As Carl Brewer spoke to a couple of dozen Democrats at a picnic in rural eastern Kansas, a camping trailer with a Trump sign in one window sat 50 yards behind him, past a grassy clearing and gravel road.
It was a reminder of why he decided to run for governor.
“I started watching what was going on with Donald Trump and what was happening with Kobach and Brownback, and it was like — everything looked really dark and there was no future,” Brewer said in an interview, referring to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former Gov. Sam Brownback.
Brewer, a former Wichita mayor, began his campaign on Feb. 20, 2017, exactly one month after Trump became president. He recounted coming home from work each day and listening to his wife, Cathy, tell him what Trump or Brownback had done that day.
“She said, ‘Something has to happen,’” Brewer said. “I said, ‘Well, Cathy, these are the only choices we have.’ And she said, ‘Are you planning on running?’
“So I was in the race.”
Now he may make history.
If Democratic voters choose him on Aug. 7 and he goes on to win the November general election, he would be the first black governor in Kansas history — potentially the only black governor in America.
He believes his time as mayor — where he said he sorted through problems by working with individual people and not just interest groups — makes him the best choice to lead Kansas during a polarized time.
“You don’t draw the line in the sand on issues. You include everybody, whether they’re Democratic, independent, Republican. I have friends of all parties that are very close to me, and that’s how you do that,” Brewer said.
“It’s about building relationships.”
On the campaign trail, Brewer seems to relish talking to voters.
At the Democratic picnic in Linn County, he arrived before any other candidate and began talking to early-comers.
An April poll conducted by Fort Hays State University found that Brewer had the highest name recognition among Democratic candidates, with 38 percent of respondents telling pollsters they had heard of him.
Still, most potential voters haven’t heard of him.
“Nice fellow. Nice fellow. I don’t know much about him,” Democrat Debra Wood said shortly after meeting Brewer for the first time. She added she needed to read up on him.
Brewer has tried to paint himself as the “true blue” candidate in the race by highlighting his support for full legalization of marijuana and his stance in favor of abortion rights. He has largely stayed clear of the fight over abortion and guns between his opponents Josh Svaty, a former state representative, and Sen. Laura Kelly.
He is the only major Republican or Democratic candidate for governor who has not held elected office in Topeka. That has left him with a much shorter history of votes on the controversial topics that often come up at the Statehouse.
Brewer has instead sought to focus attention on his time as mayor of Wichita from 2007 to 2015. He said he was able to overcome partisan divisions and work with people from across the political spectrum.
Brewer, describing his approach, said he would tell Democrats and Republicans that they would come up with solutions and that “you’re going to bring it back to me and we’re going to go over it.”
He said over time the focus in city government shifted from scoring political points to helping people.
“You made sure everyone got their fair share, everyone was treated respectfully,” Brewer said.
During his tenure, he worked with the business and aviation community to promote the city’s aviation industry abroad. Wichita also launched a China-specific outreach program.
Brewer worked in the aircraft industry for more than 30 years. He began as a sheet metal worker and served as a union steward. Later, he worked in management at Spirit AeroSystems.
Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said Brewer had done a good job of courting the business community and representing aviation. But he said Brewer had not always pushed for efficient government.
“The City of Wichita’s budget is out of control, and one of the reasons is while he was mayor, they sure spent a lot of taxpayers’ money,” Whitmer said.
In a statement, Brewer said that during his time as mayor, Wichita invested in its downtown, which led to continued investment in the area from the private sector. He also noted the city moved forward on building Eisenhower International Airport “that has become a point of great pride for our city.”
“I have withstood criticism like this from people like Whitmer and Americans for Prosperity for decades of my career but managed to bring great results for the city of Wichita,” Brewer said, referring to the conservative group.
Dave Unruh, a longtime Republican Sedgwick County commissioner, said he got to know Brewer during discussions over where to locate the joint Law Enforcement Training Center. Brewer, who had been in the Kansas Army National Guard, wanted the center to be placed at a National Guard facility. Unruh thought that would be too expensive.
Still, Unruh said, he never sensed hostility or hard feelings from Brewer.
“I think it was always an easy conversation. It was always cordial,” Unruh said.
As Brewer campaigned, one significant issue in the Democratic race — problems in the state’s child welfare system — became deeply personal.
Last fall, Wichita police discovered the body of Brewer’s 3-year-old grandson, Evan Brewer, encased in concrete after Brewer’s son, the boy’s father, had asked the Kansas Department for Children and Families to check on him. The boy’s mother and her boyfriend have been charged with murder.
Brewer, who was in the Kansas City area for a barbecue competition, received a call from the police chief telling him to come home. He suspended his campaign for more than a week.
Problems in the DCF frequently come up in the Democratic race for governor. When Brewer talks about the agency, he often notes he has had personal experience with the child welfare system but stops short of recounting Evan’s story.
In an interview, Brewer said Evan’s death led him to see problems beyond the agency, from the courts to law enforcement.
“We can point the finger at DCF all day long and we can come to solutions and we can fix DCF. But that still does not fix the problem,” Brewer said.
Everyone should know what the process is and the process should work, he said.
“We should be able to make sure that every child — that it is a priority and it’s not a ‘Well, it’s not in my house’ or ‘It doesn’t concern me,’” Brewer said.
Brewer ‘led’ to run
Brewer grew up the oldest of five siblings. He was raised by his mom and grandparents.
He said he would go to the store in elementary school to buy something to eat and would figure out how much he could hold back to buy his youngest sister potato chips.
“It was just one of those things that I went through, taking care of others. I just have always been that way,” Brewer said.
Lavonta Williams, a former Wichita City Council member, said she and Brewer grew up in the same area of Wichita. She said that back then, she had no idea that one day Brewer would run for governor.
“I am a person who believes God leads you down a certain path for a reason, and for him, that path of being (on the City Council) and then a mayor and then to go into the political arena statewide is something I feel he has been led to do,” she said.
Williams, a former Wichita vice mayor, now helps with Brewer’s campaign. She said Brewer has been committed to reaching out to people who think they have no voice and making sure they’re heard.
Brewer reaches out to everyone regardless of gender, race or party, she said.
At a forum at a Missionary Baptist convention in Topeka in June, the candidates were asked whether they were comfortable with the state of race relations in America. Everyone said no.
“Just to be in an environment where we have this much nastiness and hatred and bigotry is beyond me. I’m just taken aback,” Brewer said.
Brewer said he doesn’t think about the historic nature of his candidacy should he win the race.
“But I am sensitive to it, that I believe Kansas should be a true reflection of the people who live there,” Brewer said. “And as I look at the Capitol today, we don’t have that.”
Coming next Sunday
Profiles of the main Republican candidates for governor.