The Brownback and Davis campaigns are sparring over the number of bipartisan leadership meetings the governor has had since taking office.
The dispute hinges on how one defines “bipartisan leadership.” And the meeting tally is either one or 17, depending on that perspective.
Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, has repeatedly told an anecdote on the campaign trail about how shortly after Gov. Sam Brownback was inaugurated in 2011, he met with the legislative leaders from both parties: Senate President Steve Morris and House Speaker Mike O’Neal, both Republicans who have since left office, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and Davis, the House minority leader.
"That meeting of bipartisan leadership is the last meeting that has ever occurred since he became governor. Never have we gotten together to talk about issues important to the state," Davis told a crowd in Garden City last month, according to a report from the Garden City Telegram.
He commented to The Eagle in June that Brownback used the meeting as a photo opportunity to present a false image of bipartisanship.
However, the governor’s campaign says Davis has distorted the record. Brownback did hold regular meetings with the Legislature’s minority leaders, Davis and Hensley, until January 2014.
The governor held 16 meetings with minority leaders between January 2011 and January 2014, according to calendar dates provided by the governor's office.
"Paul Davis is trying to paint a picture with voters that he was shut out for the past four years in attempts to visit with Governor Brownback about issues facing the state. Clearly, the records show otherwise and he did have access to the governor's office and (was) able to discuss matters and share his concerns,” said John Milburn, the governor’s campaign spokesman.
Hensley, D-Topeka, confirmed that he and Davis had meetings with the governor, but he said that Brownback differed from previous governors by not holding joint meetings with leaders of both parties.
Brownback held separate meetings with Republican leaders.
“We had one, and only one, meeting with Mike O’Neal, Steve Morris, me and Paul Davis, and the governor. And it was more or less a photo op is what it was,” said Hensley.
Hensley said previous governors regularly called meetings with legislative leaders from both parties to discuss issues facing the state.
“Somewhere along the line, they lost the page in the bipartisan notebook. That page was in (Republican) Bill Graves’ notebook, it was in (Democrat) Kathleen’s and in (Democrat) Mark Parkinson’s notebook,” said Hensley, who has served in the Legislature for 38 years. “I don’t think Brownback ever thought it was necessary to collaborate with Democrats.”
Milburn said that whether Republican legislative leaders attended the same meetings as Democrats was irrelevant. He said Davis was misrepresenting to voters that he had been shut out by Brownback.
“Telling voters otherwise or trying to put qualifiers on those meetings after the fact isn't being honest and further evidence of the lies and distortions that we are seeing from this campaign," Milburn said.
“If memory serves me the governor is a Republican. That seems to be bipartisan,” Milburn added about the meetings with Democratic leaders.
Hensley said the meetings he and Davis had with Brownback usually amounted to little more than “chit chat.”
“So is the governor going to count the state fair debate as a bipartisan meeting?” quipped Tim Graham, Hensley’s chief of staff.
Hensley also said those meetings ended this year at the suggestion of the governor’s legislative liaison, Tim Shallenburger, because of Davis’ decision to run for governor.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Eileen Hawley, wrote in an e-mail that the governor made a point of being available to all legislators, including Davis and Hensley, even after the formal meetings were discontinued.
Davis has made the promise to be bipartisan a pillar of his campaign.
“For anyone to say that all the good ideas and all the good people are in one political party, that is missing the boat,” Davis said in June. “I want to craft a true bipartisan administration.”
The Davis campaign offered a short statement on the issue.
“Sam Brownback has an undeniable, four-year record of openly rejecting bipartisanship and compromise… Governors before him — of either party — actively involved both Democrats and Republicans in the governing process and put the best interest of Kansans ahead of politics. That's a tradition Sam Brownback ended. Plain and simple,” said Chris Pumpelly, Davis’ spokesman, in an e-mail.
He pointed to comments the governor made in 2011 that he wanted to pass a budget without any Democratic votes as proof.