By JIM MCLEAN
Reports that Gov. Sam Brownback may soon be leaving the state to take a United Nations post have lawmakers and others at the Statehouse talking about how things might change with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer in charge.
Like Brownback, Colyer is a socially conservative Republican who has championed efforts to restrict abortion and rein in government spending. He also led the Brownback administration’s controversial initiative to privatize the state’s Medicaid program and fought efforts to expand eligibility for the program.
Still, the 56-year-old plastic surgeon from Overland Park remains somewhat of a blank political canvas.
That has many lawmakers and lobbyists asking: Who is Jeff Colyer?
“That’s really the big question,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat. “He served in the House for two years and didn’t leave much of a footprint. He wasn’t in the Senate long enough to leave a footprint, and he’s been kind of a backroom guy for Governor Brownback.”
Colyer won a seat in the Kansas House in 2006. He moved to the Senate in 2008 but served only two years there before Brownback selected him as his running mate for the 2010 campaign.
‘Will it happen to me?’
Both Brownback and Colyer declined comment on a possible hand off when questioned by reporters Thursday after a public event at the Statehouse. A grinning Colyer joked that he remained focused on becoming “the longest serving lieutenant governor,” in state history, a milestone he would reach this summer.
“So, I’m just doing my job,” he said. “I’m just focusing on my job.”
However, in what could either have been a slip of the tongue or an intentional signal about what was to come, Colyer twice referred to himself as governor during a Feb. 9 speech to Republicans gathered to nominate a candidate in the 4th Congressional District.
During the speech he said the Trump administration had invited him and “other governors” to Washington, D.C., to discuss state policy priorities. A few minutes later, in another reference to the meeting, Colyer recalled “sitting there with a half a dozen other governors” and talking about the privatized Medicaid program that he had helped to implement in Kansas.
A noticeable change in Colyer’s schedule and interaction with lawmakers also signaled to many that a change could be in the offing. In a December article in the Wichita Eagle, Colyer acknowledged the possibility that Brownback could leave.
“When you sign up for this job, you’ve signed up for that situation,” Colyer said. “It’s happened before and it’ll happen again in the future. Will it happen to me? I’m going to do my job now.”
Prior to jumping into politics, Colyer was perhaps best known for the humanitarian work he did with the International Medical Corps. He was featured on “60 Minutes” in 2002 for traveling to Sierra Leone to surgically remove scars from children forced to fight in that country’s civil war. Rebels abducted the children and burned brands into their skin so that they could be returned to the fighting if they ran away.
Interviewed by Christiane Amanpour, Colyer said his desire to “make a difference” motivated him to do volunteer work for IMC around the globe.
“They (the children) look at you and you can see it in their eyes,” he told Amanpour. “They’re reliving those items in their eyes, and it’s a very sad thing. God knows what they’ve been through.”
An opportunity for healing?
Colyer’s humanitarian work is a reflection of his commitment to service, said former Rep. Steve Brunk, a social conservative who now lobbies for the Family Policy Alliance.
“He’s a highly intelligent, dedicated, generous man,” said Brunk, who sat next to Colyer on the House floor during the two years they served together.
While the lieutenant governor is loyal to Brownback and shares many of his conservative views, Brunk said Colyer might attempt to “hit the reset button” with the Legislature if he becomes governor.
“There is some estrangement in the relationship now, so this may be an opportunity for some good healing and to move forward in a productive way,” Brunk said.
The tensions between Brownback and lawmakers stem from a budget crisis that many believe was triggered by income and business tax cuts that the governor pushed through the Legislature in 2012 when conservatives controlled both houses.
That is not the case anymore. Moderate Republicans and Democrats ousted many of the governor’s conservative allies in the 2016 election by promising to fix the budget problems that have forced cuts in spending on higher education, social programs and highway projects.
Relations reached a flashpoint recently when Brownback vetoed a bill that rolled back many of his signature tax cuts. The House quickly voted to override the governor’s veto, but the Senate fell three votes short. However, most observers believe the votes needed to override in the Senate are within reach.
Brownback has been “the biggest obstacle” to making progress on a budget solution, Ward said.
“Hopefully the lieutenant governor won’t be so wedded to these policies,” Ward said.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from Dighton, is also among those who think Colyer might be more open to compromise.
“The present governor is probably more personally invested in one particular view of how to solve the problem,” Hineman said. “Possibly, Lieutenant Governor Colyer would be more amenable to other options. But that’s speculation.”
The timing of any change also is in question. If President Donald Trump nominates Brownback to be ambassador to the United Nations agencies for food and agriculture, the U.S. Senate would have to confirm him. That, Hineman said, could take weeks or months.
But if things move more quickly, Hineman said he believes Colyer would be ready to take the reins of state government.
“He has been meeting on a regular basis with Senate Majority Leader (Jim) Denning and myself,” Hineman said. “So, we’ve established a relationship. And if it turns out this way, I look forward to working with him.”
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of kcur.org, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.