Now more in the public eye, the man who would be Kansas governor is avoiding policy discussions
WILLARD — Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer spoke Monday in what some might consider an unlikely setting for a person in his position.
In this town of 92 people about 15 miles west of Topeka, Colyer spoke to a few dozen people who had gathered to celebrate the opening of a new bridge over the Kansas River, one that now replaces a county-owned bridge that had fallen into disrepair.
For a man who expects to take over the reins of state government in possibly a matter of weeks, and who is seeking his party’s nomination in a crowded field of candidates for a full term as governor, there didn’t appear to be much to gain from speaking at such a small venue, dedicating a bridge that isn’t even a state bridge.
But Colyer didn’t sound like he was trying to score political points.
“So this is a great day that shows the power of all of us working together here in Kansas,” Colyer said. “It started with what everybody knew we had to do, but everybody working together, putting this together, it’s a really powerful statement of what we can accomplish together. We’re doing it under budget and below time. That’s a fantastic compliment to the people that have been working here.”
The Willard bridge in western Shawnee County has been a matter of intense local concern for a decade. But because it is not on a state highway, it is not part of the state’s transportation system, and therefore there was little involvement by the state, except to make a short-term, no-interest loan to the county of a little more than $8 million last year so construction could start in 2016.
Still, it could have been an opportunity for Colyer to gain some media attention and to start defining himself to the public by talking about his own ideas for infrastructure investment and funding the state’s highway plan. But he wouldn’t.
“We’re not talking about policy today,” Colyer told reporters who tried to press him with questions after the event.
That has been Colyer’s standard response for the last several weeks. Ever since President Donald Trump announced in July that he had nominated Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to a diplomatic post, Colyer has been the subject of much interest and speculation, at least within Kansas.
Many Kansans, however, say they don’t know much about Colyer. According to a survey earlier this year by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, only 32 percent of those surveyed said they had ever heard of Jeff Colyer. That compared with 77 percent who said they had heard of Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is also running for governor.
But even though he has been making more public appearances in recent weeks, Colyer has kept them low-key affairs, avoiding discussion of specific state policy issues.
When reminded that at some point, the people of Kansas will want to know more about the person who is about to become their next governor, he still shies away.
“There’s one governor at a time,” he said. “My challenge is, Sam is still governor.”
Colyer is certainly not a novice to Kansas politics. A plastic surgeon by profession, he ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in the 3rd congressional district, which at the time included Lawrence and Douglas County. He lost narrowly to Adam Taff, who went on to lose the general election to then-Rep. Dennis Moore, a Democrat.
In 2006, Colyer was elected to the Kansas House from Johnson County. He served one term and was elected to the Kansas Senate in 2008. Two years later he was chosen to be Brownback’s running mate.
Still, there are people like Willard Mayor Melvin Sage who say they don’t know much about him or what kind of governor he will make.
“I don’t follow it that much. I have opinions. He might be all right, and he may not,” Sage said.
Colyer said the administration anticipates that the U.S. Senate will take up Brownback’s confirmation in late September. His confirmation hearings will be conducted in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Colyer said that Brownback and Corker knew each other well when Brownback served in the Senate, and he expects the confirmation to go smoothly.
“He’s a consensus pick,” Colyer said. “This is the right person for the right job.”