An SUV maneuvers through the streets of Wichita. The woman in the passenger seat, arguably the most powerful woman in Kansas, presses a cellphone to her ear and speaks with urgency.
“OK, OK, OK,” she says rapidly, gesticulating even though the man on the other end can’t see her. She hollers at the driver to make a turn and then turns back to her phone.
It’s just before Christmas, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, is running between meetings. She’s late for one at Wichita State University and just left one where lobbyists pressed her on a business bill.
But her main concern right now isn’t legislation. It’s plumbing.
She’s throwing a big dinner the next night for her family, welcoming home her son Paul, who is studying to be a Catholic priest in Maryland. She has been remodeling her kitchen and still needs the plumber to install her new sinks. Otherwise, dinner’s canceled.
The man on the phone is her husband, Tom, and she pleads with him to wait at home for the plumber, who is late. “The plumber’s coming,” she says. “I gotta have a sink.”
Among their friends, Tom is nicknamed “Saint Thomas” for his dedication to his wife. Wagle wins the negotiation, and she gets her sinks.
Negotiating a solution on the state’s budget deficit won’t be as easy. But Wagle has had pretty good luck at persuading people to go her way in Topeka the past few years.
“She’s as good as anybody I’ve ever seen about persuading somebody on the fence to vote a certain way,” said Tim Shallenburger, a former speaker of the Kansas House and now Gov. Sam Brownback’s legislative liaison.
For years, some people dismissed Wagle, 61, as a conservative firebrand prone to pursuing ideological fights.
But she has emerged as one of the shrewdest politicians in the state, pulling off political victories in seemingly no-win situations. In 2012, conservatives swept moderates out of power and made Wagle the state’s first female Senate president.
Shallenburger, a close friend and political mentor, said Wagle excelled at getting other lawmakers to follow her lead even before she became president.
“She also is a ferocious campaigner and everyone knows that,” Shallenburger added. “So in the life of a politician, look, do I want Susan Wagle working for me or against me? Well, you always want her working for you. Do I want her to like me or not like me? You’re always better off having her like you.”
Wagle recruited conservative candidates, such as Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, to run against moderate incumbents like Jean Schodorf and stumped for conservatives around the state in 2012.
Her predecessor, Steve Morris, was among the incumbents ousted that year. He criticized Wagle for targeting members of her own party and said conservatives would have been outraged if moderates had done the same thing.
Wagle is unapologetic about the results of 2012, contending that Morris had stifled debate during his tenure as president.
Wagle’s ability to read a situation – she’s an avid poker player – makes her one of the most effective operators in Kansas politics, says Ryan Gilliland, her chief of staff.
People may have underestimated her in the past because of her eccentricities, he says.
She does have quirks.
She had to install soundproofing for her office door when she became president because she would speak so loudly, especially when excited about an issue, that other lawmakers could hear private conversations with her staff.
At home, she shows off her snow-covered garden and explains that during the summer she names every weed after lawmakers, lobbyists or reporters who have caused her stress during the session. She pulls out the weeds one by one and then is ready for the next year.
Then there’s the Wagle stare. She furrows her brow and peers over her glasses when someone displeases her. That look has silenced more than one state official.
“It freezes you,” Gilliland said with a laugh. “It’s sort of like if your mom’s catching you with your hand in the cookie jar.”
He keeps a cut-out of an Associated Press photo that shows Wagle giving the stare to House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, in 2013 when they were in the midst of a policy disagreement.
The budget gap
Wagle and Merrick seem primed to have policy disagreements in the upcoming session. The state faces a $648 million budget gap for next year – about 10 percent of the general budget — and must cut spending, increase taxes and fees or adopt some combination of those things. Merrick says the state must cut spending to fix the deficit rather than tweak the tax code. Wagle has said she will consider all options.
During a car ride in Wichita, she clarifies this position. She still supports income tax cuts, passed in 2012, as a long-term economic strategy, but says the state needs to review existing tax exemptions to make the plan sustainable.
“If you’re lowering income tax, it doesn’t make sense that you’re giving out refunds or credits to people, or that you have page after page of sales tax exemptions for everybody if you know you need to rely more on sales tax,” Wagle said. “So we have some structural problems that we’ve encountered that need to be fixed.”
For years, moderate senators served as a balance to conservatives in the House. With Wagle, a close ally of the governor, as Senate president, “there is no such thing as a check and balance right now,” Morris said.
Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, who was elected to the Senate as part of the wave that ousted Morris and put Wagle into power, said lawmakers should see the budget hole as an opportunity to “trim the fat” in state government.
“This year will really test her, I would think. I’m viewing this as an opportunity,” he said. “This will really show what kind of a leader she is and I have confidence that good things will be done, but it’ll take what I call political courage.”
Knox noted that generally leadership tends to move toward the center.
‘Appreciate the differences’
Wagle occasionally upsets some conservative senators with her decisions, such as when she halted a controversial bill that would have enabled public and private employees to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
That move, however, won her praise from the business community and other groups and put an end to a controversy that had engulfed the Legislature and drawn national criticism.
“When you first get elected you can be very narrow-minded and not understand why all these people disagree with you,” Wagle said about her evolution as a lawmaker. “But then you start to really appreciate the differences because it makes legislating better. The truth of the matter is nothing passes that hasn’t been compromised in many ways in order to get a majority of people to vote for it.”
She points to last year’s school finance bill as an example. Some conservatives voted against it because it cost too much money. Democrats and moderates opposed changes in education policy. But Wagle says the measure passed by two votes in the Senate and one in the House because it struck exactly the right balance.
True to her ‘political core’
Tim Graham, the top Democratic staffer in the Senate, said he doesn’t think Wagle has moved to the center.
“She’s the same politically that she’s always been. It’s everybody else up here that’s moved a lot further to the right, and Susan has stayed true to her political core for the entire time that I’ve known her,” Graham said.
Dennis Dailey, a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, put it less diplomatically.
“I don’t think a skunk changes its stripes. But I think what she’s learned is probably how she needs to play out her political agenda in order to not alienate, totally alienate, folks from anything she has to say,” Dailey said. “It’s a way for her to gain a little bit more credibility.”
Dailey taught a human sexuality course that Wagle attempted to defund in 2003. She pushed for an investigation by the university and went on national television to accuse Dailey of showing pornographic material to students.
Dailey and Morris both say Wagle did this to raise her own profile.
“She was so pushing that conservative social agenda stuff, whether it was abortion or sex education, and if you happened to fall in her path, you would pick up her ire,” Dailey said.
Wagle said her intern took Dailey’s course and was offended by the material. She said she pursued the matter to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, then governor, vetoed a budget proviso to withhold more than $3 million from KU if the class materials were found to be obscene, but signed a second one directing universities to draft policies on the use of explicit sexual materials.
Dailey disputed that the images he used in class were pornographic. He said he was set to retire, but stayed on an extra year “just to piss her off” without changing the content of his course.
A changed perspective
Wagle wasn’t always a conservative. She considered herself a political independent when she and Tom met as students at Wichita State University.
“She was pro-choice, too,” Tom lets slip during the family dinner.
A hush falls over the room. Her son-in-law comments that remark should have been kept off the record. But Wagle answers matter-of-factly that yes, she, one of the staunchest pro-life advocates in Kansas government, once supported a woman’s right to have an abortion.
She explains that the Roe v. Wade ruling that cleared the way for legal abortions happened while she was in college. At the time, she saw abortion as birth control and as a women’s rights issue.
Two events changed her mind. A friend had an abortion and regretted it. Then Wagle became pregnant for the first time.
“And I’m sitting there going, that baby’s in there kicking me. The baby would get hiccups! This was Julia. And then it hit me,” Wagle said, pointing to her 33-year-old daughter, now a doctor, who is helping her in the kitchen before the dinner. “I go, ‘Oh my goodness. That’s a baby. That’s an individual.’ You look at the sonogram and it just totally changed my perspective.”
In the House early in her career, Wagle successfully pushed a bill to require abortion clinics to provide information on human development to women considering an abortion. She said women come up to her to this day and tell her that literature convinced them to continue their pregnancies.
Tom underwent his own political transformation. He grew up in a Democratic household and went door to door to stump for John F. Kennedy as a kid. But when he started buying properties and paying taxes on them, he could no longer vote Democrat, he said. He identifies himself as a small-government conservative.
The couple’s shared frustration with property taxes prompted Wagle to run for the Legislature in 1990.
The couple own several businesses – with investments that range from real estate holdings to bingo halls – and were hit hard by changes in the property tax code under Gov. Mike Hayden, a moderate Republican. Wagle tried without success to find an anti-tax conservative to run for the open House seat in their district.
“One night Tom says, ‘Why don’t you run?’” Wagle said.
She won a five-candidate primary, then considered dropping out of the race when she discovered she was pregnant. Tom persuaded her to see it through, and she gave birth to her youngest son, Paul, during her first year in the Legislature.
One thing becomes clear if you spend more than an hour with Wagle: Paul, 23, is the center of her world. His name comes up repeatedly in conversation, regardless of the topic. At the family dinner, Wagle introduces her son John, 27, as “Paul’s older brother.” John smiles and says he’s used to it.
Both Paul and his mother survived bouts with cancer.
Wagle was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995. She beat it, but it came back in 2003 and again in 2012.
Paul was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 10 in 2001 and relapsed about three years later. He received an umbilical cord blood cell transplant in late 2005 at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth and remained there for most of a year because of complications.
Paul remembers how his mother would fly back and forth between Topeka and Texas during his illness.
About nine months after the transplant, a doctor told Wagle to gather her family to say goodbye to Paul. She refused.
“I think I poked him,” she said, poking her husband’s chest to illustrate as her voice grows louder. “And I said, ‘You go back there and save my child. What are you doing here? You go back in that room and you save my child. I’m not calling one person. You’re going to save my child.’”
“He turned around and he walked back in that room. He didn’t say another word,” she added.
The experience has given Wagle a perspective on health care policy that’s not common for conservatives. Although she’s not calling for Medicaid expansion — which many Republicans oppose — she’s not necessarily against it, either.
“I have a soft heart. My experiences have really changed my perspective,” Wagle said when asked. “No, I haven’t pushed that on my Senate, but when people ask me, we need to keep our health care facilities as strong as other states and money needs to flow.”
Wagle took a reporter on a tour of Victory in the Valley, the Wichita-based nonprofit that provides support for cancer patients and their families, where she, Paul and the rest of the family spent countless hours. She excitedly showed off the “wig room” and recalled how itchy her wig got on the campaign trail in 2012.
Gilliland said Wagle is not particularly intimidated by the challenges she faces in Topeka because of the personal struggles she has faced.
“It’s not that she’s flippant about anything that’s happening, but when you’ve been told you’re going to die twice, when you’ve been told your kids are going to die, passing a budget bill, yeah, it’s arduous and it’s difficult and it’s stressful, but it’s nothing,” he said.
She had an appointment with her doctor to check the status of her cancer’s remission the day before Paul’s homecoming. She then embarked on a series of appointments ahead of the legislative session.
“Not afraid to say no’
This is the place where lobbyists try to sway lawmakers. It’s not a dark, smoke-filled room. It’s the Panera on East Central in Wichita around noon on a Friday. There are no cigars or brandy. There are chicken salad sandwiches.
Seated at the table with Wagle are lobbyists from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the Wichita Independent Business Association and the Kansas Society for Human Resource Management.
They seek her support to revamp the state’s unemployment insurance law.
They pepper her with numbers and say that the current system, in which employers pay different rates year to year based on their industry, penalizes successful companies. They want a fixed-rate system that they say would provide predictability and benefit employers who don’t have layoffs.
“With auto insurance, if you continue to wreck your car, your premiums are going to be way higher than me, who is the safe driver, and that’s how the system should operate,” Eric Stafford, the chamber’s lobbyist, tells Wagle.
The lobbyists want the change approved before April but don’t have a draft of the bill yet.
Wagle asks pointed questions. She is interested in the idea, noting her own company’s frustration with paying unemployment insurance, but has some concerns.
“I know how this operates. One side passes the bill and then on the other side they find things they never thought were in there,” she tells them.
She leaves the table after an hour without making any promises. She tells the lobbyists to make sure the Kansas Department of Labor is on board with the proposal.
Asked later to comment on the chamber’s influence at the Legislature, Wagle says conservatives received support from the chamber when they ran for office because they share the chamber’s views on business and taxes.
Wagle has a lobbyist in her family, son-in-law Riley Scott, who represents Dillons stores and Spirit AeroSystems, among other clients. She said she votes her conscience and that Scott, the father of three of her grandchildren, doesn’t get any special treatment.
“She’s not afraid to say no to me,” Scott said, while over at her house for dinner. “There are times when I go into her office to talk about grandkids or something else, but most times when we’re in the Statehouse it’s a legislator-lobbyist relationship.”
Wagle, in mother-in-law mode, then admonished Scott for being glued to the TV.
She and Tom have four children, and Tom had three from a previous marriage whom Wagle counts as her own. They have 10 grandchildren, with one on the way. For Paul’s homecoming, the weekend before Christmas, she made the family lasagna and reveled at building gingerbread houses with her grandkids.
“I just think it’s super cool she’s like so far up there, you know. It must’ve taken a lot of work,” her 13-year-old granddaughter Abigail said. “And I just think about how much power she has.”
She flashed a mischievous smile and added that she plans to be even more powerful one day.
Seven things ...
you probably didn’t know about Susan Wagle
1. She and her husband, Tom, who met as students at Wichita State University, are diehard Shocker fans and have season tickets for the men’s basketball and baseball teams.
2. She taught special education before becoming a businesswoman.
3. She’s a fan of poker. She learned the game early in her legislative career when she bested fellow lawmakers in a game of penny poker, walking away with a bunch of change her first time playing. She expects her staff to win when legislative staffers hold poker games during the legislative session.
4. She is a past president and current board member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC, a controversial organization that promotes conservative and pro-business legislation to state legislatures across the nation.
5. She jokes that she has more lives than a cat, after three bouts with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a hit-and-run accident that sent her to a Wichita hospital about 10 years ago.
6. She is convinced that she developed lymphoma after the family’s former home was exposed to chlordane, a chemical known to cause cancer, in 1984 when an exterminator they hired used it to kill termites. The Kansas Department of Health investigated, and the house was ruled a toxic waste dump. The family was forced to move.
7. She has not taken advantage of the state’s elimination of taxes for LLCs and S corporations. She and her husband own Wichita Businesses Inc., which includes bingo halls and other investments. It is registered as a C corporation.