Archive for Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Analysis: Nine months into term, Sebelius leads by instinct

Governor setting her agenda

October 15, 2003


Kathleen Sebelius: Two decades in politics

Kathleen Sebelius is the nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services in Obama's Cabinet. She has served as Kansas' governor since 2002 and before that was insurance commissioner and a state representative.

Some complain she is overly cautious, others say she is just extremely thoughtful. And while some say she practices the politics of inclusion, others sense a close-to-the-vest style.

Nine months in office, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' management and political style remain an enigma to many Kansans.

"I have a breakfast with a bunch of guys who know her pretty well, and I'm not sure they know who she listens to," said Kansas University political science professor Burdett Loomis, whose son Dakota works as Sebelius' research director. "She trusts her own political instincts a lot."

Sebelius, a Democrat, was elected in densely Republican Kansas after promising to hold the line on taxes and increase school funding.

Dealing with a record decline in state revenue, Sebelius and lawmakers passed a budget in 2003 that averted a general state tax increase, but, many argued, either delayed tax increases or pushed them onto local governments. And on education there were more mixed results -- public schools weren't cut, but they're getting the same level of base state aid they received in 2002.

In short, a train wreck was avoided but the state is speeding toward a hairpin turn.

Since the end of the legislative session in May, Sebelius has launched a series of initiatives that will keep the Legislature busy when it returns in January.

She has task forces on education, gaming and rural issues, while Lt. Gov. John Moore oversaw a series of regional economic summits.

Meanwhile, Sebelius' internal budget efficiency teams continue to work on structural changes in government, one of the most high profile being plans to pare the mammoth fleet of state vehicles.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is beginning her ninth month in office.
Political watchers note that Sebelius, shown during a recent
morning meeting in her office, is following a tradition of Kansas
governors who appoint task forces to help them "set an agenda."

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is beginning her ninth month in office. Political watchers note that Sebelius, shown during a recent morning meeting in her office, is following a tradition of Kansas governors who appoint task forces to help them "set an agenda."

During this time between sessions, Sebelius has crisscrossed the state to attend hearings, meet with constituents and cut ribbons. She has ridden on a combine in Goodland and given lectures in Lawrence. She receives from 200 to 300 requests for appearances per month.

According to Loomis, Sebelius is not naturally "a meet-and-greet kind of person," but that is changing. "She's learning how to have fun at being governor. I'm not sure she got it immediately," he said.

Usually putting in 10- and 12-hour days, Sebelius is known to be at her home computer at 6 a.m. starting a string of e-mails to staff that continue throughout the day between meetings and phone calls.

Proof is in the pudding

Ed Flentje, who was a top official in the administrations of former Govs. Mike Hayden and Robert Bennett, said Sebelius was following a tradition of governors appointing task forces to help them "set an agenda."

"Obviously, the real question is will this produce anything, will it get translated into some results?" Flentje said.

Flentje, now director of the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University, said Sebelius had been slow to take the lead on issues.

"I think she's cautious, deliberate. Cautious on policy in the sense that she is not way out front on anything," Flentje said. "Sooner or later, she'll have to be kind of the first one peering over the hill on policy, and I haven't seen that yet."

But Flentje gave Sebelius high marks for reaching out to lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats. "She is genuinely bipartisan, amazingly bipartisan," he said.

When Sebelius picked Moore as her running mate, he was a registered Republican. Many of Sebelius' Cabinet members are moderate Republicans, including Hayden, who is secretary of wildlife and parks. Sebelius also maintains close contacts with conservative Republicans, several of whom said during the legislative session that they were surprised how accessible she was.

"I have no complaints," said House Speaker Doug Mays, a Topeka Republican. "She's still developing a strategy with working with the Legislature. She meets personally with legislative leaders when there is a reason to."

Political background

Sebelius' supporters say her personal and political background have helped her.

She grew up in politics; her father, John Gilligan, is a former governor of Ohio, and she married the son of longtime Kansas Congressman Keith Sebelius.

Kathleen Sebelius served in the Kansas House for eight years, then was elected to two terms as state insurance commissioner.

Politics: Democrat, elected in 2002 as the 44th governor of Kansas. Sebelius served in the Kansas House of Representatives from 1987 through 1994. In 1994, she was elected insurance commissioner, serving two terms.

Born: May 15, 1948, in Cincinnati. She is the daughter of former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan and his wife, Katie Gilligan.

Education: Political science degree from Trinity College, Washington, D.C., and a master's degree in public administration from Kansas University.

Family: Husband, Gary Sebelius; and two sons, Ned and John.

State Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat, said Sebelius was engaged throughout the past legislative session with rank-and-file lawmakers and legislative leaders.

"She's out and about in the Capitol a lot. She was a legislator, so she knows what we have to do and she knows that there is a time to collaborate, and when you have to go with your constituency. She knows about deadlines," Ballard said.

Marvin Stottlemire, assistant director of the KU Public Management Center, said Sebelius had accomplished what every strong manager must -- assembling a quality team.

Stottlemire is serving as a facilitator with Sebelius' rural life task force and said the quality of her appointments to that panel has been outstanding. After one meeting with one of the task force's subgroups, Stottlemire said: "My jaw just dropped at the level of both technical expertise and common sense wisdom that there was."

Emily Kofran, a longtime personal friend of Sebelius, said the governor "gets an enormous amount done, but when you are with her you don't get a sense of someone who is incredibly hard-driving."

Kofran said Sebelius was not motivated by political power but "really believes in solid, strong public policy. I see her as being someone who really does try to act according to her values."

Listen and lead

Sebelius admitted her style may seem overly cautious to some, but that she wanted to get as much information from as many people as she could.

"My father tended to be more impetuous, and I watched him try to undo statements or positions after the fact, which also could add to my pattern of reaching out and gathering information in advance," she said.

But Sebelius also said she learned from her father "that it's important to take risks. Once a decision has been made and a direction is set, a leader must be in the front row, leading the charge, and willing to take the consequences of defeat. If not, you are lost before the engagement begins."

Staff member Jennifer Crow and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius leave the
governor's office on the way to a scheduled event.

Staff member Jennifer Crow and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius leave the governor's office on the way to a scheduled event.

And, she said, her efforts to include as many voices as possible in the decision-making process is important.

"I also am a firm believer that Kansans have to be part of the mix, have to be involved in conversations and feel that their leaders are listening to and concerned about them. It certainly takes more time to travel and converse, but in the long run it really helps to have conversations outside the Capitol dome," she said.

Media relations strained

If Sebelius has stumbled, it has been in her relationship with the media.

Kansas news organizations, including the Lawrence Journal-World, sued Sebelius last year when she kept her budget review team meetings behind closed doors.

A state district judge ruled that Sebelius had the authority to close the meetings to the public but chastised her for doing so.

In recent weeks, the Sebelius administration, apparently unhappy with how its message was being delivered, hired former newsman Jim McLean as a special assistant to try to direct that message.

But most agree much of what has happened so far during Sebelius' administration has been preparation for the tough political and budget fights that lie ahead. Schools and social services are demanding more funding as tax revenues remain flat. "People will judge her on what happens in the next two or three years," Loomis said.

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