Top aide leaves House Democrats office

House Democratic Leader Tom Burroughs replaced his top aide over the weekend, just two weeks before advance voting begins in the 2016 primary elections.

Burroughs, D-Kansas City, confirmed Tuesday that Abbie Hodgson, who has been his chief of staff since he was elected minority leader after the 2014 elections, has left that position. He said Cory Sheedy, another aide in the office, will serve as interim chief of staff through this year’s elections.

Hodgson, of Lawrence, has been active in Democratic politics for several years. She held several positions in the administrations of Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson. In 2014 she ran unsuccessfully for the House seat being vacated by gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis, but lost the Democratic primary to Boog Highberger.

In a telephone interview, Hodgson confirmed that she no longer works in Burroughs’ office but declined to discuss details about what led to her departure.

Typically, the chief of staff in any legislative leadership offices plays both an administrative role and a political role, especially during election years when leaders are expected to recruit and train candidates and raise money on their behalf through the caucus’ campaign fund, Kansans for a Democratic House.

Democrats believe they stand a good chance of making gains this year, given Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s low approval ratings and the fact that Donald Trump, who also has high negative ratings, will be at the top of the GOP ticket in November. Democrats currently hold only 28 seats in the 125-member House.

But there have been rumblings within Democratic ranks that Burroughs’ office has not been doing enough to support the party’s candidates, particularly in areas outside northeast Kansas and the Kansas City-Lawrence-Topeka area. There were similar complaints following the 2014 elections after former Rep. Paul Davis lost the governor’s race and Democrats lost five seats in the House.

Burroughs denied that there were any such concerns this year, saying that Hodgson was “just moving on” in her career.

“We are taking a new direction in our candidate races,” he said. “We’ve got a ground game that we’ll be implementing before long that I believe will be a benefit in the election.”

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said that’s a perennial concern in the party, especially as its numbers have dwindled, because in a heavily Republican state Democrats have to choose between focusing on the few districts where they have a clear shot of winning or trying to grow the party in areas where Republicans might be vulnerable.

He also noted that more Democratic groups are out raising money this year, including one focused on retaining Supreme Court justices who are being targeted by Republicans because of their rulings on school finance and death penalty cases.

“There’s a lot of money being raised, but it’s being divided among more pots,” he said.