Kansas House GOP elects more conservative majority leader; Democrats dump firebrand

photo by: Peter Hancock

In this file photo from November 2017, Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, is pictured at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

TOPEKA — Republicans in the Kansas House elected a new, more conservative majority leader Monday and Democrats dumped their firebrand leader in the chamber in favor of lower-key veteran with a reputation for being able to work with the GOP.

The selection of conservative Rep. Dan Hawkins of Wichita as majority leader for the next two years is likely to complicate Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly’s efforts to pass her legislative agenda, particularly a plan to expand the state’s Medicaid health coverage for the needy. Defeated Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Dighton Republican, has supported expanding Medicaid, while Hawkins strongly opposes it as chairman of the House health committee for the past four years.

Republicans maintained their 85-40 majority in the House in this year’s elections, but conservatives picked up at least six seats at the expense of GOP moderates. Hawkins prevailed over Hineman, 48-35, with one lawmaker absent and another not voting.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Olathe Republican, won a second, two-year term as the chamber’s top leader, besting a challenge from conservative Rep.-elect Owen Donohoe, of Shawnee, on an 80-4 vote.

But the result in the majority leader’s race suggested that Democrats still have opportunities to form coalitions with GOP moderates to pass legislation sought by Kelly.

To help shepherd Kelly’s agenda through the Legislature, they turned to veteran Rep. Tom Sawyer over Rep. Jim Ward, who’d held the job for the past two years with conservative Republicans Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer as governor. Both Sawyer and Ward are veteran lawmakers from Wichita, but Ward is far more likely to deliver fiery speeches during debates and has a reputation for being more confrontational.

The vote among Democrats was 24-16 in Sawyer’s favor.

Sawyer was first elected to the House in 1986 and served as majority leader in 1992, when Democrats last controlled the chamber. He was minority leader from 1993 through 1998, stepping down for an unsuccessful run for governor against then-popular GOP incumbent Bill Graves. He returned to the House in 2003 and left in 2009 for a seat on the state parole board. When his term in that job was set to expire, he won back his House seat again in 2012.

photo by: Associated Press

In this file photo from April 7, 2018, Kansas state Rep. Tom Sawyer, right, D-Wichita, confers with Rep. Brandon Whipple, left, D-Wichita, during the House’s debate on a school funding legislation at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)


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