TOPEKA — Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer confided during a 40-minute telephone conversation with retiring House Speaker Ray Merrick that he intended to reverse course and run for a fourth term.
It was the kind of frank chat befitting two men who formed a friendship during the past 15 years serving together in the House and Senate.
“It slipped out that I was actually going to run,” Ostmeyer recounted later. “My wife said, ‘I thought you said you weren’t running.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand, Kay.’ She said, ‘I don’t think you understand. You always preached to your kids your word is your bond.’ ”
Ostmeyer, a Republican farmer from Grinnell, climbed out of bed early the next morning and began making calls to find his possible replacement. Rep. Rick Billinger, a Goodland Republican, agreed to run if Ostmeyer stepped aside. Billinger was the only GOP candidate to file in that 40th District race and will go up against Democrat Alex Herman, a Hays attorney.
“I had a smile on my face,” Ostmeyer said, “and I felt like an 800-pound gorilla had just left.”
In a retirement speech to Senate colleagues, Ostmeyer said he was the oldest son among nine children. He said his parents taught the siblings to respect God, country, family and “everybody around ya.”
“I think my folks would have been proud,” the senator said.
His remarks touched upon personal and professional sides of Statehouse politics. Traditionally, retirees sprinkle speeches with gratitude and praise for relationships formed and experiences shared. Most mix in humor. Some deliver something akin to a campaign stump speech — accentuating accomplishments and ignoring shortcomings. Others deliver searing indictments of enemies real or imagined.
Approximately 20 percent of incumbents in the Kansas Senate and House won’t be returning to their jobs in 2017, and more than a dozen shared thoughts with colleagues on the way out.
Rep. Tom Moxley, a moderate Republican from Council Grove, surprised some by stepping down after five terms and 10 years in the House. He pointed to an irony of redistricting a few years ago that kept him in the 68th District, but with only 30 percent of his familiar constituents.
“In my home of Morris County where people knew me, I garnered 75 percent of the vote,” he said. “In Chase County, where they didn’t know me, I got 81 percent of the vote.”
Moxley said state income tax cuts signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012 led to budget hardships giving “new meaning to the term ‘bleeding Kansas.’ ” He accused Merrick, the outgoing House speaker from Stilwell, of violating five House rules to gain passage of that bill.
He said the 2016 elections would turn the tide away from leaders in Topeka who enacted policies most beneficial to “the wealthy few.”
“I am extremely positive about the changes that I see in this coming election and the positive future that it will mean to every Kansan,” he said.
Focus on negative
Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita Republican who called it quits after one term to run for Sedgwick County Commission, said he was on the Wichita City Council when recruited by Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, to run for a Senate seat many thought would be won by a Democrat.
“It has been a phenomenal life-changing experience for me, and one that I will miss as I pursue other endeavors,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell, who became tangled in controversy for providing alcohol at parties for Wichita State University students, said news coverage of the Legislature failed to adequately emphasize positive work of lawmakers. Reporters make a habit of scrutinizing and ridiculing legislators, he said.
“They don’t ... have much use for anything positive, unless it’s sensational. I think it’s sad. They’ve drug so many good men and women in this body through the mud,” he said.
Canada to Kansas
Merrick, born in a log cabin in Canada, worked for a company after graduating from high school that poured concrete for sidewalks at the Capitol. Later, he served a decade in the House, completed a partial term in the Senate and returned to the House for four years as the top Republican.
“I had no idea my life would take me to these chambers,” he said. “Serving here has brought so many opportunities I didn’t dream of. I have met amazing people along the way.”
He expressed pride in pressing for education reforms, judicial accountability, legislative transparency, wide open conceal-and-carry laws and a property tax lid on local governments.
“Right now, all across this state, there are young people who aren’t sure what they want to do with their future. My message to them is that in whatever you do, put everything you have into it.”
Garrett Love, a Montezuma native and former student body president at Washburn University in Topeka, isn’t seeking a second full term in the Senate.
He executed a political upset in 2010 by defeating former House Speaker Melvin Neufeld in the Republican primary for a House district in southwest Kansas. Without serving a day in the House, Love was appointed to replace departing Sen. Tim Huelskamp, who had been elected to the U.S. House. In 2012, Love won a full term in the state Senate.
“I remember,” Love said, “when I first announced that I was going to run for office, I was running against an incumbent, who had been speaker of the House and had been in the Legislature for longer than I had been alive, people said, ‘Garrett, you’re going to ruin yourself politically.’ ”
“I hear that now, ‘You’re going to ruin yourself politically,’ ” Love said. “I said then, what I say now, I’m not interested in doing what’s political. I’m interested in doing what’s right.”
Goico on Stones’ Jagger
Wichita Rep. Mario Goico decided to end his Capitol career after 14 years. He lauded his wife, Susan, for filling voids caused by his absences for political or military service.
“Literally,” he said, “I can say that she has always been the wind beneath my wings and the afterburner in my engine.”
Goico, a Republican, noted all the meals purchased by lobbyists and his expanding suit size. He quoted movie character Forrest Gump and Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger.
“I want to thank that British philosopher, Mick Jagger, who said, ‘You cannot always get what you want.’ That is the best advice for any legislator I have ever heard,” Goico said.
Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, said he made a “last-minute” decision not to seek re-election.
He was serving in the House when redistricting and a concerted effort by Brownback to sweep moderate Republicans from the Senate granted him opportunity to move across the rotunda.
“It’s been 12 years. I’ve seen a lot of changes, both political and professional,” he said.
Holmes said hints the Senate would be less collegial than the House were unfounded.
In the 2016 legislative session, Holmes was criticized by colleagues and others for prohibiting women with racy clothing from testifying before the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, which he chaired. He later apologized, but ridiculed news reports about the issue.
Holmes said he was proud of reforms to the state pension system and of work to shift timing of local elections in Kansas to satisfy a “silent majority.”
Like father, like son
Rep. Ron Ryckman Sr., R-Meade, concluded a run in the House that began in 2010. In an unprecedented merger of family and public service, his son, Ron Ryckman Jr., was elected in 2012 to represent an Olathe district in the House.
“It has been my honor to be the first father and son to serve in the state of Kansas,” the elder Ryckman said. “I’ve had many share with me and say, ‘How proud you must be of your son.’ ”
He referred to Proverbs 1:5 as a note to politicians who follow. The verse: “Let the wise listen, and add to their meaning, and let the discerning get guidance.”
Wolf: Job not easy
Sen. Kay Wolf, a Johnson County Republican, said she publicly disclosed her decision not to seek re-election before informing her husband. She was afraid she might change her mind.
“This is an extremely, extremely difficult decision for me. Probably one of the hardest I’ve ever made,” she said.
Her political career took her from local government to the Legislature. She recently sold her business and looked forward to spending more time with grandchildren and, during the winter, in Arizona.
Her message to critics of the Legislature: “It is much harder than most people understand. They don’t understand what we have to do up here — the responsibility that we all have.”