Politics & Government

Statewide office in Kansas becomes a men’s club

Sandy Praeger is the last remaining woman in statewide elected office in Kansas. She steps down as insurance commissioner Monday.
Sandy Praeger is the last remaining woman in statewide elected office in Kansas. She steps down as insurance commissioner Monday. Kansas City Star

On April 28, 1966, Elwill Shanahan was sworn in as Kansas secretary of state. She replaced her husband, who had died in office.

Since then, at least one statewide elected official in Kansas has been a woman: a governor or lieutenant governor, a U.S. senator, a treasurer or attorney general, the secretary of state or the insurance commissioner.

The streak ended Monday, when statewide elected officials took new oaths of office. All eight are men for the first time in nearly half a century.

Politicians of both genders, from both parties, puzzled over the reasons. Some called it a mere coincidence or an accident of the calendar. Others said a toxic political culture and the high cost of campaigns have deterred otherwise qualified female candidates from seeking statewide office.

But most agreed the all-male lineup bends an important piece of the state’s political architecture. Less than 20 years ago, five women simultaneously served in statewide elected office in Kansas: Nancy Kassebaum, Sheila Frahm, Carla Stovall, Sally Thompson and Kathleen Sebelius. Three Republicans and two Democrats, all in offices now held by men.

“It saddens me,” said Joan Wagnon, the outgoing chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party. “Women have been courageous leaders.”

Sandy Praeger was the last remaining woman in statewide elected office in Kansas. She steps down as insurance commissioner Monday.

“Having women in leadership positions has been a positive for the citizens of Kansas,” she said Friday. “It is too bad.”

Some Republicans and Democrats warned against reading too much into the 2015 males-only slate in Kansas. There were three women on the statewide ballot last November, they pointed out, but all probably lost because they were Democrats facing GOP incumbents in a decidedly Republican year – not because of their gender.

“It’s always hard to tell if something is a trend or just the way it happened to turn out one time,” said Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas GOP. “I doubt the candidate’s gender is an important factor to voters.”

Gov. Sam Brownback also downplayed the significance of the change.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” he said Friday, pointing to women in other offices in the state.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins holds one of the state’s four U.S. House seats. Susan Wagle is the first woman to serve as Kansas Senate president. And women remain important officeholders in Kansas cities and counties, on school boards and in both chambers of the Kansas Legislature.

Yet none holds statewide office, a trend some called troubling. Women outnumber men slightly in the state.

And at a time when women are serving in record numbers in Congress – and a woman is considered a likely front-runner candidate for president – Kansas’ familiar role as an incubator for female politicians may be fading, they said.

“It is backtracking,” said Kansas Sen. Pat Pettey, a Democrat.

Female officeholders in Kansas blame the change on a variety of factors. Some argue the current polarized political environment is particularly worrisome for female candidates.

“This current climate of drawing a line in the sand, that doesn’t sit well with a lot of women,” Praeger said.

Republicans and Democrats said the all-male lineup suggests they need to do a better job of finding and recruiting women for high-profile statewide races in Kansas.

“We need to start working harder and start stepping up and leading,” said Kansas Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Republican.

“It’s not the easiest thing to do, and sometimes it’s really scary. But why not let this serve as a wake-up call?”

Reach Dave Helling at 816-234-4656 or dhelling@kcstar.com.

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