Politics & Government

‘Grave concerns’: Gov. Kelly’s Commerce nominee faces Republican opposition

David Toland, Gov. Laura Kelly’s nominee to the Kansas Department of Commerce, speaks to lawmakers on Thursday.
David Toland, Gov. Laura Kelly’s nominee to the Kansas Department of Commerce, speaks to lawmakers on Thursday. The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Laura Kelly’s pick to lead the Department of Commerce may be in trouble after a Senate panel recommended his nomination be rejected.

Republicans raised concerns about nominee David Toland’s past comments criticizing lawmakers and an internet post featuring him. They also questioned his qualifications, saying he lacked experience in the state’s aviation and agricultural industries.

The Senate Commerce Committee voted 6-5 to recommend rejection of his nomination Thursday after a contentious two-day confirmation hearing.

The full Senate still will vote on Toland; his nomination will fail if senators follow the panel’s recommendation. Kelly named Toland acting commerce secretary in January.

“I will say, I have been on this committee for 13 years and have served with four different secretaries and I, too … have had grave concerns,” Sen. Julia Lynn, the committee chairwoman, said. “One thing I never encountered with these nominees were letters urging us to look further into a nominee.”

Toland, of Iola, had been president and CEO of Thrive Allen County, which promoted economic development, since 2008. Before that he held a number of positions in the Washington, D.C., mayor’s office. He has also worked for city managers in Reno, Nevada and Bonner Springs, Kan.

Lynn provided a reporter with four letters opposing Toland’s nomination, with three coming from southeast Kansas businesspeople. They raised concerns about Toland’s leadership style and said he has made poor economic development decisions.

Kelly’s office provided more than 40 letters of support for Toland, including several from economic development agencies and chambers of commerce. Broadly, the letters describe Toland’s economic development work as successful and praised his experience and skills.

Toland said he had worked successfully as a conservative Democrat in a red county to get things done.

“I think that is reflective of my values, of my characteristics and how I operate,” Toland said.

Toland, who was Kelly’s campaign treasurer, is the second Kelly nominee to come under fire this week. The governor withdrew her nomination of Jeffry Jack to the Kansas Court of Appeals on Tuesday over partisan and profanity-laced social media posts.

Kelly praised Toland after the committee vote, saying Kansas could not ask for a better commerce secretary.

“He represents the best and brightest our state has to offer. David’s energy, expertise and collaborative style will ensure that businesses have the partner they deserve and that the Kansas economy continues to grow,” Kelly said in a statement.

The stakes are high as lawmakers seek to avoid a repeat of Antonio Soave, a former semi-pro soccer player turned commerce secretary under Brownback, who faced allegations of fraud and other financial misdeeds.

Democratic lawmakers said Toland was experienced and denounced the vague nature of some of the concerns. Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, apologized to Toland for how he had been treated.

“I’m sorry you’ve had to endure this,” Holland said.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, raised concerns about pictures posted to the Internet with Toland containing photos of Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker.

Thrive Allen County holds a “sleep month” event to support the local hospital and its sleep clinic. During sleep month, a different person each week sleeps in the front window of the Thrive Allen County Office. Toland was the first person to take part.

Photos posted to the Thrive Allen County website show pictures of Brownback and Tyson on a nightstand next to a bed where Toland slept. As of Thursday, the photos were still posted to the website.

“That was done as a juvenile prank by my staff and I shouldn’t have permitted it,” Toland said. He apologized and said it was in poor taste.

Sen. Eric Rucker, R-Topeka, questioned Toland over remarks he made at a Medicaid expansion rally at the Statehouse last April. At the rally, Toland said “I’m not proud of legislators that bottle up bills supported by 80 percent of the people in our state, never letting them see the light of day.” He also said he was “not proud of people protecting political fortune over protecting people’s lives.”

“We’re talking about tone here and the importance of maintaining tone with the Legislature, specifically those that you ask now to support you,” Rucker told Toland.

Sen. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, questioned Toland over a lack of agricultural experience, or experience dealing with some of the economic development programs used by the Commerce Department.

“There is a substantial, I think, shortfall in your application,” Suellentrop said.

Holland pushed back on Rucker and Suellentrop’s questioning. He said he didn’t understand questions about Toland’s rally comments, contending lawmakers were using political free speech rights as a “cudgel” to beat down Toland.

“I am truly blown away that we have members on this committee that sit here and ask you what you know about agriculture. I’m not sure what our previous secretary knew about agriculture, Mr. Soave. I knew he knew how to kick a soccer ball,” Holland said.

Suellentrop said he was offended by Holland’s remarks. He said his questions were about Toland’s experience and said other nominees have had to answer hard questions.

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