TOPEKA — Many people nurse murderous hangovers on New Year’s Day, but Team Brownback checks email.
In an email sent 10:51 a.m. Jan. 1, 2014, to Gov. Sam Brownback’s staff and close confidantes, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer asked the group to identify a certain famous Kansan. A pizza would go to the first person with the right answer.
The recipients of the challenge were a veritable who’s who of Brownback’s inner circle: David Kensinger, the governor’s former chief of staff and continuing political mastermind; Landon Fulmer, who was the governor’s chief of staff at the time; Jon Hummell, who is now the chief of staff; as well as press secretary Eileen Hawley and legislative liaison Tim Shallenburger, among others.
Also included in the challenge: Caleb Stegall. Stegall, who had been the governor’s chief counsel, was nominated by Brownback in August 2013 to the Kansas Court of Appeals and confirmed a short time later. He would be sworn into the position just two days later, on Jan. 3.
Although the governor’s core advisers kicked off the year on a lighthearted note, the next 12 months would prove trying. State revenues would plunge below estimates, Brownback would fight for his political life during a heated re-election campaign, and an FBI investigation into Kensinger would be made public.
Brownback’s team — his inner circle — would be there to ride out the storm with him.
For all governors, their handpicked team plays a crucial role in running state government and moving the chief executive’s agenda forward. That team has been especially important to Brownback, who first came to power after two Democratic administrations but now faces grumbling from members of his own party as he holds the line on his signature tax policy.
The Topeka Capital-Journal interviewed former administration officials, past and present lawmakers, as well as those who served in past administrations in an effort to gain a better understanding of Brownback’s inner circle and how the governor’s office operates.
Interviews show Brownback has oscillated between different personalities in some positions, leading to radically different approaches to the same job as different people take it on. And Brownback’s reliance on longtime associates, often dating back to his time in Washington, has both helped and harmed him — at times giving him an extra dose of political savvy, while also keeping him out of touch at times with the Topeka scene.
The governor’s office declined to make Brownback and other administration officials available for interviews, citing scheduling. The exception was chief of staff Jon Hummell, who answered questions.
Kensinger, who was chief of staff from 2011 into part of 2012, indicated Brownback’s success accomplishing “great things for the state of Kansas” was only possible because of the governor’s team.
“That’s not easy,” Kensinger said in a written statement. “One can only do it through the work of a dedicated team. He leads that team by example and by setting high goals — constantly seeking improvement in his team and in himself. We’re lucky to have him.”
But Brownback’s adversaries see an administration different from those in the past.
“His administrators, his top level people and even some of his mid-management people, are far more political than any administration I’ve ever seen,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
‘Let me be the bad guy’
Few positions mark the change between the heady early days of Brownback’s time as governor attempting to shake up state government and the more sober present characterized by falling revenue estimates like the job of budget director.
As the name suggests, the budget director is tasked with helping to craft the governor’s budget proposal. He or she gathers information from agency heads, looks at where the fiscal winds are blowing and takes into account the governor’s own priorities and desires when putting together the budget proposal.
As Brownback put together his team coming into office in 2011, he turned to Steve Anderson to fill the position.
Anderson, a Kansas native, had been living in Oklahoma and had done some work there for state government. A certified public accountant, he had strong ideas about state budgets and government.
Anderson had never met Brownback before, but he said Brownback reached out to him after reading some of his writings. The two hit it off, and Anderson got the job — “as fine a person as you will ever meet,” Anderson says of Brownback.
As Brownback came in office in January 2011, Kansas faced economic challenges and was still trying to dig out of the recession that had scarred the country beginning in 2008. The state faced a budget shortfall, and lawmakers had passed a sales tax hike to help address it.
Anderson, who continued to live in Oklahoma and commute on weekends while serving as budget director, set out to make government more efficient and to cut out what he viewed as excesses.
“The $500 million deficit actually helped us. Because we could claim crisis — which it was — and we could go in and twist arms,” Anderson told a gathering of Oklahoma conservatives in 2014. Video of his remarks was posted to YouTube.
“Of course, the great part was, like I told Sam, ‘I can only stay three years, always point the finger at me, let me be the bad guy out in front.’ And the press really bought that because I do a pretty good job of being a bad guy.”
But Anderson, though willing to sacrifice his public image to protect Brownback, still ran into roadblocks.
Dennis Taylor, who served as secretary of administration early on, said CPAs didn’t know about state government budgeting and that Anderson thought he knew more than he did.
“He thought we can cut spending,” Taylor said. “I remember the first meeting I had with him, he wanted to cut $120 million. That was his goal. Where are you going to get that money, Steve? Well, he didn’t have a plan for that.”
Without about 20,000 non-university employees at the time, that would have meant cutting about 2,000 workers, Taylor said.
Another time, Taylor was in a meeting with Anderson and other agency heads. Anderson wanted to eliminate all positions in state government making more than $60,000 a year.
Taylor asked Anderson how many people he thought in government made more than that.
Anderson replied 5,000. The actual number was closer to 900. Taylor said he pointed out that half of those were political appointees.
“Everybody sitting at this table makes over 60. We’re counted in that 912. Seriously?” Taylor recalled saying.
Anderson, noting he isn’t a politician, said he made business decisions during his time as budget director.
“It’s not that those people are bad people or making bad decisions but those decisions are made in a different view than those who are just business people,” Anderson said.
Anderson also said he stands by the typical state worker, who, he said, is often underpaid and overworked.
“There are incredibly good people working at the state. If there’s a problem in government, it starts in middle management up,” Anderson said.
Anderson drew the most attention during his time as budget director for an episode that became known as the $2 Billion Error. Presentations given by Brownback across Kansas in 2012 claimed Brownback had lowered state spending when compared to $16 billion of spending in 2010.
In fact, the figure turned out to be $14 billion.
Anderson said he offered to resign, but he said Brownback laughed off the suggestion and told him he “wasn’t going to get off that easy.”
The incorrect figure, Anderson said, had come from the previous administration. A “6” and a “4” had been wrongly transposed and a staff member had passed along the figure when it was requested. Anderson said he was told to fire the employee by a number of people and that she would have accepted it.
“Literally, she was crying in her office when I came to talk to her. But I will never throw anybody under the bus,” Anderson said.
In the wake of the error, Democrats led an unsuccessful push for a state audit.
“That’s been a big problem with this administration: whether you can believe exactly what they say,” Hensley said. “In many cases, they have not told the truth.”
But if Anderson was hard-charging, his successor Shawn Sullivan has been more reserved and less bombastic — a personality that fits with the current era of anxiety over revenue to the state.
Unlike Anderson, Sullivan doesn’t come from a financial background. Instead, his professional roots are in adult and long-term care and the nonprofit sector. He served as director of the Kansas Masonic Home from 2008 to 2011 before becoming secretary of the Kansas Department on Aging (which soon became the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services). In June 2014, he took over the reins of budget director.
He assumed the post amid mounting concerns over the budget. Revenues had fallen dramatically below expectations in April and May and also would do so in June.
Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, sits on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Anderson had a greater desire to craft policy than Sullivan, he said.
“Shawn (has) more of an implementation viewpoint,” O’Donnell said. “Steve was always coming with different ideas and suggestions to the Legislature that he thought would be effective, where Shawn Sullivan is much more of a communicator, and I find him to be more interested in what our thoughts on budget policy should be.
“Steve Anderson had a lot of ideas that some of them would have been good and others wouldn’t have been good. It’s not all negative to have a budget director with policy ideas.”
O’Donnell has known Sullivan since the budget director’s time in Wichita, where Kansas Masonic Home is based. He said he always has found Sullivan to be responsive to lawmaker inquiries and willing to address concerns.
“We have some secretary and agency heads that do not do that or if they do it’s like pulling teeth. He’s one of the best as far as working with individual legislators,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell said he assumes Sullivan’s experience heading up an agency contributes to his posture of openness and willingness to share information.
Rep. Don Hill, R-Emporia, is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He said Sullivan, with his history in Kansas government, is more of a “known entity” than Anderson, though he said that isn’t meant as a knock on Anderson.
During his first year, Sullivan faced a raft of challenges. Most prominently, a declining revenue estimate meant lawmakers had to find either $400 million to balance the budget — or cut spending. A number of legislators wanted to do just that, or force the administration to do it.
As the session dragged into June, when the hope of a budget deal was looking particularly dire, Sullivan told lawmakers that one way Kansas could make the necessary cuts would be to eliminate all state funds to universities. Along with a personal plea from Brownback, the warning from Sullivan appeared to do the trick: the Legislature passed a plan a day later.
“I have questioned in my own mind how he will do, how he is doing and I guess my reaction or response to that today is so far, so good,” Hill said. “But obviously, the challenges are huge, they’re unprecedented in terms of the scarcity-based environment we’re in and the need to marshal very limited resources.
“He’s meaning to chart a course through uncharted waters. I don’t know how independent he can be, I don’t know the influences he is dealing with, subject to. I will say I have been encouraged about his accessibility.”
The biggest controversy that has ensnared Sullivan so far was his decision to use a private email address to send out a preview of the budget last December to Kensinger and Mark Dugan, both lobbyists who had been part of the administration but by then had moved on — raising questions about the appropriateness of conducting state business through private email.
The early budget preview also sparked concerns the lobbyists might have gained an advantage through the early preview. The budget proposal called for increases in tobacco and liquor taxes, and Kensinger went on to lobby against the hike on behalf of tobacco company Reynolds American.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a legal opinion the use of private email didn’t break the law. Brownback also has defended the early budget previews, saying he likes to solicit input from many sources.
“He is trying to defend the indefensible, which is: It is wrong to conduct business on private accounts that are outside the scope of the open records (law),” Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said at the time. “It’s not hard. It’s 101 Open Government.”
Sullivan’s use of private email was first reported by the Wichita Eagle. In September, Sullivan guest-hosted a conservative talk radio show in Wichita. He spent much of the show critiquing the media.
“Probably the one that surprised me was probably the media more than anything else, how I can be observing things that are going on in Topeka, hearings or legislation, watching things that are occurring and seeing a completely different narrative about what happens from the biases the media has,” Sullivan said.
While the budget director possesses one of the most visible roles in the administration, the chief of staff acts as a behind-the-scenes operator that keeps the wheels turning.
Brownback has had three chiefs of staff: Kensinger, Landon Fulmer and Hummell, most recently. All three men brought a different personality and style to the position, but they all are bound by one characteristic: longtime ties to the governor. All three were staffers in Brownback’s Senate office.
Steve Morris, a Republican who was Senate president at the start of the Brownback administration, said the team Brownback brought back with him from his time in D.C. was used to hardball politics.
“I think there’s been a lot of intimidation going on with legislators and lobbyists from high-pressure, Washington-style tactics. I never did see that with previous governors,” Morris said.
Although Kensinger and Fulmer spent time in D.C., Hummell never worked in the nation’s capital, though he was on Brownback’s Senate staff. He said he has known Brownback for about 10 years and his decade of knowledge stemming from his time in Brownback’s Senate office helps him in the chief of staff role.
“I’ve known him for so long I know where he wants to go and how he would handle most things, I feel like, without having to have a big conversation with him,” Hummell said.
The chief of staff is tasked with ensuring the day-to-day functioning of state agencies, helping manage the governor’s staff, advising the governor as a key strategist and leading responses to crises, according to the National Governors Association.
Troy Findley, who served as chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and was lieutenant governor under the administration of Mark Parkinson, painted a similar picture. He compared chief of staff to the chief operating officer of a corporation.
The chief of staff also functions as a gatekeeper, limiting access to the governor.
“Everybody wants to talk to the governor directly, but the governor doesn’t have that many hours in the day. So oftentimes, they’d talk to me or some other member of the staff first and we’d figure out, ‘OK, do we need to get time on the governor’s schedule for this or is this something we can figure out at the staff level?’ ” Findley said.
Hummell summed up the job as helping the governor to do the things he believes are necessary for the state. The job, he said, involves a lot of problem solving and “putting out fires before they become big fires.”
“If you sit here for an hour, you’ll find there’s kind of a constant stream of cabinet folks, agency folks, legislators calling, asking questions, staff calling asking questions,” Hummell said in his office.
Though all three chiefs of staff performed basically the same job, none earned quite the reputation of Kensinger.
Kensinger has been with Brownback for his entire elected career. He started by driving Brownback around during his 1994 campaign for Congress but quickly moved up, serving as campaign manager during Brownback’s 1996 race. By 2001, he was Brownback’s Senate chief of staff.
“He understands the big things,” Kensinger told the Capital-Journal in a 2001 profile. “Freedom works. Life is precious. America is a great place to live and worth fighting for.”
While Kensinger has stuck by Brownback through thick and thin, it is probably equally true Brownback has stuck by Kensinger.
In April 2014, the Capital-Journal revealed the FBI had been investigating Kensinger and the dealings of his lobbying firm, Parallel Strategies, related to the creation of KanCare. No charges have been filed and neither Kensinger nor anyone else has been accused of wrongdoing.
Kensinger left the chief of staff post in April 2012 to work as chairman of Road Map Solutions, Brownback’s political operation. Since leaving his official post, he also has worked as a prominent lobbyist in and around the Statehouse.
The early budget preview provided to Kensinger, as well as a separate trove of emails, shows he has kept close ties with the administration even after moving to a lobbying role. In addition to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer including him on his New Year’s Day challenge, Kensinger has been in the loop on other goofy administration discussions — as well as more serious ones.
Kensinger was included on a March discussion about setting the governor’s travel schedule to China, for instance. In July, he was included on discussions about the governor’s speaking schedule at the Aspen Institute. The administration emails were first provided in response to a records request by the Wichita Eagle and later obtained by the Capital-Journal.
Hensley likened Kensinger to Karl Rove, who masterminded former president George W. Bush’s political strategy. Kensinger, he said, doesn’t have much of an ideology but is more interested in controlling power.
“He was the political mastermind behind Brownback and probably still is,” Hensley said.
But O’Donnell sees little truth in the idea that Kensinger operates as a kind of shadow chief of staff. O’Donnell acknowledged, however, that Kensinger is a larger-than-life figure and easy to make into a boogeyman.
“I hear people accuse the state of Kansas — that everything is being orchestrated by David Kensinger, or they’ll come in, ‘Oh, Charles Koch runs everything.’ And it couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t think there’s any validation to any of those claims,” O’Donnell said.
In response to a request for an interview, Kensinger sent a written statement praising the Brownback administration (found earlier in this story). Kensinger doesn’t typically grant interviews and usually offers only short comments when approached in the Statehouse.
Kensinger might have brought an air of mystery to the chief of staff position, but Fulmer put a more friendly spin on the job.
“As far as personalities, there was a big difference between the two of them. Landon was more open and gregarious and social and liked to sit down and talk politics,” said John Vratil, a Republican and former Senate vice president. “Kensinger was very guarded, withdrawn, quiet. I don’t recall seeing him that much. He worked very much behind the scenes.”
Fulmer previously had served as the governor’s policy director, and before that was part of Brownback’s Senate staff.
Morris remembered Fulmer as a fairly competent individual. He said Fulmer likely had a steep learning curve coming from D.C. but worked to acquaint himself with state-level issues and appeared willing to learn.
That doesn’t mean Fulmer wasn’t working hard to push conservative causes.
“Landon Fulmer was a nice guy, but he brought with him an ideology that was different than any I’d seen before,” Hensley said.
In an interview, Fulmer said his politics were in line with Brownback’s.
“My political philosophy is in alignment with what I believe to be mainstream Republican conservative principles, and so as chief, of course, that was my guiding political philosophy,” Fulmer said.
Fulmer left in December 2014 to take a job with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He is now based in D.C., where he works as the group’s vice president of state affairs. Fulmer said at the time he always had a love of cars.
Hummell, who took over for Fulmer, appears to emulate Brownback’s desire to minimize conflict. Hummell frequently speaks with lawmakers, O’Donnell said. Hummell respects the views of lawmakers, he said, and doesn’t tell the Legislature how to do its job.
That was tested this past spring as the Legislature slogged through the longest session in state history. Lawmakers had to find $400 million to balance the state budget. Republicans were split over how to proceed, with some wanting changes to tax exemptions for business income, others wanting the exemptions left alone and still others who wanted large cuts to spending.
Until the end of May, the Brownback administration largely avoided telling lawmakers what path to take.
“And when emotions and tempers were high this session, I don’t think Jon was necessarily very comfortable in that role because he’s not a confrontational individual,” O’Donnell said. “So he was probably in a very uncomfortable position for a lot of the last few weeks of session.”
Hensley offered a similar take.
“I never looked at him as being a real assertive sort of guy. It seems to me he’s just doing whatever the governor tells him to do,” Hensley said.
Hummell acknowledged he tends to be more calm and reserved compared with his predecessors. He said he doesn’t seek out the spotlight and prefers small gatherings with key legislators to speaking at big public meetings.
But he indicated he can be firm when needed.
“I’m a pretty low-key, calm, mellow guy, but when I talk to people I tend to be pretty blunt and pretty straightforward,” Hummell said.
New year’s pizza
Back on New Year’s Day 2014, Hummell had a quick answer.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer’s emailed challenge to Brownback’s inner circle to identify the famous Kansan had so far gone unanswered.
About 20 minutes after Colyer’s email, at 11:13 a.m., Hummell answered “William Allen White” — the famous journalist and editor of the Emporia Gazette.
Hummell was right. The pizza was his.