First the election, now the selection

Three competing to lead Kansas House

? Now that the general election is over, the campaign can begin – for speaker of the Kansas House.

Actually, the race between three veteran Republican legislators – Melvin Neufeld of Ingalls, Mike O’Neal of Hutchinson and Kenny Wilk of Lansing – has been going on for months.

Last week’s general election settled who will be serving in the House for the next two years, and so now the candidates can kick their campaigns up a notch.

Lawmakers will meet Dec. 4 to elect their leaders.

The outcome is important to Kansans statewide because of the speaker’s power.

The speaker appoints committee chairmen and women and can in most cases kill or push through legislation that the speaker feels strongly about. The office also controls the flow of bills, which also can determine their outcome.

“The speaker will set the tone both politically in terms of trying to bring the two factions within the Republican Party together, as well as to reach across the aisle to work with the Democrats,” said state Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence.

The speaker also is part of the Statehouse leadership team, which includes Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who easily won re-election last week, and Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Republican who presides over a sharply divided caucus.

Private campaigns

There won’t be any yard signs or annoying robo-calls in this campaign.

The race for speaker is waged behind the scenes, one-on-one between the candidates and rank-and-file Republican House members, who hold a 78-47 majority over Democrats.

A chat over coffee and doughnuts, a handshake, and the deal is sealed … or not.

Leadership races are notorious for members promising to commit to voting for one candidate and then voting for another because the actual election is done by secret ballot and often takes several rounds of voting.

The candidates

Neufeld, O’Neal and Wilk are running to replace Doug Mays of Topeka, who didn’t run for re-election.

The candidates are longtime members, used to the rough-and-tumble of House politics, and are considered conservative Republicans, generally anti-abortion and critical of Kansas Supreme Court intervention in school finance. They all have experience chairing powerful committees.

Neufeld, a farmer, was first elected to the House in 1984. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he is a knowledgeable and tough budget negotiator.

He said all three speaker candidates are solid legislators, joking, “There’s not a dud, which makes it tough for me.”

But Neufeld was confident he would be the next speaker.

“I told people I would not announce my candidacy for speaker until I had the votes,” he said.

In 1994, Neufeld attained a footnote in House history when he was accused of blackmailing a legislator on a House vote by calling the legislator’s wife about allegations of sexual misconduct. Neufeld acknowledged making the call but said he wasn’t trying to blackmail anyone.

The case never went to trial because the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers have wide constitutional protections in what they can say to other legislators.

O’Neal is an attorney and has been in the House since 1984. He has been the legal go-to guy for a number of conservative legislative initiatives, most recently heading an investigation into the so-called Nuss Fuss, in which Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss was criticized for having a conversation earlier this year with two senators on school finance when the litigation was still before the court.

On the House Republican spectrum, O’Neal said he is between Neufeld and Wilk.

“I’m very comfortable with that position,” he said. “I’m sort of center-right, and I think that is where the majority of the caucus is.”

He said his years as a mediator would help him develop consensus with legislators.

Wilk, a commercial sales executive for Hallmark Cards Inc., has been in the House since 1992. Of the three candidates, he is considered the closest to the moderate Republican wing.

He has spent much of his legislative career focused on economic development. He was a key sponsor of pushing for bonds to build higher education research facilities and launching a massive effort to increase the bioscience industry in Kansas.

Wilk said he believes he is the best candidate to have good relations with the Senate and governor’s office.

“We need to get along. That’s one of the messages that the voters are sending out loud and clear,” he said. “They want their elected officials to get along, and they want to see some things happening.”

And, Wilk noted, the results of the recent election probably reduced the number of conservative Republicans in the House.

“It’s fair to say that the needle has moved to the center some,” he said.

Other races

In other GOP leadership races: Majority Leader Clay Aurand of Courtland is being challenged by Speaker Pro Tem Ray Merrick of Stilwell, and Lee Tafanelli of Ozawkie, Joe McLeland of Wichita and Donald Dahl of Hillsboro are running for speaker pro tem.

On the Democratic side, there don’t appear to be any challenges to the current team of Minority Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg, assistant leader Jim Ward of Wichita; agenda chairwoman Marti Crow of Leavenworth; and caucus chairwoman Barbara Ballard of Lawrence.