now is a class C misdemeanor under Kansas law.
"I want to make it a class A that incurs a little jail time," he adds.
But Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, notes that Holland's position on illegal immigrants hasn't been popular with some fellow party members in the Legislature.
In 2006, Holland devised a plan to freeze the appraised home values of homeowners 65 and older who apply for tax relief and have adjusted gross incomes of $60,000 a year or less.
At the time, seniors on fixed incomes complained they were being taxed out of their homes by increases in assessed property values. Under his bill, the state would have repaid local governments for their lost property tax revenue.
The bill finally passed the House in 2008, but was sidetracked in the Senate by GOP leaders.
Since 2008, property values for most homeowners in Kansas have gone down and the state is struggling financially. Holland, though, still thinks his bill was a good idea.
"My constituents are still struggling with paying their property taxes," Holland says.
But Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, an Olathe Republican who has served on the House Tax Committee with Holland, said in hindsight that it was good that the bill failed to become law. Siegfreid said paying back local governments for lost revenue would have been a huge problem today.
"The state hasn't had a very good record about keeping its word," Siegfreid said
Not afraid of controversy
Holland hasn't avoided controversial issues in the Legislature. He voted in favor of the amendment banning same-sex marriage, a measure lowering the state's corporate income tax surcharge, and a bill allowing casino gambling.
He voted against a bill allowing people with permits to carry a concealed weapon, but said he only did it because most of his constituents were opposed.
He voted in favor of this year's temporary state sales tax increase, but opposed increasing a tax on tobacco products that had been proposed by Gov. Mark Parkinson, a fellow Democrat.
"I've never supported cigarette tax increases," Holland said, adding that he also voted against the state-wide smoking ban this year because he believes such bans should be local decisions. He was one of only two senators who voted against the final version of that bill.
Still, Rep. Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican who also served on the tax committee with Holland, described him as a defender of former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' tax policy.
"I found him to be a fairly partisan guy," Kinzer said. "He was a reliable friend of the Sebelius administration."
Holland contends that he has often joined hands across the aisle with Republicans.
An example, he said, was efforts this year to avoid deep cuts to public schools by approving the sales tax increase, which he said took a majority of Republicans and Democrats to pass in the Senate. (There are only nine Democrats in the 40-member Senate.)
As the campaign winds down, he's talking up his support of renewable energy and how wind energy will bring jobs to Kansas. Early last week, he toured the only privately-owned hydroelectric power plant in the state — built in Lawrence in 1874 and still operating — to emphasize that commitment.
He also talks about making health care more accessible and recently visited a clinic that treats only patients with no public or private insurance.
"There is a role for the state in helping establish these types of clinics," Holland says, noting that he doesn't provide health insurance for his own employees.
"It just got too expensive."