Despite the wishes of the new speaker, promoting Republican unity in the Kansas House won't be an easy job.
The Kansas House will be a very different place in 1999.
New House leaders were selected at party caucuses on Monday and those choices are expected to be ratified by the full House when it convenes Jan. 11. Both House Republicans and Democrats have new leadership. Former House Speaker Tim Shallenburger resigned that job to run successfully for the job of state treasurer. Democrat Tom Sawyer, the former House minority leader, also resigned to make an unsuccessful bid to defeat Gov. Bill Graves.
On Monday, Republicans chose Robin Jennison of Healy as the new speaker and Doug Mays of Topeka as speaker pro tem. The new minority leader will be Jim Garner of Coffeyville. Jennison's first pledge was to try to unite Republicans so they can use their House majority to move forward on a common agenda. Kansans who have observed the Kansas Legislature for the past several years realize that uniting House Republicans is no small chore.
Even Jennison's victory was narrow. Although he had contended before the vote that he had 45 votes sewed up for the speakership, he ended up defeating Susan Wagle of Wichita by a vote of 41-36. Deep divisions within the state Republican party have led to odd alliances in the House. Conservative Republicans often have been left out in the cold as their more liberal or moderate GOP colleagues work with House Democrats to pass legislation. That coalition is strengthened by its association with Gov. Graves, who often has found himself at odds, particularly on social issues, with ultra-conservative Republicans.
Lawrence was a significant winner in the leadership elections, having two local legislators elected to top Democratic House posts. Rep. Barbara Ballard will again serve as House minority caucus chair, and Rep. Troy Findley was elected as House minority policy chair.
After his election, Findley voiced a worthwhile goal for his new job. He said he hoped to "contribute to shifting the focus of the debate away from the political insults and back to ideas and policy innovations that can make a real and positive input on the lives of Kansans."
That certainly should be the goal of every state legislator, but too often in recent years, lawmakers seem more interested in winning points for their own inner circle or narrow philosophical cause than in promoting the public good. Every legislator should be more interested in doing what's best for Kansas than in scoring political points, but that hasn't always been the case.
Hopefully, the new leaders will promote fairness and intelligent debate in the House. If they can reduce political infighting and encourage thoughtful discussion of issues, they will have done the whole state a big favor.