Kansas Insurance Commissioner doesn’t fit in GOP

TOPEKA — Sandy Praeger was always the team player and never the black sheep.

As mayor of Lawrence, state representative, state senator and now Kansas’ three-term insurance commissioner, Praeger was mainstream Republican all the way and a close ally of former Gov. Bill Graves.

That’s “mainstream Republican” the way it used to be.

These days, Praeger is a GOP misfit out of step with her lifelong party, shunned by the establishment and a virtual relic of a bygone political era.

Now 68 and in her final term as insurance commissioner, Praeger favors abortion rights and gun control in a state that has squished both like a bug underfoot. She wants to spend far more on public schools in a state that has fallen far behind its own promises on education funding. She decries what she calls GOP “hate-mongering” and its anti-immigration rhetoric.

When it comes to Obamacare, she is perhaps Kansas’ biggest cheerleader for a program that’s roundly despised in many pockets of the state. Praeger insists that the governor of her own party, Sam Brownback, is leading Kansas down a precarious financial path. She talks openly of backing someone else for governor next year while clinging to an abiding belief that someday, somehow, Kansans will come to regret their tilt to the right.

And yes, it has been lonely at times.

“It would be hard to run again as a Republican, I will say that,” she said in an interview. “It would be very hard. I don’t subscribe to most of the Republican dogma right now.”

After Praeger won her third term three years ago, the state Republican Party sent out a letter that listed GOP statewide office-holders. Her name wasn’t listed.

“I thought that was hysterical,” she said.

But 2014 will be Praeger’s last full year in a public-service career that reaches back to 1985, when she was elected to the Lawrence City Commission. Her husband, a surgeon, is gearing up to retire, and Praeger said the couple is making plans.

That Praeger is so down on the Kansas GOP is disappointing, said state Rep. Scott Schwab, a former Johnson County Republican chairman. The party stood by Praeger for three terms with primary voters backing her over conservative challenger Eric Carter in 2006.

“I’d say she’s out of touch,” Schwab said. “I don’t know when she quit listening to the people who sent her to office. But she quit listening.”

In 2008, Praeger became president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners based in Kansas City, a post that gave her a platform to weigh in on national health care reform. On that score, she has been a relentless advocate — the yin to Brownback’s yang, although the governor pointedly has not rejected expanding Medicaid as President Barack Obama has advocated.

Kansas lawmakers this year ignored Praeger’s pleas to expand Medicaid and establish a health care exchange where Kansans could shop for insurance policies. That will leave thousands of poor Kansans below the poverty line without coverage even after Obamacare goes into effect, Praeger said.

But many Republicans, including Brownback, have said they feared the long-term costs of Medicaid expansion. The federal government may eventually not be able to pay its 90 percent share and will pass a higher percentage down to the states, they said. Health care exchanges weren’t popular with lawmakers either because of the integral role they play in Obamacare.

Praeger said one consequence of rejecting Medicaid expansion will be the closing of rural hospitals because federal dollars will dry up.

She is equally frustrated with Kansas’ fiscal direction under Brownback, a path she calls unsustainable. The income-tax cuts Brownback and the Legislature have enacted go too far and cut essential programs too deeply, she said.

To Praeger, cutting taxes alone won’t be the job magnet that so many Republicans believe it will be, because too many businesses count on a skilled workforce that comes about only as a result of high-quality education.

Praeger, who toyed with the idea of running for governor in the 1990s, said she thought about running next year after she got calls asking her to consider it. “It would be so tempting,” she said.

But she discarded the idea after weighing her odds in a Republican primary and her age. Her conclusion: It would cost millions. And, “I’m too old.”

Praeger’s career includes a two-year stint in the state House when she sat next to another moderate Republican, Mark Parkinson. He would go on to switch parties and become a Democratic governor after Kathleen Sebelius resigned.

But Praeger won’t switch. “I used to say my sweet, little old grandmother would roll over in her grave” if Praeger became a Democrat. “But she probably would understand today.”

But she will consider backing some Democrats next year.

“Why wouldn’t I?” she said. “Look at what Sam did to his own Republicans last year, going after moderates (in the Legislature). We lost a lot of seasoned veterans who just wanted to do the right thing for the state. They didn’t go along with the big tax cuts because they believed in funding essential core services like education.”

Brownback rules by intimidation, Praeger said. Either toe the mark or you’re gone. “He’s proven he can take anybody out,” she said.

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party and a political spokesman for Brownback, doesn’t buy it, pointing to the House’s resistance this session to extending a 3-year-old sales tax.

“I don’t think Brownback intimidates people or tries to take them out,” Barker said. “But he will support those who generally align with his polices, and that may mean that he ends up opposing others.”

Praeger has been on the scene a long time, he said. Her critique of Brownback fits the classic moderate response that voters repeatedly rejected last year in Kansas GOP primaries.

“Voters have changed over time,” Barker said. “The moderates who served well for years no longer fit the voters.”

Praeger, though, sees things differently.

“I hear (other Republicans) saying they want to get rid of all the moderates and the Democrats,” she said. “But why? They’ve got control. I don’t know why they need absolute control.”

Information from: Steve Kraske, The Kansas City Star & The Associated Press