On the street
Well, I think the state of Kansas is going to miss her terribly, but I think she has a great opportunity.
Topeka — While Gov. Kathleen Sebelius received star treatment at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last summer, Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson joked about the blank stares he got from news photographers wondering who he was.
Parkinson frequently makes fun of his anonymity to warm up an audience, but there is no doubt he is a formidable politician.
Now Parkinson will move to the center stage of Kansas politics with the nomination Monday of Sebelius to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Pres. Barack Obama. Should Sebelius be confirmed, Parkinson will become governor, filing the remaining two years of the term.
For those who are aware of Parkinson, most probably know him as the former Kansas Republican Party chairman who converted to the Democratic Party to be Sebelius’ running mate in 2006.
Sensing voter fatigue with the rightward march of the Republican Party, Parkinson framed his switch, saying, “I decided I’d rather spend time building great universities than wondering if Charles Darwin was right.”
At the time, the move earned him scorn from Republican Party officials who accused him of being an opportunist. Even some Democrats privately expressed doubts about a newcomer being elevated to such a high position.
But it remains to be seen if switching parties will hurt him as he takes the reins of government facing a Republican-dominated Legislature.
In recent days, as Sebelius’ nomination became certain, legislative leaders, both Republican and Democrat, have spoken glowingly of Parkinson, focusing on his past experience in the Legislature, and on his intelligence.
Parkinson, 51, received his law degree from Kansas University in 1984, then formed his own law firm. In 1990 he was elected to the Kansas House from Olathe, and in 1992 to the Kansas Senate. He did not seek re-election in 1996, and started a nursing home business. He served as chairman of the Kansas Republican Party from 1999 to 2003 before switching parties in 2006. He is married and has three children.
As lieutenant governor, Parkinson has been Sebelius’ point man on energy and environmental issues, sometimes leading the charge against the proposed construction of two 700-megawatt coal-burning power plants.
Supporters of the project in southwestern Kansas have approved legislation to allow the plants, but Sebelius has vetoed those attempts, and so far those vetoes have stood up.
Last year at an Earth Day event, Parkinson urged legislators to uphold her veto, saying, “You cannot say that you are an environmentalist, that you support the environment, that you are part of the green movement, and vote for coal-fired plants that are not needed for this state.”
Another attempt to build the plants is moving through the Legislature, and this time supporters say they will get the necessary two-thirds’ majority in the House to overturn Sebelius’ veto.
One theory is that with Sebelius gone, some Democrats will vote for the bill because they don’t have as strong an allegiance to Parkinson as they do to Sebelius.
State Rep. Josh Svaty, D-Ellsworth, disagreed. “This is not a so-called loyalty vote. This is just not a good piece of legislation,” Svaty said.
Earlier this year, when it appeared Sebelius would not be serving in Obama’s Cabinet, Parkinson announced he would not seek election in 2010 as governor.
But now that Sebelius’ fortunes have changed, Democrats are urging Parkinson to reconsider, saying that running as the incumbent governor will improve his chances. Republicans have at least two high-profile statewide elected officials looking at the governor’s race: U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh.
And speculation has already started regarding whom Parkinson will select as his lieutenant governor.
House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence said that with events happening so quickly, “I don’t think Mark Parkinson has even thought about that yet.”