Archive for Sunday, November 3, 2002

As dueling nears end, real challenge begins

November 3, 2002


The 2002 Kansas race for governor between Democrat Kathleen Sebelius and Republican Tim Shallenburger has played out like a computer game.

Sebelius pushes the button that says Shallenburger wants to cut school funding; Shallenburger responds by pressing the Sebelius-soft-on-crime button.

Shallenburger describes her as a "lying, dangerous, liberal."

Sebelius calls on Shallenburger to stop the negative campaigning.

For every charge there has been a countercharge. No slight unanswered, no day without a political message.

Problem is, the day after Tuesday's election, the newly elected governor will have to stop campaigning and start leading a state that has fallen on hard times.

The winner will wake up Wednesday with a huge headache, said former Gov. Mike Hayden, and the pain won't be from the post-election party.

The state till holds only IOUs, the need for governmental services is increasing, agriculture and airplane manufacturing  two mainstays of the economy  are in the dumps, and young people are leaving Kansas for greener pastures. The next governor faces a projected revenue shortfall of $800 million in a $4.4 billion state budget.

"The day after the election, you're going to have to take off your campaign hat and you're going to have to face the financial reality of the fact that this shortfall is continuing," Hayden said.

The next governor will have to cut spending and "significant tax increases are going to have to be considered," he said.

Lacking substance

But during months of campaigning, neither Sebelius nor Shallenburger has produced anything more than a vague plan to meet that challenge. They say they will cut spending, but it won't be painful; they say they will raise revenue, but it won't be with taxes.

Henry Helgerson, a Wichita Democrat and former state representative who served with Sebelius and Shallenburger in the Legislature, said neither candidate had been forthright with the voters.

"Both of them have a very well-orchestrated strategy that was recommended to them by their political consultants, and that is don't antagonize anybody," Helgerson said.

Ironically, Sebelius and Shallenburger have more substance than their campaigns.

Both possess political skills honed in the Kansas House, where the candidates reached positions of leadership. They both won statewide elections to lead high-profile state agencies.

But the passions that fueled their political ambitions have been muted during the campaign.

"Elections are about building consensus and creating a vision for a direction of a government," Helgerson said. "In this case, there is no consensus; there is no vision. It is simply, let us get elected, and then we'll tell you what our vision is going to be."

For one of them, the strategy will have worked.

Different beginnings

Sebelius and Shallenburger arrive at the top of Kansas politics from different paths.

Sebelius, 54, grew up in Ohio politics and married into Kansas politics. She is the daughter of John Gilligan, who served as a congressman and later a one-term governor of Ohio, who at 80 years old continues in public service as a member of the Cincinnati public school board.

Sebelius attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through college and then met and married Gary Sebelius, a Kansan and son of a former, longtime western Kansas congressman, Keith Sebelius.

The couple moved to Topeka, where they raised their family. Sebelius was active in her two sons' public schools and eventually local and state government, serving on the state ethics panel, working as an assistant in the Kansas Department of Corrections and working as executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Assn.

In 1986, she was elected to the Kansas House and in 1994 won a statewide race for insurance commissioner, the first Democrat to win the position in more than 100 years.

She was hailed as an up-and-comer by national Democrats who were battered that year when Republicans whipped them nationwide in President Clinton's first midterm test.

Refusing money from insurance interests that she regulated, Sebelius led a highly publicized house cleaning at the agency that won her rave reviews from consumer advocates  and re-election in 1998. For eight years, she has been the only statewide elected Democrat in Kansas and was anointed to run for governor without opposition in the party.

Working-class family

Shallenburger, 48, grew up in Baxter Springs, in the southeast corner of Kansas, part of a working-class family. He attended public schools.

His father was an electrician, his mother a homemaker. After high school graduation, Shallenburger attended college briefly before entering the work force, managing a pizza restaurant, working for a bank as a repo man in Joplin, Mo., and then joining a bank in Baxter Springs. He and his wife Linda have one daughter.

In 1986, concerned about environmental contamination around his hometown, he ran for the Legislature and won election from a heavily Democratic district. He is one of few Republicans in the United States with a pro-labor voting record.

An anti-abortion, social conservative, Shallenburger rose through the ranks and was elected speaker of the House in 1995, where he helped engineer huge tax cuts and bedevil moderate Republicans like Gov. Bill Graves. In 1998, Shallenburger ran for state treasurer and won.

Shallenburger has said he entered the 2002 race by default. U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., was seen by many as the shoo-in Republican nominee because he had early support from both the moderate and conservative wings of the party. But when Moran decided not to run, conservative Republicans looked around and picked Shallenburger. Moderate Republicans picked Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall, but she later dropped out of the race. Shallenburger, facing lesser-known Republicans in the primary, and promising to hold the line on taxes, won.

What others say

Those who have worked with the candidates have high praise for them.

"Both of them are decent human beings," said Joan Wagnon, a Topeka Democrat who served in the Legislature with Sebelius and Shallenburger.

She said Sebelius would be a better governor than Shallenburger because he was more of an ideologue while Sebelius was willing to negotiate.

"Kathleen is policy-oriented and is willing to compromise to get the job done, which any governor has to be willing to do. I trust Kathleen more in protecting the things that the future of this state will depend upon, such as education," she said.

Pete McGill, an influential Republican, former House speaker and longtime lobbyist now retired, said both candidates were solid politicians.

"Sebelius is not of my political affiliation, but I would say she is one of the sharpest politicians in the market today," McGill said.

He said Sebelius had done an excellent job modernizing and operating the Kansas Department of Insurance and "running a hell of a campaign."

Of Shallenburger, he said, "He is one of the two or three smartest politicians in the state of Kansas. I don't know of anybody who dislikes him. His biggest liability is his associations" with social conservatives.

Oddly, McGill noted, two excellent candidates have risen from political parties "in complete disarray," referring to the state Democratic Party and the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

The issues

On the campaign trail, the candidates have staked out politically safe positions.

Shallenburger has pledged to not increase taxes, but has left himself some wiggle room, refusing to pledge to veto a tax increase if the Legislature were to approve one and put it on his desk.

"I am running for governor because of the fiscal mess the government is in. We have to stop raising taxes," he said.

Sebelius has refused a no-tax-increase pledge but has said a tax increase is not in the cards. She has proposed a top-to-bottom review and performance audit of state government, similar to what has been done in some other states.

On public schools, Sebelius has said she would make education her No. 1 priority, even to the point of increasing funding in tough economic times. She says the money for more school funding could be derived from savings in other areas of the state budget.

Shallenburger said schools could sustain a small cut without harm but later said he would not cut public schools, either.

The two disagree on local funding of public schools. Shallenburger says local school districts should be allowed to increase taxes as much as they want to support schools; Sebelius favors a slight increase in the amount of tax funds locals can raise.

Ten-year-old debate

The difference in their positions has led to a debate over the 1992 vote in the Legislature that established the current school finance formula.

Sebelius voted for it, and Shallenburger voted against it. Shallenburger said that vote took away local control of schools. He said restricting local school boards from spending more was "un-American."

But Sebelius defended her vote for the school finance formula, saying it led to a fairer way of funding schools to ensure that poor school districts were able to provide a sound education.

"Public education shouldn't be an accident of geography," she said.

The two also differ sharply on abortion. Shallenburger supports further restrictions on abortion; Sebelius, who supports abortions rights, said she planned no changes to the state law.

Both candidates promise to be a more active governor than Graves, who is prohibited from seeking a third term. Neither candidate disparaged Graves during the campaign  Shallenburger actively pursued Graves' endorsement, and Graves grudgingly gave it  but their comments leave little doubt they believe Graves has not been engaged over the past few years, especially in trying to improve economic development.

The campaign

For both candidates, the campaign has been about getting the votes of independent voters and moderate Republicans.

Sebelius launched her campaign shortly after her decision as insurance commissioner to deny a proposed merger between Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas and an Indiana-based insurance company. That decision has proved politically popular, though a state district judge has ruled against it, and the matter is on appeal before the Kansas Supreme Court.

She has spent about twice as much money on her campaign as Shallenburger  about $3.2 million to his $1.5 million  but as a Democrat she faces an uphill challenge among registered voters. In Kansas, Republicans outnumber Democrats almost two to one.

Sebelius immediately went to work trying to lure moderate Republicans. She chose John Moore of Wichita as her lieutenant governor running mate. He is a former senior executive with Cessna who had been a Republican but switched to the Democratic Party to run with Sebelius.

After his GOP primary victory, Shallenburger immediately rounded up endorsements from statewide Republicans, both moderate and conservative. But Graves, in a highly visible courtship, made Shallenburger practically beg for his blessing, and when he gave it, it was in a tense news conference.

On the hustings, both Sebelius and Shallenburger are tireless campaigners, but have different styles.

Sebelius is more polished, Shallenburger more easy-going.

In their first major joint appearance  the State Fair in Hutchinson in early September  Sebelius seemed in control while Shallenburger stumbled.

But in their last joint appearance  a live TV debate  Shallenburger seemed relaxed and Sebelius tense. Sebelius' campaign later said she had been suffering a bad cold.

The one major misstep of the campaign came during a joint appearance in Overland Park. Asked about highway funding in Kansas, Sebelius said that after the Sept. 11 attack, she was stranded out of state and had to rent a car and drive through Missouri.

"The roads in Missouri were much more terrifying to me than the attacks on the World Trade Center, because I really did think my life was far more at risk," she had said.

She apologized the next day, saying her comment was insensitive. But Shallenburger used the quote in a TV spot.

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