Politics & Government

After bitter fight, Kansas senators confirm Gov. Kelly’s pick to lead commerce agency

The Kansas Senate on Monday debates David Toland’s nomination to be secretary of commerce.
The Kansas Senate on Monday debates David Toland’s nomination to be secretary of commerce. The Wichita Eagle

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s choice to lead the state’s economic development agency will remain on the job following a fight that echoed brutal Washington-style confirmation battles.

The state Senate voted 23-14 on Monday to confirm David Toland as Secretary of Commerce. The decision brought to a close a two-week drama over his nomination centered on past disputes in his hometown of Iola and statewide abortion politics.

The confirmation battle was unusual for Kansas, where most cabinet-level nominations don’t become overly controversial.

“David is a seventh generation Kansan who has given back to his hometown of Iola, as well as so many other communities across the state. Now is the time for Secretary Toland to get to work on behalf of our entire state,” Kelly said in a statement.

Toland represents the “best and brightest” Kansas has to offer, the governor said, adding his “energy, expertise and collaborative style will ensure that businesses have the partner they deserve and that the Kansas economy continues to grow.”

Toland, who served as Kelly’s campaign treasurer, has been the acting secretary of commerce since January, when Kelly took office. His nomination attracted little controversy until his confirmation hearing in March, when he was grilled about his leadership of Thrive Allen County, a health advocacy and economic development agency in Iola.

Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican who oversaw the confirmation hearing, said Toland was opposed by Kansans for Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion organization, the Kansas Republican Party and Americans for Prosperity, a free market organization. She had previously said Toland was appointed as a reward for serving as Kelly’s treasurer.

Lynn and other Republican senators questioned Toland’s track record in Allen County, contending that it lags in some economic indicators compared to other southeast Kansas counties. Major industries also left Iola during Toland’s tenure, she said, though his supporters have said he had no control over those moves.

Lynn also defended how she conducted the confirmation hearing. Toland supporters had criticized the hearing for rough questioning that they said was inappropriate.

“I think the fact that we were able to at least have a venue where those concerns could come out publicly is always very healthy, it’s very transparent,” Lynn said.

Toland grew up in Iola, in Allen County. He worked several jobs in the Washington, D.C. mayor’s office before returning to Iola in 2008 to lead Thrive Allen County.

Under his leadership, Thrive built trails and helped bring a grocery store to town. It also supported an effort to raise the age to purchase tobacco products in Iola to 21. Thrive and Toland were nationally recognized when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave Allen County its “Culture of Health” award in 2017.

But some local Republicans had opposed his nomination, including Virginia Crossland-Macha, the vice chair of the Kansas Republican Party. Crossland-Macha, in an email to former Iola mayor and Toland supporter John McRae, wrote that raising the tobacco purchase age had negatively affected her convenience store business.

She had also raised concerns over how Toland responded to harassing messages against him in 2016. In an email to senators, Crossland-Macha said Toland falsely accused another local businesswoman of making the threats (Toland supporters say Crossland-Macha is mischaracterizing the situation).

Crossland-Macha was not mentioned during the Senate debate over Toland Monday. But Republican opponents condemned his association with a fund named after assassinated Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller.

Thrive Allen County received a grant from the Dr. George Tiller Fund in 2015 to help pregnant women quit smoking and was instrumental in getting another grant in 2018 for the local health department to provide long-term, reversible contraception. Together, the grants totaled about $19,000.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican, said “taking any money from this fund for any reason when that fund was created to carry on Tiller’s legacy of unrestricted late-term abortion sends a message in direct contrast” to a resolution the Legislature passed earlier this year condemning a New York state abortion law, she said.

Toland supporters had emphasized that none of the funds paid for abortion services.

Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat who supported Toland, expressed relief that the confirmation process was over.

“I hope the dust can settle and David can do his job marketing our state and being the spokesperson and bringing business here,” Sykes said.

The Senate on Monday also confirmed Laura Howard as a secretary of the Department for Children and Families and the Department for Aging and Disability Services in a 37-1 vote.

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