Politics & Government

‘I’ve been there, done that’: Laura Kelly navigates GOP skepticism to score early wins

Kansas governor Laura Kelly talks about her first 100 days in office

Laura Kelly, who won a resounding victory over Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach last November, talks about her first 100 days as Kansas governor.
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Laura Kelly, who won a resounding victory over Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach last November, talks about her first 100 days as Kansas governor.

As Laura Kelly waited in the wings of a Johnson County auditorium before a town hall last month, the moderator introduced the 48th governor of Kansas by invoking Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon-riding queen from Game of Thrones.

Kelly wasn’t “the mother of dragons,” but instead “defender of education.”

Forget “breaker of chains.” Kelly was “victor in four hard-fought races” for state Senate.

Kelly will mark 100 days Wednesday in her crusade to reverse what she views as the damage inflicted by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. Already, she can point to major victories.

Lawmakers approved $90 million in new money for public schools. The House passed Medicaid expansion. She successfully blocked a Republican-driven tax bill that she said would have been unaffordable.

Kelly has moved to overhaul state agencies, taking the child welfare system in a different direction and effectively ousting the leaders of the Highway Patrol amid allegations of misconduct.

But winter could still be coming. Some of the victories remain fragile and vulnerable to reversal. The Kansas Supreme Court could reject the latest school funding plan. She needs help from Senate Republicans to push Medicaid expansion into law. GOP lawmakers want to take another shot at passing a tax cut package.

On a range of issues, from taxes to abortion, the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature remain on starkly opposite ends.

“She vetoed the bill that implemented the Trump tax cuts in Kansas. And she wants more money to grow government and I prefer a smaller government and I prefer money to be in the pockets of Kansans,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, the Wichita Republican.

As Kelly nears the end of her first legislative session as governor, it is becoming increasingly clear that success or failure will rest in large measure on her ability to work with the conservative Republican lawmakers who control the votes.

In an interview in her statehouse office last week, Kelly said her relationship with the Legislature and Republican leaders in particular is “better than you might think.” She highlighted her work with Republicans on school funding as an example of bipartisan cooperation.

“I think it’s as good as I can expect it to be,” Kelly said.

At times, however, she has adeptly navigated tricky partisan terrain.

Senate Republican leaders bought into her plan to give schools $90 million more in hopes of ending a nine-year-old lawsuit over funding. Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, of Overland Park, appeared at Kelly’s side during a signing ceremony for the bill. Even Wagle, no Kelly fan, voted for it.

The House also approved a Medicaid expansion plan largely modeled after Kelly’s proposal. The measure passed with support from moderate Republicans; GOP leaders opposed it and hadn’t given the legislation a hearing.

“I think Laura has always been able to work across the aisle,” Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City Democrat, said.

Kelly’s first 100 days have also not been without difficulties. She withdrew her nomination of Jeffry Jack to the Kansas Court of Appeals after his partisan and profanity-laced tweets emerged. It’s now unclear whether she’ll be able to name another nominee.

Wagle claims that under state law, Kelly has lost her ability to name someone else and that the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court should make the selection. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has asked the Kansas Supreme Court to resolve the dispute.

Kelly also faced fierce Republican opposition after she named her campaign treasurer, David Toland, to be the state secretary of commerce. The Senate ultimately confirmed him, but only after a combative confirmation hearing and the airing of local grievances and a muscular defense from many in Toland’s hometown of Iola.

Kelly said she wasn’t surprised by the fight Republicans put up against Toland.

“I think, one, they needed to find somebody and I think David was their easiest target given that they could label him as political because he had been my campaign treasurer,” Kelly said.

Kelly campaigned in large measure on promises that she could work across the partisan divide with Republicans. She pointed to her 14 years in the Senate, where she developed a reputation as a moderate Democrat.

Some Republican leaders have not been impressed by Kelly’s cross-partisan outreach.

“She hasn’t reached out to me all session even though she tells everybody she’s going to,” Denning said in March. Denning said then he planned to ask for a meeting with the governor and Kelly’s office said at the time the two planned to meet.

Wagle said Kelly was a moderate Democrat in the Senate, but that she “has to carry water now for the liberal Democrat party.”

On Wednesday, Kelly said “in spite of what’s been reported, we actually have been meeting” with lawmakers. Not every lawmaker has been in her office, Kelly said, but “a lot have.”

She added that if lawmakers ask, they will find her door is open.

“I think what the Legislature understands by and large is that, one, I really am one of them. I’ve been there, done that,” Kelly said. “I have a great appreciation for what their role is and I will never be particularly heavy-handed about things, but rather continue the style I’ve always had, which is to sit down at the table and see what we can agree on.”

Rep. Tom Cox, a Shawnee Republican, has been in the Legislature for three years with three governors during that time: Brownback, Jeff Colyer and now Kelly. He said serving with Kelly isn’t much different than his experience with Brownback.

Colyer was very accessible, Cox said. But he didn’t speak much with Brownback and doesn’t with Kelly now.

“You hear things where Republican leadership says the governor’s office won’t work or negotiate with us and you hear from the governor’s office saying Republican leadership refuses to work with us or negotiate with us,” Cox said. “So I can’t actually figure out where the problem lies.”

Even as Kelly says she’s working with Republicans, she’s also been traveling the state to build support for her policies and explain decisions to Kansans. She has held a series of town halls across the state, including in Overland Park and Wichita.

John Carlin, a Democrat who served as Kansas governor during from 1979-1987, called Kelly’s decision to hold town halls “very, very wise.” Carlin acknowledged he battled partisanship during his time office, but contends times have changed.

“Nobody was out to just sabotage things,” Carlin said. “So she’s been dealt a hand that’s not very, in some ways, playable.”

Despite the success she’s had in her first 100 days, time is running out on Medicaid expansion.

Kelly needs to rally support ahead of a May 1 procedural vote in the Senate to move the proposal a step closer to a full debate. Senate Republicans have so far this year not brought the measure up for a vote.

At the Johnson County town hall in March, Kelly drew a standing ovation as she walked out to the Game of Thrones-themed introduction.

But she quickly quieted the adoring crowd and motioned for them to take a seat.

“We don’t have a whole lot of time for this,” Kelly said. “So let’s not waste it.”

The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this article.