It was the type of Statehouse meeting that easily could have faded from memory: an Oct. 10 gathering of a task force focused on the state’s child welfare system.
Laura Kelly had other ideas.
The Topeka Democratic senator wanted to know about three sisters missing from a northeast Kansas foster home. Phyllis Gilmore, the leader of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, appeared unaware of their cases.
Then the state’s foster care contractors dropped a bomb: More than 70 children were missing from the system.
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The disclosure rattled Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration and turned DCF’s shortfalls into a prominent issue in the Kansas governor’s race. Paperwork filed a week later showed Gilmore was on the way out. She retired later that fall.
For Kelly, the moment was the culmination of years spent inside the Capitol as a Brownback critic on issues such as welfare and foster care.
Her reputation for fighting the Brownback administration is now a key selling point in her campaign for governor. Nominate me, her argument to Democrats goes, because I was there in the trenches.
At a time when political outsiders seem to be in vogue, Kelly has positioned herself as a leader intimately familiar with state government and how it works — someone who has the experience needed to navigate Kansas out of the rough waters of the Brownback era because she lived it.
“I think Kansans are ready after all these years of crisis and turmoil for a strong, experienced, very steady hand at the helm to put our state back on track, and that’s the response I’m getting across the state, too,” Kelly said in an interview.
“I don’t think this is time for another experiment. I think people need the reassurance that the person in the governor’s office knows where the problems are and knows how to solve them and can bring people together to do just that.”
Born in New York City, Kelly comes from a Republican military family that moved frequently during her childhood. She came to Salina in the mid-1980s and then moved to Topeka about a year and a half later. She raised two daughters with her husband, Ted Daughety, a doctor focused on pulmonary and sleep disorders.
Kelly, 68, was director of the Kansas Recreation and Park Association for 19 years. The organization advocates on behalf of the state’s parks, recreation and leisure industry.
She won election to the Kansas Senate in 2004 by just 98 votes — a victory she credits to campaigning everywhere in her district in Shawnee and Wabaunsee counties, including rural areas.
She has served in elected office in Topeka longer than any other candidate in the governor’s race. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who was first elected to the Kansas House in 2006, comes the closest.
Over time, she has become one of the most prominent Democratic lawmakers in Topeka. She’s the highest-ranking Democrat on two budget committees and a health and welfare committee. That puts her squarely in the middle of discussions over spending and social services, such as Medicaid.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, said she would vote for Kelly in the general election if she’s the nominee.
“For nine years I’ve worked with Laura Kelly, and I can think of no better person who works across aisles, across barriers and works hard for the people. And having the inside knowledge of our state is crucial at this time to be able to govern effectively,” Bollier said.
The Sebelius connection
Kathleen Sebelius, the last elected Democratic governor in Kansas, said Kelly could be a key player in negotiations.
“She could talk to virtually everybody. She made friends with a number of the key Republican senators on the committees in which she served. So whether it was health care or education or appropriations, she was always in the mix,” Sebelius said.
For Kelly, who emphasizes her relationships in Topeka, few are as important as her connection with Sebelius. The two met when Kelly moved to Topeka and were neighbors for years.
They are friends today and even spent part of the July Fourth holiday together. Sebelius urged Kelly to enter the race and has endorsed her.
Josh Svaty, one of Kelly’s Democratic opponents, has referenced the Kelly-Sebelius relationship without naming them. The former state representative has urged voters to support him “if you believe the Democratic Party should be statewide and not just a handful of next-door neighbors in Topeka, Kansas.”
Kelly said being compared to Sebelius is no insult.
Their friendship precedes their time in the political arena. Sebelius said she first approached Kelly about running for the House seat in 1994 but that Kelly turned her down.
At that point, Kelly had been a Democrat for four years. Before that, she had been an independent.
“It just became clear to me that the ideological arm of the Republican Party was really inflaming the culture wars, and I felt very uncomfortable with that, so I thought I needed to get off the fence and make a declaration,” she said.
Whatever the Kansas Republican Party thinks about Kelly, it isn’t saying. Kansas GOP director Jim Joice said the party doesn’t waste time on hypotheticals.
“You get passed when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. We’re focused on leading,” Joice said in an email.
Voting on guns
Now a Democrat for more than 20 years, Kelly has retained a moderate style (she calls herself a fiscal conservative) even as the party nationally has pushed further to the left.
Kansas Democrats are having their first contested primary for governor in 20 years, meaning the party’s candidate will need to attract more-liberal primary voters in order to win the nomination, while still being able to court moderate Republicans in the general election.
One potential weakness for Kelly among Democrats is her voting record on guns. Kelly voted several times to expand the ability of people to carry weapons. Two years ago, she began voting in favor of restrictions, including restoring the ability of state colleges and universities to ban concealed weapons.
Svaty has made Kelly’s past gun votes a main line of attack. Kelly was “part and parcel” in the Legislature’s rollback of gun restrictions over the past several years, he has said.
Whenever the issue of guns comes up, Kelly says she quickly realized lawmakers had gone too far in reversing restrictions and has been voting to again tighten gun laws.
She also voted in favor of a bill to require people registering to vote to show proof of citizenship. The bill was championed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and a federal judge recently ruled it unconstitutional.
Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and Svaty have both criticized Kelly over the vote. In response, she has said that a large majority of lawmakers voted in favor of the bill and that Kobach abused the law.
Focused on Kobach
On the campaign trail, Kelly is often focused on convincing Democrats that she can defeat Kobach if he’s the Republican nominee.
It’s an assurance that appears to be getting through to at least some voters.
Darrel Webb, a former state representative from Wichita, said in late June that it was too early for him to make a decision about who to support. Asked to sum up what Kelly’s campaign is all about after watching her talk to a Democratic lunch, he said “defeating Kris Kobach.”
Kelly would be the third female governor if elected, following Joan Finney and Sebelius. She is the only woman in the race. Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, weighed the possibility but opted against a run.
Kelly said it’s a little bit surprising she is the only woman and that it’s obvious there is a shortage of women engaged in the political system in Kansas. A Rutgers analysis shows that 28.5 percent of Kansas lawmakers are women. The state ranks 18th in the percentage of female lawmakers.
Nationally, only a handful of women are governors now.
Kelly is endorsed by Emily’s List, a national organization dedicated to electing women that can direct significant resources to campaigns. In announcing the endorsement, Emily’s List said women remain underrepresented in executive leadership positions in Kansas.
“That’s one thing I hope to be able to change as we go on — to provide a role model for others and to help other women seek out public office, on the school board level, city council level, whatever, and build the bench of qualified women to assume leadership,” Kelly said.
“I think it’s essential that we have women’s voices being heard at the highest level of government.”