Politics & Government

Hutchinson legislator Patsy Terrell dies

Patsy Terrell embraces Jon Powell near the conclusion of the “Vote Yes for Fairness” watch party in 2012 in Hutchinson.
Patsy Terrell embraces Jon Powell near the conclusion of the “Vote Yes for Fairness” watch party in 2012 in Hutchinson. File photo

First-term legislator Patsy Terrell died Wednesday in Topeka only hours after voting to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a package of tax increases intended to generate about $1.2 billion over the next two years.

Terrell, D-Hutchinson, “was proud of her work in the legislature and gave it her full commitment,” said an e-mailed statement from Heather Sprague, spokeswoman for House Democratic leader Jim Ward.

Terrell, 55, represented the 102nd District in the Kansas House. She was found dead in the hotel room she stayed in during the session, Ward said Wednesday night.

Ward, Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, and others who had voted to override the veto went out to eat together and celebrate.

“She sat next to me,” Carmichael said. “We shared a basket of tacos. She was just so excited and exuberant that we had finally fixed the mess – or what she thought was the mess – that the governor had caused.

“That was one of the main things that Patsy wanted to do: straighten out the terrible tax mess,” he said. “We were all on top of the world. I would have never imagined that that was the last time I would see her.”

Ward said Terrell sent him a text at about 1 a.m. about “how privileged she was to be a part of that” vote, he said.

Terrell also shared her sense of satisfaction on Facebook on Wednesday morning.

“It’s 5:08 a.m. and I still haven’t slept. There’s much excitement that the Brownback experiment ended last night with our override votes.”

A short time later on Wednesday morning, she wrote: “You’re waking up in a Kansas where the Brownback experiment has ended. Good morning!”

On her Twitter page, Terrell described herself as a “writer, thinker, lover of vintage goodness.”

Those terms captured her well, Ward said. She created a lot of art and collected antique brooches, he said.

“If you asked her colleagues, to a one they would say she was kind and generous,” Ward said. “She just worked really hard. She loved being there and being a part of the process.”

Brownback paid tribute to Terrell in a tweet posted at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

“My condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Rep. Terrell after her sudden passing today. She will be missed.”

More tributes poured in as news of Terrell’s death spread.

“Today, we lost a legislator, a friend, and someone who fought to the end for what she perceived as right in the state house,” Chris Reeves, Kansas’ Democratic national committeeman, said in a Facebook post. “She will be missed by her friends and family, her colleagues, and all of us who enjoyed her company in the state house.

“To her family, and to those in Reno County, let it be said that Patsy Terrell left the state house Tuesday night with a smile on her face, a big laugh and a hug for those who were nearby.”

Terrell was involved with a bipartisan group of female legislators – most of them in their first year – who had been working on ideas for the latest income tax bill over the past week and a half, Ward and Carmichael said.

When they first began meeting, Carmichael said, he thought they were just gathering socially to share their experiences of being freshmen legislators.

“It turned out to be a substantive thing, and she was absolutely one of the leaders of that,” Carmichael said.

People should have expected Terrell to be a force, he said, because as a political newcomer, she had ousted longtime incumbent Jan Pauls in November. Pauls had served in the Legislature for more than two decades before losing to Terrell.

Every Friday afternoon during the session, Terrell shot a video updating her constituents on what the Legislature had worked on that week.

“She was amazing,” Ward said. “She really loved being a legislator. She never missed a caucus or a committee hearing.

“She would sit and listen to all the debates. She just loved everything about representing her people and serving in the Legislature.”

That’s why when Ward looked back as Wednesday’s session began and saw Terrell’s seat was empty, “I just knew something was wrong,” he said.

Terrell served on the higher education budget committee as well as the water and environment; government, technology and security; and commerce, labor and economic development committees.

“You could tell it was really fulfilling for her,” Carmichael said. “It gave her a purpose and a drive. Gosh, she’ll be missed.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger