Gov. Sam Brownback and other Kansas officials donned formal gowns and tuxedos and gathered in Topeka for his second inaugural ball Saturday evening.
Before a crowd of 1,300 supporters and elected officials of both parties, Brownback reflected on his surprisingly tough re-election fight against Democrat Paul Davis, whom he bested by 4 percentage points.
“That was the hardest campaign I’ve even been through,” he said, joking that his debate with Davis at the Kansas State Fair reminded him of a professional wrestling match.
He recognized U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and U.S. Reps. Kevin Yoder and Lynn Jenkins in the crowd.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
“I’m a little partial, but I think we have the best leadership in America in this state, and I think we’re going to show the way for America,” he said.
“Here’s to Kansas, where the atmosphere has changed,” Brownback said, raising his wine glass in a toast. “We lead forth. Pioneers in a trailblazing state.”
His wife, Mary, wearing a vanilla gown by Frascara, a Toronto-based designer, said 2014 had been quite a year. “My dad got married. Our daughter got married. … And oh, yeah, we had this campaign thing going on.
Brownback enters his second term facing a projected $648 million budget shortfall and questions about his campaign finances, which are being investigated by a federal grand jury.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, praised Brownback’s bold leadership and said she was proud to have voted for the tax cuts he championed.
Former House Speaker Mike O’Neal, who toasted Brownback at his first inauguration in 2011, said he thinks the state is on the right track, but there are “a few bumps in the road.”
The inaugural ball was Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer’s first public appearance since the Associated Press reported that Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, had been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury on Wednesday and to provide documents related to loans received by the Brownback campaign.
Colyer loaned the campaign $500,000 three times during the election cycle. He was quickly repaid the first two times. He has refused for months to answer questions about the loans. Brownback and his wife also loaned the campaign $200,000.
The administration has said the investigation is without merit.
Colyer did not take questions. He spoke about what he called “the arms and shoulders of Kansas,” referring to the World War II generation, which he said built the state, and to millenials, people born between 1980 and 2000, noting that Kansas was “rated No. 1 for young people spending their time in service.”
“To those that have served our state and built it and to our future,” he toasted.
David Kensinger, the governor’s former chief of staff and a close political ally, also attended the ball. The Topeka Capital-Journal first reported in April that Kensinger was the focus of a federal investigation that involved questions about campaign fundraising. He did not answer questions Saturday evening. “Not tonight, man,” he said.
Mark Dugan, Brownback’s campaign manager, would not discuss the investigation. But he did talk about the ball, calling it “humble, low-key and warm,” which he said reflected the governor’s personality. “Him and Mary both said, ‘We don’t want to be extravagant.’ ”
The guests dined on beef, mashed potatoes and asparagus underneath a ceiling covered with lights as orchestral music played.
The crowd included a number of Wichitans: Kansas Republican Chair Kelly Arnold; mayoral candidate Sam Williams; Tony Vizzini, provost of Wichita State University; Rodney Steven II, owner of Genesis Health Clubs; and Reps. Steve Anthimides, Mario Goico, Dan Hawkins and Dennis Hedke, among others.
“Election night, there’s a lot of emotion … but tonight we get to actually enjoy the fruits of our labor,” Arnold said.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an aficionado of rock music, said he would have preferred something with a “harder edge” but that the smooth jazz was “fine, just fine.”
“It’s the last big shindig before the business starts on Monday, so I think there’s kind of a sense of today we party, tomorrow we work,” he said.
John Milburn, who is overseeing public relations for the inauguration, said the ball was paid for by ticket sales, which ranged from $150 to $300, and table sponsorships, which cost $2,000.