Politics & Government

Kansas basketball teams get bipartisan support in the Capitol

Gov. Sam Brownback sports lapel pins for all three of the Kansas teams in the NCAA Tournament. He declined to name a favorite.
Gov. Sam Brownback sports lapel pins for all three of the Kansas teams in the NCAA Tournament. He declined to name a favorite. The Wichita Eagle

Senate President Susan Wagle has been trying to train the KU fans on her staff to root for the Shockers.

The Wichita Republican has decorated her office with newspaper clippings and stickers to celebrate Wichita State University’s No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

But when Wagle entered her office Wednesday morning, she noticed something was not right.

“Hey! Wait a minute!” she yelled, pointing to a “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!” bumper sticker placed between two clippings about the Shockers from The Eagle. “Who did that?” Wagle demanded of her staff, like a mother returning home to find a broken vase.

“I did,” replied Aly Rodee, her communications director and a graduate of the University of Kansas.

With three Kansas teams in the tournament, March Madness has swept through the Capitol, uniting Democrats and Republicans behind shared teams, but pitting legislators against their staffs and members of their own party in some cases.

“Staff is a pretty strong KU following. But Susan is definitely WSU. She’s definitely a Shockers fan,” Rodee said.

Wagle plans to attend the games Friday in St. Louis. “There’s not going to be many people here on Friday,” she said.

Gov. Sam Brownback will be there, too. He declined to pick a team, and his staff said that would be like asking him to choose between his children. He’s taken to wearing pins for all three schools – WSU, KU and Kansas State University – on his suit.

He has started countless speeches and news conferences this session by lauding the state’s basketball prowess. Eileen Hawley, his spokeswoman, said the governor wants to see two Kansas teams in the championship game. That would mean KU if it emerges from the South region versus K-State or WSU, if either wins the Midwest region.

K-State, Brownback’s alma mater, and WSU could meet in the third round. His staff declined to say which team he’ll root for if that happens.

Wagle is more certain in her predictions. “Well, I think Shockers will make the Final Four,” she said.

For some legislators, the tournament presents a difficult choice. Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, graduated from K-State.

“I’ll root for both, but if they play each other I’ll have to root for K-State. I mean, as much as I love and appreciate Wichita State, K-State’s my alma mater,” Hutton said.

Is he worried that will make his constituents angry? “You know, look, if they vote me out for that, I guess that’s just the way it has to be,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, another K-State alum, has decided to root for the Shockers because of their amazing season. But it wasn’t an easy choice. “It just gripes me that they had to stick those two together,” he said.

Some legislators from other parts of the state, without ties to WSU, have also caught Shocker fever. Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, is a graduate of KU and has a child at K-State, but she’s excited about the possibility that WSU might make a run at the title.

“I think it would be so cool if Wichita won this whole deal,” Lynn said. “They don’t get the attention they deserve.”

She swore she was not saying that just because she was standing in front of Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, a diehard Shockers fan who has unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation that would require the other two Division I teams to play WSU in basketball.

The tournament can also make friends out of usual political rivals. Last year, south-central Kansas legislators watched the games together in Topeka.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, who graduated from WSU in 1982, has decorated his desk in the House with Shockers paraphernalia.

“It’s very much Democrats and Republicans coming together and supporting our team. … It helps the atmosphere on the floor because it builds relationships and friendships,” he said.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, one of the most outspoken Democrats in the Capitol, said he’s excited about finding something he can agree on with Republicans. “Bipartisan for the Shockers. Only the Shockers could bring us together.”