Jeff Colyer is not one to dwell on the past politically, but recognizes his success — and perhaps his political future — is grounded in his Hays roots.
An Overland Park plastic surgeon who volunteers in war-torn countries, the longest-serving Kansas lieutenant governor will presumably become the next governor. If so, he will be only the fourth lieutenant governor to move up after a governor’s resignation, and the first from Hays to be the state’s chief executive.
In July, Gov. Sam Brownback was nominated by President Donald Trump to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. His appointment must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. It’s not yet known when his confirmation hearing will take place.
Colyer also has thrown his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination for the 2018 governor’s race, joining a field that includes Topeka physician Jim Barnett, the nominee in 2006 and a former state senator; Wichita businessman Wink Hartman; Secretary of State Kris Kobach; Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer; Leawood businessman Patrick Kucera; and former 24th District Rep. Ed O’Malley.
Colyer has been called by some a “political unknown,” and critics have suggested he will merely continue Brownback’s policies.
Ask Colyer about how his policies will differ from Brownback’s — such as the governor’s tax plan or Medicaid expansion — and he deflects from specifics by saying he’s only looking forward.
“What I don’t want to do is re-litigate the past,” he said in an interview with The Hays Daily News. “I think Kansans, they want us to look forward.
Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards advocacy and communications and a TMP classmate of Colyer’s, said the “unknown” assessment is likely due to his quick ascension through the Legislature.
In 2006, Colyer was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in the 48th District. Two years later, he was elected to the Senate in the 37th District. Two years after that, he was elected with Brownback to the executive branch.
“I think it’s fair to say that he did not spend a lot of time on Kansas issues in a visible way until he became lieutenant governor, and of course the job of lieutenant governor is to support the governor,” Talllman said.
“The lieutenant governor does not want to overshadow the governor, and that would be why people would consider him unknown,” Tallman said.
“His ability to distinguish himself I think is to find out No. 1, is there a difference, whether that’s in policy or style or tone or whatever it might be, and then what steps can be taken to address that,” Tallman said.
To that end, Colyer said, he is touring the state to listen to Kansans.
“Right now, we’re sounding general because I feel the need to introduce myself to folks. We’re doing a lot of listening. As things move forward, you’ll see a lot of things that are very specific for me where I want to take the state, and we’ll be talking about those,” he said.
He credits his upbringing in Hays with that desire to listen.
“The way I’m built, and it’s because of my home in Hays, you listen with people, you work together. You may have some differences on things, but we can work together on a path,” he said.
Colyer is a fifth-generation Hays native through his mother’s side, born June 3, 1960, to Lorene and James Colyer, a longtime dentist here. He graduated from Thomas More Prep in 1978.
The teachers at Kennedy Middle School and the Capuchin Franciscan priests at TMP were big influences on his life, Colyer said.
“They said, ‘We’re here to serve, to make a difference in people’s lives.’ They really encouraged you to do that, and that’s what I believed in,” he said.
He named among those influences Fathers Mike Scully and Gilmary Tallman, and Jim McNiese, who taught and coached at TMP before becoming a principal in Wichita and member of the state board of education.
“These were people who caught my imagination as a kid, and they said you can go and do things. They believed in me. That changed my life,” Colyer said.
After TMP, he earned an economics degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., a master’s in International Relations from Clare Hall, Cambridge in England and his M.D. from the University of Kansas.
He also interned with Sen. Bob Dole and served as a White House Fellow in international affairs under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. The leadership, public service and education program selects between 11 and 19 people to work as full-time special assistants in the executive branch.
From Dole, Colyer said, he learned a leader leads but is also humble.
“I learned that in Hays, Kan., too,” he said.
With Reagan, he found optimism.
“The glass really is 60 (percent) to 70 percent full, and we can fill the thing up,” he said. “You can do that when you have some principles and work with people. You don’t have to win every battle.”
His interest in public policy and international affairs also go back to his Hays education, as evidenced by his years on TMP’s debate team.
“I imagine there are very few people that do high school debate successfully who aren’t interested in politics and international affairs. He certainly was so,” said Tallman, who was also a member of the debate team.
“I didn’t imagine I was going to be governor then, but I was very interested in public policy and how do we make this a better place,” Colyer said.
It also was at TMP that Colyer’s interest in medicine began. He saw through his studies there that he could serve both the spiritual side and the physical side of people.
He opened his own plastic and craniofacial surgery practice in Overland Park in 1994, and he also also has volunteered with International Medical Corps for 25 years.
“From there, I ended up volunteering in 20 different war zones,” he said.
He’s offered his surgical skills in Rwanda during the genocide, in Iraq during two invasions, and in the Balkans and at the Syrian border.
His work in Sierra Leone was documented by “60 Minutes” in 2002. There, he removed children’s brands and scars that were used to identify them as soldiers, forced to fight in that country’s civil war, and taught local doctors to continue the work.
He even has continued volunteering while lieutenant governor, traveling to South Sudan in summer 2016.
“Where I was, there was a lot of fighting going on, lots of people being killed. We’re there and working with a group, and I’m the only American. They don’t know I’m a lieutenant governor. They just know me as ‘Dr. Jeff,’ ” he said.
“I’ve seen the very worst in the world, and I’ve seen the best, and the best is here,” he said.
In recent weeks, Colyer has cut back on his service and his practice to travel around the state, something that hasn’t been an easy transition.
“I’ve cut my medical practice 90 percent,” he said. “I’ll still do a little bit of trauma and some reconstruction.”
His personal life is changing as well. He and his wife, Ruth, married since 1991, are about to become empty-nesters. Youngest daughter Dominique starts college, joining her older sisters Alexandra and Serena.
“Ruth’s a Latina who is very strong and independent, and I ended up with three independent girls. Fortunately they got their mom’s brains,” he said with a laugh.
In the meantime, as he waits to take the state’s highest office and campaigns to stay there, he will continue to tour Kansas.
“You’re going to see me a lot more and people get to understand Jeff and Jeff gets to listen. That’s a great opportunity. People can kick the tires,” he said.
“We’re trying to change the tone. We’re having more conversations, talking with people about their business, their lives, what their dreams are for their kids. That’s what this is about.
“We have a great home and a great heart. There’s good things ahead of us,” he said.