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Archive for Friday, January 26, 2007

Sebelius has U.S. politics taking notice

January 26, 2007

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— Most of the Kansans who've left a mark on national politics have been Republicans, like Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole. Another, Sen. Sam Brownback, is running for president.

But a Kansas Democrat, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, is generating some national buzz with her convincing re-election victory, glowing write-ups in national magazines like Time and Newsweek, and political chatter about her place on short lists for Cabinet secretary jobs should Democrats recapture the White House in 2008.

Sebelius, who's made her fortunes in Kansas politics by winning over moderate Republicans, even has popped up in speculation about potential vice presidential nominees.

"It's hard to imagine that her name's not going to appear on everybody's list," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster in Washington. "You've got to say Kathleen Sebelius is in demand as a role model, as a political figure, as a governor."

The 58-year-old governor is a self-proclaimed "aging rocker" who squeezed a ride in an Indy car and a Rolling Stones concert into the same day last year. She runs nearly 15 miles a week and regularly attends college football and basketball games.

Her wit occasionally gets her into trouble, as during a 2002 gubernatorial debate when she said driving roads in neighboring Missouri was "much more terrifying to me than the attacks on the World Trade Center."

Her cell phone did her no favor in 2003, when it rang during a speech by President Bush to the National Governors Association, earning her an irritated glare from the president.

Nor have her relationships with reporters and editors always been smooth. Before she took office in January 2003, 14 news organizations, including AP, sued her for closed meetings of task forces that were advising her, a lawsuit in which she eventually prevailed.

But she's remained popular with Kansans, winning re-election last year with 58 percent of the vote.

"That's the kind of political profile that could be potentially attractive," said David Rohde, a Duke University political scientist.

Political pedigree

Sebelius, 58, grew up in Cincinnati in a family that operated a funeral home business. She regularly played football on the lawn with her two brothers and their friends; she played basketball into college.

Her father, John Gilligan, a Democrat, served as governor of Ohio in 1971-75, making them the only father-daughter governors in U.S. history. Her husband, Gary, now a federal magistrate, is the son of the late Rep. Keith Sebelius, a western Kansas Republican.

She served in the Kansas House for eight years before winning the first of two terms as insurance commissioner in 1994. She ran for governor four years later, winning over moderate Republicans by portraying herself as pro-business and promising to make government more efficient.

She's continued the political mix this year, proposing that legislators draft a plan for eventually bringing universal health care coverage to Kansas while seeking tax cuts for businesses. She also has been a visible supporter of the military, making a trip to Iraq in 2005 to visit National Guard troops.

Sebelius also is known as a hands-on manager. Some of her early initiatives to make government more efficient focused on small, nuts-and-bolts items, such as cutting agencies' magazine subscriptions and having officials use less expensive business cards.

During her first term, the state weathered its most severe fiscal crisis since the Great Depression and was forced by its highest court to dramatically increase spending on public schools. With the economy improving, both tasks were accomplished without a general tax increase - though Republicans note Sebelius proposed a swiftly rejected tax package for schools in 2004.

Attention-getter

Democrats in Kansas considered Sebelius an up-and-comer from her start in elective politics two decades ago. In 2004, Time named Sebelius one of four "rising stars from the heartland," and a year later it touted her as among the nation's five best governors. Newsweek identified Sebelius as "one to watch" this year.

But much of the attention she's getting from political activists, political scientists, pollsters and think tanks comes from her ability to draw moderate Republicans - a prize sought by Democrats as they prepare for the 2008 presidential election, having lost the two previous races.

Winning over those moderates is a necessity for any Democrat aspiring to statewide office in Kansas. Only 27 percent of the state's 1.6 million voters are registered as Democrats, compared with 46 percent as Republicans, giving the GOP a 322,000-person advantage. Also, no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since 1964.

"I think she's as good a politician as this state's ever produced, Republican or Democrat," said former Gov. John Carlin, a Democrat who served two terms. "She's got some ties, some connections that don't just automatically come along for a governor of Kansas."

Carlin served a decade as director of the National Archives and Records Administration, and another Kansas Democrat, Dan Glickman, served as President Clinton's agriculture secretary.

But Republicans have gone farther, most notably Eisenhower, whose presidential library is in Abilene.

Sen. Charles Curtis was a power in the national GOP before serving as vice president in 1929-33. Gov. Alf Landon was the GOP nominee for president in 1936. Dole served as Senate majority leader before his failed presidential bid in 1996.

Brownback is considered a long shot for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, but he has solid national support from the religious right and conservative groups.

Focus on the present

Last year, some Republicans suggested Sebelius wouldn't serve out a second term because she'd be tapped for a presidential ticket, and many think she's eyeing a run in 2010 for the Senate seat now held by Brownback, who has said he won't seek re-election.

Sebelius repeatedly has dismissed such ideas, saying she likes her current job.

Nor does she describe her position as the Democratic governors' chairwoman as a step toward something higher, though Bill Clinton held the same job as Arkansas governor in 1989 and Howard Dean, as Vermont's chief executive, filled it in 1997. She has described herself as a "policy wonk" and said she looks forward to advising Congress.

"Frankly, the federal agenda has some incredibly critical issues to states," she said in a recent interview. "Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind is this year. Reauthorization of the children's health insurance plan is this year. The farm bill reauthorization is this year."

However, some Kansans wouldn't mind seeing her on the Democratic ticket next year.

"Anything's possible," said Rachel Camp, the director of a church day care center in Topeka. "She shows a lot of good qualities that would be assets to our government. I'd probably vote for her."

Republicans argue that the state's economy hasn't recovered as much as portrayed and that Sebelius gets more credit than she deserves for legislative accomplishments.

But even some of them are conceding the buzz around Sebelius isn't all bad.

"Anything that helps Kansas shore up our self-image and shore up how others perceive us is good for the state," said Kansas Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt.

Did you know?

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas is receiving national attention, having prospered as a Democrat in a traditionally Republican state:

¢ Rock 'n' roll: In a gubernatorial debate in October, she referred to herself as an "aging rocker" and noted that she'd attended a Rolling Stones concert. Her husband, Gary, who styles himself the state's "first dude," had a rock band in high school.

¢ Early work: She worked for three years as a special assistant to the state's corrections secretary before becoming executive director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers' Association in 1978. Eight years later, she won a seat in the Kansas House.

¢ Political skills: Raising money is one of her strengths. In 2002, she set a record by collecting more than $4 million in contributions for her gubernatorial campaign. Last year's campaign raised more than $5 million.

¢ More skills: Democrats say Sebelius was instrumental in getting Mark Parkinson and Paul Morrison to switch parties. Last year, Parkinson was elected lieutenant governor and Morrison voted as attorney general.

¢ Early notice: In 2001, while she was serving as insurance commissioner, Governing magazine named Sebelius one of its public officials of the year.

¢ Personal: She and her husband have two adult sons, Ned and John.

¢ Church conflicts: Sebelius' abortion rights stance has brought additional comment because she's also Catholic. In 2003, the archbishop for Kansas asked her to move an inaugural prayer service from her church because of her politics, but she refused.

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