Democratic gubernatorial candidate Laura Kelly hopes to ‘slam the door’ on Brownback’s policies
photo by: Peter Hancock
TOPEKA – Kansas may be known as a reliably Republican state, but when it comes to gubernatorial elections, voters here have been remarkably balanced.
In fact, going back half a century to 1968, Kansas voters have consistently elected governors from the opposite party of the one leaving office.
In this year’s race, Democrat Laura Kelly hopes to keep that streak alive in her bid to succeed Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, who inherited the job when the last elected governor, Sam Brownback, resigned in January.
Polls, however, have shown Kelly locked in a tight race with Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, while a well-funded independent candidate, Greg Orman, threatens to play the role of a spoiler.
For that reason, she routinely tries to tie Kobach with the unpopular legacy of the Brownback administration, even describing Kobach as “Sam Brownback on steroids.”
“It’s time to slam the door once and for all, throw away the key, on the Brownback experiment and move our state ahead, ” Kelly told a cheering partisan crowd at the Kansas State Fair debate on Sept. 8.
Kelly, 68, was born in Queens, N.Y., in a military family that traveled the world. In speeches, she notes that her family moved 12 times by the time she was 15. Later, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Bradley University in Illinois and a master’s degree from Indiana University.
In 1986, she and her husband, physician Ted Daughety, settled in Topeka and raised two daughters, who are now both in their 30s. Kelly, whose background is in recreation therapy, eventually became executive director of the Kansas Recreation and Park Association.
In 2004, Kelly was elected to the 18th District Senate seat by defeating one-term incumbent Republican Sen. Dave Jackson. It’s a district that includes heavily Democratic portions of central Topeka, but also reaches into heavily Republican portions of northern Shawnee, Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee counties.
As a result, while Kelly has sided with Democrats on most issues, such as education funding and abortion rights, she has, at times, taken some conservative votes, especially on bills dealing with gun rights and voting laws, positions that sparked criticisms against her from competitors in this year’s Democratic primary.
One vote in particular could weigh heavily in this year’s campaign. In 2011, she voted in favor of a bill championed by Kobach, the newly elected secretary of state at the time, requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls in order to vote, and proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register – the latter of which has since been struck down by a federal judge.
Kelly, however, said in an interview that she has no problem explaining that vote.
“If you remember back, that was a compromise that was reached to avoid an even worse outcome,” Kelly said. “It became clear, though, immediately that Kobach was going to use and abuse that authority. He did disenfranchise, what, 35,000 voters? As soon as we realized how bad he was going to be about that, I actually cosponsored a bill to repeal the citizenship requirement. So I’m very comfortable with where I am on that, and I think I represent most Kansans.”
Kelly also said that, if elected governor, she would call for ending the ongoing appeal of the federal lawsuit on proof of citizenship and push for repeal of those laws.
“First of all, I don’t want to waste any more money in court,” she said. “Kobach has a record of losing — spending money and losing in court. I think this is another example where Kansas will lose, and I think we ought to just shut it down and save the money.”
In 2013, Kelly supported another bill that has been highly controversial, especially among many Democrats. She cosponsored the so-called “constitutional-carry” bill that allows people age 21 and over who are otherwise qualified to own a gun to carry concealed firearms without having to go through gun safety training or obtain a permit.
Kelly, however, has since backtracked from that position and says she now supports restoring some restrictions on concealed-carry rights.
“I think the reason that I won so overwhelmingly in the primary (with 51 percent of the vote in a five-way race) was because people appreciated the fact that, one, I had changed my position, and two, that I was willing to do that,” Kelly said.
And when that question comes up, Kelly is quick to pivot and turn the discussion back to Sam Brownback and his tax policies.
“I think we’ve seen what happens when people in leadership are not willing to recognize when something’s not working and change a position to move toward something that does work,” she said. “That’s what I did on gun policy. That’s what Sam Brownback should have done on tax policy. He didn’t. We continued down the road to decimation. I did, and we’re moving towards more gun sense policies in the state of Kansas.”
The core of Kelly’s campaign, however, has been funding for K-12 education, as well as early childhood education, which she says is key to the state’s future economic growth.
As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Kelly says there have been numerous times when she has worked across party lines with moderate Republicans to secure funding for education and other programs.
photo by: Peter Hancock
She was also part of the bipartisan coalition that voted in 2017 to override Brownback’s veto of a bill that reversed course in his tax policies, which she says made funding of the most recent school finance bills possible in the first place.
But many conservatives, including the think tank Kansas Policy Institute, have argued that the bill, which phases in more than $500 million a year in annual school funding, will, without future tax increases or budget cuts in other areas, lead to large deficits in the near future.
“I think first and foremost, we have really got to wait for the dust to settle on the changes that we made at the state level, the changes that the feds made,” Kelly said. “We really do not know what the final result is going to be. But what we do know is that now, for the past 15 months, revenues have come in over estimates, we’re on a pathway to recovery, and hopefully that trajectory will continue.”
Kelly says repeatedly on the campaign trail that the quality of Kansas schools was a primary factor in her family’s decision to put down roots in this state in the 1980s.
But Kansas in the 21st century is, in many ways, a much different state. Large numbers of young people who were born and grew up in Kansas since the 1980s have since left to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
According to census data, fewer than one in three households in Kansas today have school-age children in them, which raises the question about how many Kansas voters today prioritize public schools the same way Kelly and her family did in the 1980s.
Kelly said she remains confident that the quality of public schools is still a top-tier issue, even for families that don’t have children.
“Remember that many of them have grandchildren, and they’re just as concerned about those grandchildren as they were about their own children,” Kelly said. “And when you talk about my focus on education, I’m really thinking about education on the entire continuum, from early childhood into K-12, tech ed, and then into our Regents universities. So I’m going to deal with the whole spectrum.”
Editor’s note: Information in this article about Laura Kelly’s background has been corrected.