Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer sported a massive grin Wednesday morning as he sat around a table with Kansas teenagers at a high school in the Topeka suburbs.
Colyer, a Johnson County plastic surgeon, had an inkling that he could get news that day that he would be the 47th governor of Kansas.
He alluded to the possibility at one point, telling the students that he never intended to become governor before quickly adding “lieutenant governor” when he first set out on a career in public service.
Colyer, Gov. Sam Brownback’s mild-mannered lieutenant, has spent the past six months cautiously preparing to take the reins of state government after President Donald Trump tapped Brownback to serve as ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.
Even with an initial vote on Brownback’s nomination scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, Colyer was hesitant to presume that he would definitely rise to the top job.
But within five hours of leaving the classroom at Silver Lake Junior-Senior High School, the U.S. Senate made it official. Colyer will be the next governor of Kansas.
The U.S. Senate voted to confirm Brownback 50 to 49 on Wednesday, clearing the way for his resignation on Jan. 31 at 3 p.m. Colyer will be sworn in at 3 p.m. that day in the Capitol rotunda.
Colyer’s ascendance to the state’s top job comes after he spent years next to Brownback as the governor grew more unpopular and even Republican lawmakers turned against him.
Colyer has less than a year to convince Kansans that he can take the state in a new direction while also navigating a Legislature that has grown hostile to his predecessor. The Republican primary for governor will take place in August, and Colyer faces a large field of opponents.
He has promised a new tone for Kansas.
“We want Kansans to know that they’re going to have somebody who is going to listen to them. ... I’ll be working very closely with the Legislature and a lot of folks. You’ll just see a lot of energy and a little different approach,” Colyer said.
He has spent months waiting for this moment. Trump originally nominated Brownback in July. But the confirmation process moved slowly.
Brownback has indicated he has full confidence in Colyer.
“Jeff’s knowledgeable. He’s been around state government a long time. He’s going to do a great job. I don’t need to give him any advice. And he’s got a good feel and sense for the public and the public’s mood,” Brownback said a few hours before his Senate vote.
Colyer’s ability to read the public’s mood will be key to his political survival.
Kansas lawmakers must develop a response to a Kansas Supreme Court decision that found schools are inadequately and unconstitutionally funded. Brownback has proposed adding $600 million in education spending over five years – a plan that caused revolt among Republicans. It’s not clear whether Colyer will stand by that proposal or roll out something else.
Colyer will have to decide how to balance the competing interests of school funding and other priorities, such as prisons, Medicaid and state agencies that have seen rounds of budget cuts in the past few years.
“I think there’s a consensus from folks that we want to see more money in schools, but we want to see outcomes,” Colyer said.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, said Colyer will face tremendous challenges.
“As you investigate and get deeper and deeper into the current infrastructure of our government, we are on the precipice of total collapse from failure not only to fund, but to appropriately staff and the like,” she said.
“And we're in real trouble. So he needs to be ready to hold up a really big ship that's sinking.”
Colyer, 57, graduated from Thomas More Prep in Hays, where he hung around a nerdy crowd, by the admission of a former classmate.
His interests in politics and medicine were clear even then.
“We debated – that stuff was what we thought was fun,” said Mark Tallman, a former debate partner in high school who has known Colyer since grade school. Tallman is now a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
“We loved the game of Risk, the board game. When we would go on long trips to tournaments and stuff like that, we would have a Risk board in the bus.”
Since then, Colyer has gone on to hold a fellowship in the Reagan White House, attend Georgetown University and receive his medical degree from the University of Kansas.
Since the early 90s, he has practiced plastic surgery in suburban Kansas City.
The medical profession has also taken him overseas.
Colyer recounted to a group of journalism and debate students at Silver Lake Junior-Senior High School on Wednesday his experience serving as a doctor with the International Medical Corps in the South Sudan during the country’s bloody civil war.
He recalled an incident that happened during lunch one day in the medical camp where Colyer was the only American.
Somebody had brought in a small flat screen… and they were watching the BBC,” he said. “And across the BBC there’s a little crawl on the bottom and it mentions Kansas City. And one of the people looks up and says, Kansas that’s the real America. And another one says, it’s not Hollywood, it’s not New York, it’s Kansas," Colyer said.
Then he told the students: "They’re watching us. They’re watching you."
A “quiet” politician
His first attempt at political office – a run for U.S. House – ended in defeat when he failed to capture the Republican nomination. But he followed that with a successful run for the Kansas House in 2006, then was elected to the Kansas Senate in 2008.
In the Senate, Colyer once helped conservative Republicans form a coalition with Democrats on the budget, said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who served alongside Colyer.
Colyer was “real quiet” in the Senate, Hensley said. He rarely spoke.
“I think Colyer may be more open to the loyal opposition, in terms of listening to our issues,” said Hensley, who added he has received correspondence from Colyer. “Brownback basically just shut us out for the seven, eight years he was here and I think Colyer will be more amenable to talking to the other side.”
When talking about schools or other issues, Colyer repeatedly uses the word “outcomes” to describe his approach.
“I’m a surgeon. My mentality is if you get outcomes and you get stuff done that’s what it’s about. And to me that’s the best politics” Colyer said.
Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, said Colyer is well established in how things work in Topeka, citing his tenure in the Legislature.
“It's a very important part of our three branches of government to have somebody solidly in place and there be no questions about who the leader is,” Lynn said. “And I think that in itself may help to calm the waters and give direction. And I certainly hope it'll be the case.”
After Trump nominated Brownback in July, Colyer began to take a more public role within the administration. He also began exercising more power over decisions.
Colyer named a new leader for the Department for Children and Families this fall after controversy over the state’s handling of the foster care system. In November, Brownback said Colyer was taking the lead on developing the budget.
But as Brownback’s confirmation process dragged on, questions began surfacing over who was truly in charge. Both men emphasized that Brownback remained governor, but in the last few weeks Brownback took steps to publicly reassert his authorities.
Brownback gave the State of the State speech in early January after speculation that he might hand off the task to Colyer or turn in a written address. And he said publicly that he would remain governor until confirmed – putting to rest the idea that he might resign ahead of his confirmation to clear the way for Colyer.
Over the past few months, Brownback has described the process as a relay race with him in the process of handing off the baton to Colyer. Now that the Senate has finally confirmed Brownback, the handoff is almost complete.
Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican who leads the House taxation committee,`said he expects a smooth transition for Colyer.
“It's very difficult,” Johnson said of the situation Colyer's coming into. “But there's always the opportunity to lead and figure out, you know, how do you do what most of the people of Kansas want to best meet all of our needs.”
Campaign for governor
Colyer will have just six months to persuade Republican voters to nominate him for governor. A half-dozen serious candidates are seeking the nod.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said that the next few months will enable Colyer to establish himself as the governor in the minds of voters ahead of the August Republican primary.
“Colyer will have some advantage by actually getting to be governor for a few months,” he said.
But he'll also face the challenge of his close association with Brownback and will have to carefully distance himself from his former boss.
“I think there is some desire for a new era of Kansas Republican politics among Republicans… and that’s a problem for Colyer and that’s a problem for (Kansas Secretary of State Kris) Kobach. I think Colyer, Kobach and Brownback in the mind of some Kansans are part of that era. It’s been a pretty contentious and controversial era,” he said.
Colyer’s opponents have often targeted his signature achievement: spearheading the creation of KanCare in 2013.
Brownback, with the help of Colyer, privatized the state’s Medicaid program that year. Supporters say it has saved the state money but critics point to persistent complaints among enrollees and stubborn problems such as a backlog of applications.
Just hours before Brownback’s confirmation vote Wednesday, the administration announced that a new version of KanCare planned for the coming months had been canceled.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, was among lawmakers who expressed concerns with the next version of KanCare. She has also been critical of Brownback’s budget proposal.
“We’re really not interested in political rhetoric. We want someone to help us solve some pretty big problems that Kansas is facing right now. So it worries me that when he takes the seat, he will be a candidate for governor, and we just desperately need a leader who’s willing to make tough decisions,” Wagle said.
Colyer’s elevation to governor – and his bid to win the seat outright – also come after legal scrutiny over his actions in the last gubernatorial campaign. He was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation that stemmed from questions about a $500,000 loan he repeatedly made to Brownback’s 2014 re-election campaign.
The U.S. attorney’s office, which usually does not comment on investigations, took the unusual step of confirming no charges would be filed against Colyer in June 2015 after the Brownback administration had announced it.
Kendall Marr, Colyer’s spokesman, said the controversy over the 2014 loans should have no bearing on 2018.
“While Democrat political operatives have obsessed over campaign loans, Dr. Colyer has worked to heal children with cleft palates, provided critical care to his patients and charity care to people all over the world. He looks forward to his continued service to his fellow Kansans as their next governor,” Marr said.
Focus on service
At the high school on Wednesday, Colyer told the students that his interest in service led him into his dual career as a surgeon and politician.
He then asked the kids to rattle off the service project they have been involved with, applauding a project in which they sent clothing to students at a Texas school district affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Throughout the conversation with the students, Colyer mainly listened. He asked the students for thoughts on what should change about school, what teachers have done to help support students and how they coped with losing three classmates two years ago in a car accident.
“When I was in high school I got very interested in service,” Colyer said. “For me, I was looking at a world and saying if you want to make an impact, how do you do that?”